Album lead-up hype more often than not amounts to a wispy cloud of sweet nothingness. We long ago hit the point of having heard every possible variation of "this is without a doubt our best album yet" and "this one's for the real fans." So how is Metallica, the most successful metal band of all time and an act that's been part of the music industry for 35 years, still so bad at this?
Almost eight years have passed since 2008's Death Magnetic, the moment when Metallica finally reunited with their hungry '80s spirit. (Let us not speak of Lulu, the 2011 full-length Lou Reed collaboration that garnered even more contempt than 2003's St. Anger.) So how's Metallica's 10th studio album coming along? On June 6, vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield told NBC Sports (uh...), "We're mixing it now, so hopefully by fall it'll be out and hitting people's ears." Nice, so it's close. And did Mr. HEYYYYYYAAAAUUUGHHH have any tidbits about what to expect? "We're super stoked about it. It's been a long time coming, and, you know, this is what we do. We love playing. And the next album is exactly what it's supposed to be. So we're excited about it."
Exactly...what it's...supposed to be? Artists aren't required to say anything about their upcoming projects, and lots have leapfrogged the whole pregame process with the popularity of the surprise album drop. But if you're going to use a whole bunch of words to essentially say nothing, why not just not say anything? Drummer/de facto press emissary Lars Ulrich is aware of his band's plight in this department, but his awareness amounts to squat. In April he told Vulture:
"I've mastered the fine art of being very vague over multiple sentences, so let me tell you: There's a record coming at some point, in the future. Not soon enough, but we are pretty close. I don't know what else to say—there's no title yet, there's a bunch of songs, it sounds like Metallica, it's all good!"
Does Metallica even know what Metallica's new album sounds like? Will this be history's first project to surprise drop of its own free will, after almost a decade of frustration with its befuddled makers? Let's go deeper into the band's master class in prevarication and confusion to find out.
March 2014: Ulrich tells Rolling Stone a new song, "The Lords of Summer," is "fairly representative of where our creative headspace is at right now." As we go on, see if you can keep track of the instances of "mostly," "pretty," "kind of," "probably," "basically," "fairly"—all those little red flag space-fillers.
January 2015: The band shares a studio photo—rather than, in a world of constant short-form video content, an audiovisual clip—with some devil horns and the sensationally descriptive caption "rockin along." Bassist Rob Trujillo tells Billboard:
"None of us can predict when [the release] will be. All I can say is we are working hard. It is happening. ... We're having a great time. We're basically writing. We're putting together a couple different handfuls of arrangements and mostly everything right now is at the instrumental stage and we're just nurturing the process. But all I can say is that we're having a really amazing time. It's fun. It's a lot of hard work. You're looking at that mountain of ideas and, 'OK, it's time to climb this beast. It's time to climb this mountain and get to the top and do what we've got to do.'"
March 2015: Ulrich tells Rolling Stone, "We are fucking in it. We've got lots of songs, and we're honing them and tweaking them. It's pretty close." He says the LP will be done "in the next month or so," going on:
"In our world, there's been a distinct difference between the creative phase and the recording phase. With this project, we're trying to bridge the two a little more organically and not have there be such a great divide between the processes. We want to see if we can bring some of the creative curiosity, the impulsive stuff that happens when you're first playing a song into the studio. You want to tweak it and get it good, but you also want to record it in a way where it doesn't feel labored over and overthought. We're trying to figure out where that line is."
November 2015: Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett tells 103.3 The Edge:
"Well, you know, we're moving forward. We're hoping that the album will be released next year. It's pretty much more along the same lines as Death Magnetic—kind of like that direction. And, you know, we'll see. We're into it. I don't wanna say that we're a third into it, or two-thirds into it, or an eighth into it, 'cause anything could happen that'll just change that number. But, eventually, you will see a new Metallica album, and it will most likely be in 2016, and at the very worst, at the beginning of 2017."
February 2016: Hammett tells Rolling Stone there are "a bunch of songs, more than enough songs," although the tracks are unfinished. "We're slogging away," he says. "But you know, it's metal. It's heavy."
March 2016: Ulrich does an in-depth interview with Rolling Stone. "Nowadays," he says of the writing process, "we sit and go, 'That's a great piece of music,' and 'That's really cool,' and then we'll play it faster, then slower, then half a step down, exploring all these options," he says. "There are 75 different ways to play something, and you end up fucking driving yourself nutty."
This conversation's packed with indicators that the band has no idea what's happening with the music, like these three sections:
"We've had one foot in the past, sifting through old photos and old memorabilia and listening to old songs, and another in the new album. It's been a confluence of all these different energies, and I'm not even sure exactly what to make of all of it."
"We get very silly, very childlike [when we're together]. There's a lot of adolescent humor. This is a bunch of 52-year-olds trying to make sense of all of it. ... It's kind of nice to a degree that you can still feel young and spunky and vibrant. I still think that we feel kind of young and like we have something left to prove. We're still sort of trying to figure it all out."
"I think it will be a pretty in-your-face year, at least the back half of it. Obviously, we've gotta finish the new record now. But thankfully we're quite far along. Hopefully we should be able to knock that on the head this spring, I would guess."
April 2016: Ulrich tells Billboard:
"We’re getting there! I think it’s going to get wrapped up soon. Unless something radical happens it would be difficult for me to believe that it won’t come out in 2016. That’s what we’re going for. But obviously, the way we do things now is very different than the way we did things back in the days of Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning. Nowadays we like to do so many different things—we like to write and record but we also like to be Record Store Day ambassadors and put out deluxe reissues and go play at Rasputin’s and AT&T Park and all these other things. So, you know, writing and recording is now something that is part of the bigger picture rather than something that happens exclusively. And when it really comes down to it, the new record may actually have been written and recorded faster than the last one. It’s just been spread out over a longer period of time, with these gaps in recording. Which is fine. I’m certainly not complaining about it. It’s just the way we work now. But anyway, the record—it’s definitely coming along. Nearing completion. Should be done soon…hopefully. [Laughs] End quote!"
May 2016: Ulrich tells Metal Forces:
“We’re now coming towards the end of the musical creative process and we’re starting to look ahead and the process of how we’re gonna share this record with the universe. ... The month of June is basically when we’re gonna sit down and figure what we’re gonna do with it all; what we’re gonna call it and what’s gonna be on it. ... If the record doesn’t come out this year then it won’t be because it’s not done. It will be because there’s some sort of cosmic reason that it would be smarter to hold onto it until next year. But the record will be done this summer."
Can't wait for Metallica to hear their new album soon. Hope they like it.
Update (6/17): More of the same! Ulrich spoke spoke to Humanity magazine, saying:
"It definitely sounds like Metallica. It's probably a little less frenetic than the last record. The last one, Rick Rubin really encouraged us to for the first time be inspired by our past. It was the first time we sort of looked in the rearview mirror. This time around it's a little bit of a different thing. We're not working with Rick, we're working with the engineer from the last record, who's producing, Greg Fidelman. So there's some of the same production elements at play, but we're expanding a little bit on the sonics. It's probably a bit more of a diverse record than the last one. It's exciting, but I don't have quite the perspective yet."