"Metallica is just as clusterf***ed as everything else": How isolation, rehab and personal strife led to Metallica's most dramatic album

(Image credit: Press)

The day Metallica dropped Lux Æterna, Lars Ulrich couldn’t help himself. He had to look at what people were saying about it online. His curiosity was understandable. Released with zero warning on November 28, 2022, Lux Æterna was the first brand new Metallica song in six years, and a taster for their upcoming 11th album, 72 Seasons.

Big news by any measure, and Lars knew people would have opinions on it because everybody has an opinion on everything Metallica ever do. And they’re not always positive. 

“If you decide to go down into the comment sections, at least for me, you have to prepare yourself for not taking any of it overly personally,” says Lars today. “You have to kind of remove yourself from it. But I’d like to challenge anybody in a band to say they don’t look at comments.” 

And so the co-founder and drummer of the world’s biggest metal band braced himself for a look into the bear-pit that is the internet to see what people thought of the song. 

“I mean, I’m not sitting up until four o’clock in the morning scrolling through every one,” he says. “But when you haven’t put any music out in five or six years and you dump something like Lux Æterna on an unsuspecting world, you’re going to want to see what the feedback is.” 

As it turned out, that feedback was largely positive and rightly so. Lux Æterna was three-and-a-half minutes of joyous exhilaration, a world away from the knotty complexity of 2008’s Death Magnetic and the extended power-flex of 2016’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct. That it seemed to be a throwback to their debut album, Kill ’Em All, or even the earlier New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement, only stacked things further in its favour (this is a comparison Lars has issues with, but more on that later).

Two more defiantly forward-facing singles have followed since then: the raging Screaming Suicide and the self-lacerating If Darkness Had A Son. The gleaming, perfectly tuned Metallica machine, which in the last couple of years has been idling in the background while the band themselves focused on writing, recording and generally dealing with a global pandemic, is roaring into life. Except the Metallica machine maybe isn’t quite as gleaming or perfectly tuned as you’d imagine. 

“We’re fumbling along trying to figure out how to do things the best we can, just like everybody else,” says Lars with a laugh. “We’re sitting around on Zoom calls going, ‘Uh, how do we do this, how do we do that?’ Metallica is just as gaffer-taped and jerry-rigged and clusterfucked as everything else.”

It’s a late February evening when Lars calls Metal Hammer. This is only the second interview he’s done for the new album at this point, and he’s still getting his head around the idea of what he’s talking about. “I don’t know what’s fucking up, down or sideways, to be honest with you,” he says breezily.

When Robert Trujillo calls a few days later, he’s in pretty much the same boat. Metallica’s bassist of 20 years admits he didn’t even know that Lux Æterna was dropping when it did. 

“I started getting texts the next morning from friends: ‘Wow, the new song’s amazing, the video’s awesome,’” he says. “I didn’t even know that the song was coming out. So maybe the success of keeping it a secret is some of the members not knowing.” 

No one has to keep it a secret anymore. 72 Seasons finally arrived on April 14. Contrary to expectations raised by Lux Æterna, not to mention frontman James Hetfield’s assertion that the album’s title is a reference to how the experiences of childhood shape adulthood, it’s no nostalgia trip. 

Instead, the 12-track album is a fearsome slab of metal that’s both modern and timeless. Lyrically, at least, it’s The Blacker Album: a 77-minute roar of torment, self-doubt, frustration, and, ultimately, hope.

This isn’t the first Metallica album to be recorded in dramatic circumstances – …And Justice For All, The Black Album and especially St. Anger all had their share of tumult. But 72 Seasons was made against a testing backdrop, not least a global pandemic. It’s become a cliché to talk about ‘lockdown albums’, but that’s exactly what 72 Seasons is – albeit the biggest lockdown album of them all, a potential full-stop on an era that’s hopefully vanishing in the rearview mirror. 

“Recording gave us a purpose in lockdown,” says Lars. “It was also a way to feel as though we were communicating with each other, and staying in touch, and trying to find some light in the dark. Feeling you could turn the energy and despair of those couple of years into something positive.”

Metallica - 72 Seasons cover art

(Image credit: Blackened Recordings)

It’s tempting to assume that bands start thinking about a new album as soon as the last one is sent out into the world, but that’s not how Metallica work. Their creative process is long and meticulous, not so much a mad torrent of artistic energy as a series of randomly shaped pieces being constantly rearranged until they fit. 

Each new creative cycle begins with Lars “riff-mining” through hundreds of digital recordings amassed of the band jamming in soundchecks and in the Tuning Room that’s set up backstage at every gig. Ideas are funnelled into an A-list or B-list, or given five, four or three stars. There’s no grand plan at this stage, no vision of how it will all shape up and fit together. 

“I wish I could romanticise it, and tell you that we’re sitting down and there’s a destination, but it’s basically just work,” says Lars. “You write one song, then you write another song and eventually you’ve got an album.” 

Except there was one massive complicating factor this time around: Covid-19. Metallica hadn’t even begun work on the new album when the pandemic hit and most of America went into lockdown, torching whatever plans they did have. 

“We’ve lived decades upon decades of having schedules: ‘OK, we’re on tour for a month, we’re doing this in six months, we’re going in the studio in eight months,’” says Lars. “When you have the uncertainty of not knowing what any of it looks like, it takes your confidence away.”  

Things became a little less uncertain in May 2020, when James brought an acoustic version of …And Justice For All opening track Blackened to the table for the band to flesh out remotely. 

“That was really the start of something,” says Robert. “It forced us to fire up our home studios and get the machine going. After that it was like, ‘Do we want to do another acoustic number?’ And we all said, ‘No man, everybody else is doing acoustic covers of their songs, let’s write some original stuff. Let’s do this.’” 

Like every other band in the same situation at that time, they initially muddled through as best they could, jamming remotely with producer Greg Fidelman overseeing things. “Sitting in three different places on Zoom calls, trying to figure out what button to press and how shit works,” as Lars puts it. This went on for a few months. 

“I believe that challenge being presented to us helped spark that creative flame and create that hunger and desire to create,” says Robert. Lars is less diplomatic. “It was all a bit of a clusterfuck,” he says cheerfully. 

Things began to untangle themselves in November 2020 when the band convened at Metallica HQ in San Rafael for a livestreamed acoustic benefit show for their All Within My Hands foundation. It was the first time they had all been together since the start of the pandemic, and it gave them the opportunity to start playing the new songs in the same room. 

“It’s kind of funny, I saw some footage of that the other day – we all had masks on,” says Lars. “It’s definitely a lockdown record in that sense.” 

With restrictions easing, work proceeded cautiously but steadily. They took Covid seriously – especially the prospect of ‘long Covid’. 

“You hear about this horrible thing where it affects your lung capacity for the next 10 years, so we treated it with the respect it deserved,” says Lars. “Testing 37 times a day."

Counter-intuitively, not being able to step out of the studio for any length of time wasn’t helpful. Metallica have traditionally broken up recording sessions with bouts of touring or festival appearances to pull them away from the grind of “fucking sitting there with 17 different versions of some connecting bridge out of the third guitar solo” and give themselves perspective and focus.

“In my 20s and 30s, I was just so fucking instinctive and right,” says Lars. “Everything we did, we never made bad decisions. Now, there’s 10 different ways of doing everything. As your experiences increase, so do the options: “Hey, that’s a great riff. What happens if it’s a little slower? What happens if we change the key?’ All of sudden you’ve got seven fucking versions of this riff, and you sit and spend a day on which one’s better."

“When we’re making Ride The Lightning and we’ve got to be out of the studio on Friday 28th, there’s no option to record on the 29th, because you don’t have the money,” he continues. “So the record’s done on the 28th. Nowadays, what are they going to do?” He laughs. “Throw us out of our own studio?”

Of course no one threw Metallica out of their own studio. Instead, they inched towards completing 72 Seasons, finally wrapping it in late 2022.

“Making a record is just making 12,247 decisions in the space of 18 months, and you hope you’ve made more right ones than wrong ones,” says Lars. “And even then, you won’t know for sure for another few years because you’re still high on the process.”

One of the biggest frustrations Lars Ulrich has with himself these days is the amount of “future tripping” he does. “I spend more time in the future than I do paying attention to my surroundings: ‘What’re we gonna do in 2026?’ or whatever. I need to spend more time in the fucking moment.” 

The one place Lars doesn’t spend a lot of time is in the past. Aside from the occasional necessity – listening back to a big reissue, say, or rehearsing old songs they haven’t played in years – he’s not given to nostalgia. This is why the reaction that greeted Lux Æterna – specifically that it sounded like a throwback to Kill ’Em All or the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – niggles at him a little bit, despite his protestations that it doesn’t. 

“If you think that, there’s absolutely nothing that I’m gonna do to talk you out of that,” he says. “Please don’t misunderstand or turn it into ‘Lars Ulrich is pissed off at the comments’, ’cos it’s not that at all. It’s just more this thing about the continuous referencing to other elements of either our own past or somebody else’s past. I guess to me the most important thing is whether people like it or not. All that other stuff, I can’t wrap my head around that so much.” 

Retro or not, Lux Æterna is one of the few consciously uplifting moments on 72 Seasons. ‘Anticipation in domination/A sea of hearts beat as one, unified,’ sings James at the song’s start, evoking the celebratory, communal feel of old-school Metallica anthems Hit The Lights, Metal Militia and Whiplash. ‘Never alone for the feelings alike.’

It’s not clear exactly what the inspirations for James’s lyrics are, because at the time of writing this, he isn’t doing any interviews for 72 Seasons. This may be down to timing, or it may be a reluctance to rake over recent events in his personal life, including his return to rehab in 2019 and the announcement in 2022 that he was divorcing his wife of 25 years, Francesca, or older traumas such as his Christian Scientist upbringing and loss of his mother when he was 16. 

It’s not clear how much of 72 Seasons is autobiographical, but it is apparent that the singer has reached deep inside himself when it comes to his lyrics. The band have said that Screaming Suicide “addresses the taboo subject of suicide”, reframing teenage anguish through middle-aged eyes. Elsewhere, it sounds like he’s drawing on his own experiences for Chasing Light (‘All the love a young one needs/Thoughtless elders destroyed’), while If Darkness Had A Son sees him barking: ‘Temptation leave me be!’ 

All this blackness makes the light, when it does come, shine doubly bright. ‘Misery/ She’s not what I’m living for, no no!’ sings James at the conclusion of 11-minute closing track Inamorata, a flash of optimism and hope that turns everything that had come before on its head. Lars says he isn’t sure how many of the lyrics on 72 Seasons predate James’s recent personal issues. 

“But all the lyrics I’ve seen are new. It’s not like song number seven is something left over from the Hardwired… album. Whether they were written five years ago or 10 years ago, I’ve never seen them before this record.” 

What do you hear when you listen to James sing these lyrics? He pauses to think. “Vulnerability. Transparency. Acceptance and hope. Possibility. Redemption. I feel that they’re very daring, I love the vulnerability, I love the fact that he’s comfortable sharing that side of what’s in his head and what’s coming out is very relatable for all of us. The lyrics all come from James, but we’re all in a place in our lives where we’re much more comfortable with who we are as people, and sharing and showing who we are. Not trying to pretend we’re 20 years old or 30 years old or even 40 years old.” 

The perfect snapshot of the band Metallica are now versus the band they used to be – or at least the perception of the band they used to be – came midway through a gig in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 2022. Addressing the crowd, James confessed to “feeling a little bit insecure, like I’m an old guy, can’t play anymore”. He revealed that his bandmates rallied around him backstage, giving him a hug and telling him they had his back if he was struggling.

At the end of this impromptu speech, Lars, Robert and Kirk congregated around the singer to give him another, more public group hug. When they were done, James addressed the crowd again: “I am not alone, and neither are you.” 

It was an unexpected moment of vulnerability and emotion from a band not known for overt displays of either. “There are times when you’re not as comfortable being vulnerable and showing your insecurities, and all these things make you put on a harder shell,” says Lars. “But certainly in our current frame of mind, we’re very comfortable with things like that. We love each other and we respect each other and we admire each other.” 

Are you able to sit down with James and go, “Listen, I’m worried about you”, or “I’ve been divorced, this is what it feels like to go through it”? 

“We have those conversations using different words. But yes, we talk about stuff like that.” 

How’s James doing now? 

“He’s doing great. Like all of us… Do I have my own worries and insecurities? Of course. I have good days, as a bandmember, as a parent, as a life-partner, a song, a friend. Then I have other days where I feel like a fucking idiot or a loser or my head is not screwed on straight, I’m an asshole or whatever.”

Lars Ulrich onstage holding a handmade Metallica sign

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

In November 2022, a couple of weeks before Lux Æterna was released, Metallica played a relatively small-scale gig at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Florida. The show was in honour of their early mentor Jon Zazula, aka Jonny Z, the man who founded Megaforce Records expressly to release Kill ’Em All back in 1983, and his wife Marsha, both of whom died during lockdown. Fittingly, the set drew exclusively from the band’s first two albums – a rare nostalgia trip for Metallica. 

“That was a lot of fun, but it was also very tiring,” says Robert Trujillo. “It’s full on. We’re not 21 years old. We took it on, we had a good time. Limbs were sore the next day, the necks needed adjusting.” 

The pendulum is about to swing in the other direction. On April 27, Metallica kick off the massive M72 tour in Amsterdam. The concept is unique: two shows in every city they stop off in, with completely different setlists on each night (“No repeats,” insists Robert Trujillo proudly). 

While regular breaks ensure it won’t be quite as intense as the epic tours of old, it will still take them through to September 2024 as it stands. “It seemed like a really good idea about a year ago,” says Lars. “Now that we’re getting close, there’s part of it that’s, like, ‘Holy fuck, what did we just throw ourselves into?’” 

He says he’s been putting in the hard yards in the gym: “I’m pretty much chained to my Peloton.” 

Neither Lars nor Robert will be drawn into details as to what the stage set will look like, beyond the fact that it will relocate the snake pit into the centre of the stadiums they’re playing in, with all the engineering complexities that entails (where exactly do you hang a lighting rig from in a venue with no roof?). Similarly, they’re keeping schtum about the setlist. 

“Will we play every song from this album?” says Robert evasively. “I hope so, at some point over the next few years.” 

This decision to scale things up rather than down is admirable given there are a couple of significant milestones on the horizon. In August, James Hetfield turns 60. Lars Ulrich hits the same age in December. Kirk Hammett reached that landmark last November. 

“Surely there must be some mistake,” says Lars drily. “When people turn 60, aren’t they supposed to be old? I don’t feel very old. I feel in some perverse way younger and more clueless than ever. But it is what it is. I’m accepting of the things you can’t change.” 

He has an equally unconcerned response to the question of how long Metallica can carry on doing this at the level they do it. “How long is a piece of string? If I keep sitting on that Peloton and everybody else stays in good shape, then knock on wood, hopefully a few years still. Look at the Stones. Look at McCartney.” 

And the chance of the gaps between albums becoming shorter? “I don’t know how possible it would be to make an album in a shorter amount of time.” 

Of course, this is Metallica, and no other band has as many hopes, desires and demands projected on them by its fans. And no one is as aware of this as Lars Ulrich.

“We do take it seriously and we do try to do the best we can,” he says. “But as we get older, it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to cracking the code on any of it than we were 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago. I mean, you can romanticise about having to finish an album on the 28th of the month because you’re about to run out of money, especially if you’re sitting freaking the fuck out and trying to figure out what’s up, down and sideways, but I guess at the end of the day, I wouldn’t change a thing.” 

And so the Metallica machine moves ever forwards, as gaffer-taped and jerry-rigged and clusterfucked as it ever was.

72 Seasons is out now. Metallica play Download in June. 

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Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.