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Metallica continue to ride the lightning

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

More than 30 years ago, Metallica released their debut album, Kill ’Em All, and, despite the ebbs and flows of their career, have managed to pull off one of the hardest feats in music — they’ve aged with grace.

There have been missteps along the way for the four-piece thrash metal band, such as 1996’s Load, a venture into alternative territory that alienated hardcore fans; their maligned and heavily publicized battle with Napster and music downloading that seemed to pit the band against its fans; a 2003 “comeback” album, St. Anger, that was criticized for its lack of guitar solos and over reliance on steel-sounding drums; various bitter and/or tragic departures with various bass players; and of course Lulu, a doomed-from-the-beginning collaboration with Lou Reed that Pitchfork described as “exhaustingly tedious.”

But somehow the crests in their waves of popularity have always managed to rise above the lows, such as 2008’s critically acclaimed Death Magnetic, which saw singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and new bass player Robert Trujillo return to the thrash metal sound Metallica helped to perfect in the '80s.

“When we first started, I didn’t think it would get this far. There was no thought to any future at all really,” says Hetfield, sitting in a downtown hotel room with Hammett during the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I remember when Kill ’Em All first came out,” says Hammett. “My big secret hope was that we could sell enough albums to do a coast-to-coast club tour, but I didn’t want to tell anyone because I didn’t want to jinx it.”

“And we did it,” adds Hetfield with a laugh.

The band is in Toronto to promote their latest venture, Through the Never, an impressively over-the-top greatest hits concert film mixed with a narrative about a roadie who has to travel through a post-apocalyptic downtown in order to deliver the band an important package. It’s the latest way the band continues to push their boundaries and fight to remain relevant far past the best-before date for heavy metal, which stopped being a dominant force in pop culture in the early '90s.

“It’s a question of longevity for Metallica,” says Through the Never director Nimród Antal. “Can they stick around, can they constantly challenge themselves, this film being the perfect example. They had the idea to marry a narrative to a concert, which was something I’d never heard of before.”

The spotlight dimmed on Metallica contemporaries Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax — considered the “big four” of thrash metal along with Metallica — who now rely on playing metal festivals or albums in their entirety, while Metallica can still sell out arenas, as seen in the film footage, which was shot in 2012 over several nights in Vancouver. They even started their own festival, Orion Music, in 2012 (they recently surprised Orion audiences by playing Kill ’Em All in its entirety under a secret name).

And while Through the Never does rely on greatest hits, such as “Nothing Else Matters” and “Enter Sandman” from their 1991 self-titled album (still the top-selling album since Soundscan started tracking such things in 1991), there are plans to start work on new material.

“I think everyone in this band is still hungry to create something; we’re still looking to satisfy that creative urge that runs through us,” says Hammett.

“For us, it’s about moving forward, always, as an artist,” adds Hetfield. “Musicians don’t retire. You either keep going or you live off what you already have. We have a repertoire of 100 songs, so we could just go play that at fairs for the rest of our lives if we wanted to.”

As it is, Metallica, one of the most successful metal bands on the planet, will continue to ride the lightning into the future, which will include a proper followup to Death Magnetic (although Hetfield is less enthusiastic than his bandmates about committing to 2014 for a release date), as well as a sequel to Some Kind of Monster, an award-winning 2004 documentary that showed the band trying to record St. Anger while at the same time manage combating egos and Hetfield’s addiction problem.  

In fact, as we sit down at the beginning of the interview, the same film crew from Some Kind of Monster walks into the hotel room with cameras, only to be greeted by a slightly disappointed Hetfield.

“Oh, you guys again,” he says, mimicking the reluctant attitude he had towards the cameras the first time around, and which halted recording — on the documentary and the album — several times. Although he follows that sentiment up with a slight laugh; an acceptance that a new Metallica chapter is already in motion.

“I guess I’ll have get used to this again."

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG