For the Metallica faithful, 1996's Load marked the end of an era.
The album was largely panned by the band's allegiant fans but hailed by critics, who praised its inclusion of melodies and exploration of new sounds. Meanwhile, the people who wore Metallica shirts, bought their albums and supported the band from its earliest beginnings claimed the boys were losing some of their grit — something they erroneously connected to the members' decision to hack off their glorious metal hair. And those fans have been grumbling ever since, calling on Metallica to return to their earlier sound.
In short, fans have longed for another Master of Puppets, and they've never been satisfied. But could Metallica's forthcoming album, Death Magnetic, be the next best thing, seeing as the bandmembers themselves have publicly stated that the LP would signal a return to their old-school sound? Frontman James Hetfield is not so sure.
"I don't know — in a way, yes, and in a way, no," he told MTV News last week. "The last thing I want is someone to think, 'Oh, they had to go back to Puppets because that was the best album, and they're doing it because we want it.' If we start writing songs for our fans, something's gone wrong. The fans may think they know best, but hey, I'm the armchair quarterback when I'm watching my team too. At the end of the day, we have to write it because we love it and it's coming from our heart. That's why people connect with it. If you start doing it for the fans, you've lost the plot."
But at the same time, Hetfield does acknowledge that the band did try to find its way back to that Puppets mind-set. (Read about the video for the album's first single, "The Day That Never Comes," here.)
"We recognize there was an essence, there was a youth, there was a something about that record, and this is a perfect time for a record like this," he said, "because old-school metal is huge and coming back, and there's so many people wanting to play, and get riffy again, get solo. ... I love that, so [with this record], it's like us starting over again."
Producer Rick Rubin, he said, was instrumental in helping the band find that old fire again. "His mission statement was to get to the essence of Metallica," Hetfield said. "He told us, 'Think back to Master of Puppets — what were you doing? What were you thinking? What were your influences? What bothered you? What was around you? Where did that hunger come from?' And that was a little bit of homework for us that was a little impossible to get to. You could dress up like you're in 1986, [but] you just can't be there again. We've been through so much — you can't erase the learning we'd done.
"What made sense to us was the hunger, the quest to impress," Hetfield continued. "He said, 'You're going to write a set list. Your next album is a set list of your best songs, and you're going to try and go get signed, do a showcase and impress people.' And that was a great mission statement for us."
But did criticism from fans bleed into the writing and recording process? Did Metallica feel as though they had something to prove with Death Magnetic?
"It's possible, but we just go with our feelings every time," Hetfield said. "You can't go wrong if you go with your heart, and that's pretty much it. We're very comfortable with our fanbase sorting itself out. We don't have to make sure they're happy, because that's like trying to control the world. You can't do it. If people connect with what you're doing, they'll be there. If they don't like this record, they might go away, and that's OK — that means there's a seat for someone else."
For guitarist Kirk Hammett, Death Magnetic isn't so much a return to the band's old-school sound, but rather an update.
"We were looking at the past and seeing what worked for us and updating that sound," he said.
According to drummer Lars Ulrich, people have been slagging the band for so long, he doesn't even hear the criticism anymore. At the end of the day, the band evolved — it had to because its members did. He's proud of the fact that no matter what they've done, they've always been sincere.
"There's always been a melodic side to Metallica, a side that has been reflected in a desire to break free from any of those stereotypes, and to just go where we could go musically and creatively," he said. "I think some of what we've done goes against a lot of the conservative elements in heavy-metal and hard-rock thinking, and that's OK. We've always hovered in our own little bubble, and we've never really had to answer to anybody other than ourselves, and we have an amazing relationship with our fans.
"Listen, we're not in the toothpaste-selling business — it's not about a product," Ulrich added. "The people who really relate to us, they know we have this awkward — some even call it perverse — need to break free from stereotypes, and to be able to go wherever we want, and sometimes, to a fault, but at least it's been a varied, honest ride. We've never bullsh---ed anybody on a creative front. But to be pigeonholed and held in to a particular thing people expect from you, that's certainly not what I'm interested in."