Music » Music Stories

Magnetic Morning: Kirk Hammett talks cartoon voiceovers, the art of guitar solos and Metallica's new album — and its alleged sound issues


A writer for this paper (guilty as charged) recently broke his brain rocking the flurp out to Metallica's triumphant new album, Death Magnetic. His praise was effusive, ostentatious, at times vainglorious, and more than a touch hyperbolic. Also, he swore quite a bit.

Eight weeks later I regret nothing — except, perhaps, that the song "My Apocalypse" did not actually make me crap a baby donkey as promised, let alone one that can play guitar. (Which is not to say there weren't a few tense moments...) But Death Magnetic is a blistering album, easily capable of generating enthusiastic swearing and ridiculous whoops of glee in both long-time fans and neophytes. Gone are the self-confessional lyrics of St. Anger, gone are most of the modern rock/alternative frills of Load and ReLoad, and seemingly gone also is the ponderous weight of Metallica being Metallica.

Death Magnetic is the sound of a band finding the joy in being a band again. The first three songs on the album — "That Was Just Your Life," "The End of the Line" and "Broken, Beat and Scarred" — incinerate the past few years in a head-banging, ball-swanging riot of power riffs, shuffling time signatures and fists-flailing fury. By the time the album closes with the epic "My Apocalypse," it's clear that the much-debated "black album" Metallica was not, as many fans thought, the beginning of the end for this band; it was rather the end of the beginning. Even better, Death Magnetic is a promising start to a new chapter for Metallica.

Standing in the center once again swinging the Hammer of Justice with both hands is guitarist Kirk Hammett. It's not as if he ever left the band, but St. Anger (in)famously excluded guitar solos (much to the regret of most Metallifans). Hammett's solos — bizarre, evocative, inventive, jaw-dropping — are the lifeblood of every great Metallica song. Death Magnetic is filthy with brilliant Hammett guitar work. He has restored the solo to its rightful place of glory, a fact in which he takes much pride.

"I think it goes without saying that the guitar solos were gonna be a given," Hammett laughs. "There was no discussion. When we started writing, it was just like, 'OK, time for a lead break here. Let's go!' There was no dialogue as to whether or not we would have guitar solos on this album. They would be back. Yeah."

Most of Hammett's leads began as fully composed pieces incorporating his interest in jazz- and blues-guitar theory (he regularly takes guitar classes and practices "at least 361 days a year"), but were quickly trashed. "[The composed solos] didn't jive with the feel of these songs, so I just said, All right, I'm throwing all this stuff away and I'm just gonna go for the jugular. I would be as spontaneous as I can in the studio."

The resulting solos crackle with that peculiar Hammett sensibility. On "Broken, Beat and Scarred," that means little snorts that break apart into squealing dive bombs. Just after the six-minute mark of "Suicide and Redemption," Hammett's guitar blurts out a strange stutter and chop, then leaps fearlessly into the teeth of the wah-wah panther for a quick knife-fight. It is most definitely the tits.

But Hammett is not just a preternaturally talented guitarist — he's been dabbling in voice acting, playing a few minor characters for Metalocalypse, most noticeably the Queen of Denmark in Season One's "Birthdayface" episode. Was that performance modeled on any specific Danes who drum for a certain band?

"Ahhh, no comment. You know what, I haven't had any comments come over from the peanut gallery, so you know, no news is good news," laughs Hammett, a touch nervously.

He's much more confident discussing the dissatisfaction of a vocal and quite irate segment of his own fan base: the people who believe the music on Death Magnetic is amazing, but the production of the album is botched. The gist of the argument is that the album is over-compressed: The music lacks dynamic range, and is marred further by harsh digital clipping, an undesireable noise introduced during mastering.

(Full disclosure: I've listened to the album a couple hundred times, easily, and I can't hear it. But my ears are damaged by years of high-volume metal. And the waveform graphs that fans have made shows how compressed the album is, so I believe they can hear it. But it honestly doesn't detract from my listening experience.)

Asked directly about the online clamor over clipping, and if he hears it, Hammett took less than half a second to gather his thoughts before speaking.

"Well, it's like this: There are people who just expect perfection from us," he says. "And I totally get that. And when it falls short of their standards of perfection, they're going to complain. And I totally get that, too. I do hear a bit of clipping here and there. It was more a Rick Rubin sort of decision rather than the band decision, because he thought it made it sound a little bit more lively and dynamic, and we kinda gave him the benefit of the doubt on that. And you know, to me, when I crank the album when I'm driving, it's not an issue for me. But then again — my ears are kinda fried, too, Bro."

Hammett then points out that sound quality doesn't trump music quality. "What's that Stooges album that has, like, the worst [sound] of all time? Was it Fun House? I can't remember. But you know what? That album is hailed as groundbreaking now!"

And as far as remixing Magnetic, Hammett is unequivocal. "Well, you know, the album is what it is. And ultimately it's because of us that it is what it is. And at this point, my attitude is, take it or leave it. You know?"

In the final analysis, that's all that matters. Metallica made the album they wanted to make. Maybe not everybody is happy with the way it sounds on the record, but this is art — and art doesn't have to please everybody. Besides, Metallica's music is always best appreciated in the live setting, where unwanted feedback, off-key screaming from the guy next to you and a thousand other extraneous sounds are all part of the listening experience. And some of these songs are going to sound great in that dirty-audio environment. Here's to another 25 years of glorious hearing loss.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.