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Metallica's rocky patch: are the world's biggest metal band in trouble again? 

Metallica on stage with the San Francisco Symphony in S&M²
Metallica on stage with the San Francisco Symphony in S&M² Credit: trafalgar releasing

Twenty years ago, Metallica collaborated with the San Francisco Symphony on a unique concert film – then promptly fell apart. And now history is repeating itself, reports Ian Winwood

At the end of September, Metallica issued a statement confirming that the band’s singer, James Hetfield, had been re-admitted into rehab. It read, "As most of you know, our brother James has been struggling with addiction on and off for many years. He has now, unfortunately, had to re-enter a treatment program to work on his recovery again."

The timing of Hetfield’s latest misstep is hardly ideal. This week Metallica unveil S&M², a concert film of the group’s two performances with the San Francisco Symphony held last month at the Chase Center in the City by the Bay. The concerts were witnessed by more than 36,000 people - some of who ponied up $500 for front row seats - in what was the grand opening of an arena built to house the Golden State Warriors basketball team.

The events also mark the 20th anniversary of Metallica’s original collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony. Staged at the Berkeley Community Theatre over two nights in the spring of 1999, the idea for S&M was conjured up by conductor Michael Kamen. The band spent seven years considering the proposal; having finally said yes, they brought it to the stage after only days’ rehearsal with the orchestra. It didn’t show; the subsequent live album sold more than seven million copies. 

“[The experience] was incredible,” said Lars Ulrich, the band’s drummer. “It was this euphoric, otherworldly experience. To be playing with the Symphony again, to revisit this whole endeavour 20 years later, just felt amazing. It felt like as much of a mindf__k as you can imagine in the world of Metallica.”

Danish born Ulrich has been Metallica’s public mouth since he and Hetfield formed the group in 1981. But aside from one interview conducted on the weekend of the two concerts, even the band’s most voluble member appears to have been struck dumb. There are good reasons for this: Hetfield’s re-entry into rehab could spell real trouble for Metallica. 

The parallels between then and now are striking. An unstoppable juggernaut throughout the 1990s, S&M was the last album Metallica released before the group entered a three-year period of hibernation that threatened their very existence. During his initial spell in a treatment clinic, James Hetfield didn’t speak to his band mates for nine months. 

For a group that once went by the nickname ‘Alcoholica’, the change of gears came with a screech. After returning to the fold, Hetfield moved to impose strict conditions on the making of Metallica’s next album. Recording sessions would take place Monday to Friday, he insisted, between the hours of noon and four; what’s more, the group’s other members were forbidden from listening to the work in progress outside of these boundaries.

“I feel so disrespected,” said Lars Ulrich at the time.

“I don’t understand who you are,” the drummer told his band mate in the film Some Kind Of Monster, the wildly applauded feature-length documentary filmed during this period. “I don’t understand the programme. I don’t understand all this stuff. I realise now that I barely knew you before.”

For James Hetfield, the terrain was perilous. The guitarist’s behaviour when under the influence was selfish and reckless, the actions of a man reared in the adolescent shelter of a band. Shortly after missing his son’s first birthday while on a hunting trip in Siberia, his wife Francesca threw him out of the house. “[She] finally told me, ‘’Hey I’m not one of your yes-men on the road, Get the f___ out!,’” he recalled. “I was a horrible influence on [our] children.”

James Hetfield performing in 2015 Credit: ap

“[Metallica is] a very intense environment,” he said. “It’s easy to find yourself not knowing how to live your life outside of that environment, which is what happened to me. I didn’t know anything about life. I didn’t know that I could live my life in a different way to how it was in the band since I was 19, which was very excessive and very intense.”

This intensity, though, had served the band well. Like Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier in This Is Spinal Tap, everything Metallica did was dialed up to 11. They made their bones by going to war with metal’s established order; in triumph they signed the death warrants of any group that had ever used hairspray. 

Their constituents responded with total devotion to music that dragged the mainstream in heavier and more interesting directions. On the two-year world tour that followed 1991’s all-conquering ‘Black Album’, supporters were able purchase a t-shirt that featured the words ‘Birth School Metallica Death.’ I can drive myself mad trying to think of another band that can make this claim.  

James Hetfield’s emergence from rehab may have saved his marriage, and possibly his life, but it did little for Metallica. St Anger, the record with which they returned to public life, was brittle and uncertain, the sound of a band that doubted its own relevance. It also featured a drum sound that could be replicated by placing a tin bucket over one’s head and striking it repeatedly with a hammer. 

Metallica's James Hedfield on stage with the San Francisco Symphony in 1999

Metallica have never fully regained their step. The two studio albums the band have released since St Anger are little more than somewhat impressive facsimiles of what came before. Perversely, it is Lulu, their near-universally derided collaboration with Lou Reed, that best represents the fearlessness with which the group made its name.

With S&M², Metallica have returned to the terrain from which they released their last truly great album. The original idea for the collaboration may not have been their own, but as far back as the early 1980s the band’s bass player, Cliff Burton - later killed in a tour bus crash – could be heard insisting to his band mates that “Bach is God.” Inspired by this dictum, instrumental pieces such as Orion and The Call Of Ktulu have much in common with classical music.

Overseen by musical director Michael Tilson Thomas, at its best S&M² is a seamless and inventive melding of two musical styles into one redoubtable whole. At more than two and a half hours long, it is at least as impressive as its predecessor. A rendition of a movement from Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry in particular shows just how adventurous Metallica can be when the mood takes them. 

Most striking of all is the extent to which James Hetfield appears engaged with the music he is playing. For the first time in quite a while, it looks  – to put it bluntly – like he still gives a shit. 

The front man’s partial dislocation from Metallica may have begun in rehab, but it didn’t end there. In 2016 he moved with his family away from the band’s adopted home city of San Francisco, saying “I kind of got sick of the Bay Area [and] the attitudes of the people there.” He now lives in the mountainous boondocks of Colorado and feels “at home” amid its boundless spaces. 

A scene from Some Kind of Monster Credit: kobal

He guards his time away from the band fiercely, and the group’s itinerary is molded to these needs. Metallica’s recent 25-date tour of European stadiums spanned three months and included two breaks in which they returned to the United States. 

It is perhaps unsurprising that the 56-year old Hetfield now finds some of the music he has written to be oppressive. In many of the band’s songs, the singer has been unflinching in excavating his troubled and damaged psyche for public scrutiny. Here Metallica have more in common with Nick Cave than they do Iron Maiden. They are the first metal band to offer their audience more than entertainment, and the first to make music that is equipped to accompany the listener on the journey from adolescence to adulthood.  

Onstage at the Chase Center, the group unite with the orchestra to colossal effect on The Outlaw Torn. A deep cut from the not greatly loved Load album, the lyric is an unvarnished portrait of vulnerability. “If I close my mind in fear, please pry it open,” sings Hetfield, “if my face becomes sincere, beware/[and] if I start to come undone, stitch me together.” 

Hetfield is a private and essentially shy man, and the effort required to deliver these lines convincingly may well have come at a cost. On S&M² Metallica are filmed speaking about the project after the event. Wearing a hat that looks like it was recovered from a skip, Hetfield seems not quite to be himself. 

All of which takes me back. In 2003 I flew to San Francisco to interview Metallica at their ‘HQ’ in San Rafael, California. This is where the band write and record; the address features living quarters, two vast rehearsal spaces, a professional studio, a recreation room, a capacious kitchen area, as well as the offices of the Metallica fan club. Counting many dozens of guitars, I could only marvel at the scale of the operation.

It was Metallica’s first interview for three years, and, as such, a global exclusive. My audience with the world’s best and most forensically examined metal band occurred on the day Robert Trujillo was introduced to the staff at HQ as group’s new bass player. In taking a job that had lain vacant for almost two years, a day earlier Trujillo was given a signing bonus of a million dollars by his new band mates. 

Metallica with Lady Gaga at the 2017 Grammy Awards Credit: invision

Just in case I wasn’t nervous enough, my interviews were filmed by a camera crew. I was surprised at just how easy it was to forget that there was a boom mic hanging over my head. I was asked to pose for a photograph and to sign a release form by a man who introduced himself as Joel Berlinger. The following year I learned that this was the co-director of Some Of Kind Of Monster. 

Berlinger assured me that I was bound to make the final cut as this was the first time that the band had faced the press in the two years the film crew had spent in their company. Thrilled, I passed the next 21 months telling everyone I know, and many people I don’t, about my upcoming big screen debut. 

Imagine my shock, then, when Some Kind Of Monster’s brave and unflinching story of Metallica’s descent into addiction and collective madness emerged without any input from me. I look forward to the day when I can look back on this oversight and laugh.

The film ends on a positive note. After spending three years in a desperate wilderness, over the course of 12 months Metallica painstakingly repair themselves and learn to operate in a manner that no longer places their sanity at risk. As the credits roll, the band appear onstage in front of sixty thousand people at the Oakland Coliseum. 

Today, the reparations appear more arduous still. Hetfield’s re-entry into rehab has meant the cancellation of a tour of Australia and New Zealand - dates in South America next year remain on the docket – and the question remains as to whether he will any longer have the appetite for a band that could not exist without him. 

Were this not to be the case, if nothing else S&M² proves that Metallica are still capable of realising the vertiginous heights of their talents and power. But as James Hetfield himself sang on the song For Whom The Bell Tools, time marches on.

S&M² by Metallica is in cinemas on October 9