Several months to a couple years – this is, on average, how long Metallica writes a song. From retrieving a 5-star idea from their infamous Riff Bank, to crossing out the last checkbox on the recording progress wall table.
But there are outliers on both ends. There are songs born literally in days, such as Escape and Hardwired. And there’s one that took almost a decade to complete: All Nightmare Long. It perfectly shows how Metallica’s transitioned from St Anger to Death Magnetic.
“Delete dat” – Torben Ulrich
The story begins in 2002-ish, in a place called Presidio. This name can induce a vomit reflex in Metallica fans: it’s where Metallica hit the bottom of their career. No need to recap all the stuff that happened then, you know it (or if you don’t – watch Some Kind of Monster documentary).
The walls of the studio held so much of the bad vibe that James had insisted on moving it after his rehab. And even now, when asked if any Presidio riffs could be reused, Metallica say they just don’t want to revisit that period. With one big exception.
Meet All Nightmare Long – an outtake from St Anger that became a star of Death Magnetic. It was conceived as a cheesy nu metal demo, not even good enough to land on Metallica’s worst album. And then it turned into a freight train that reclaimed the band’s thrash roots. Indeed, “the ugly duckling” – metal edition.
The Presidio demo was called “Shadows on the cross” (or “Shadows OF the cross”, who f*cking cares). One listening is sufficient to see why it didn’t make the cut. Shadows had a cool groove, and Metallica seemed to have fun working on it (if the word “work” applies there at all). But damn it’s cheesy, even by the standards of St Anger (again, if the word “standard” can apply). The demo best shows that the band lost their creative bearings in the early 2000s.
Mind you, St Anger is quite riffy, even thrashy at times. Metallica might’ve thrashed it up in the album’s late phase. James came back, everyone’s refreshed – the band survived.
And then they might have realised that the Presidio stuff was so disconnected from who Metallica actually were. Temptation and other early demos were scrapped, except for a couple tracks they still managed to pull off (including Some Kind of Monster).
The problem was – they didn’t have time to do it all from scratch. And so an injection of some old-school could at least reduce the damage and help reconnect to their true selves. References in the lyrics imply that, besides doing off-beat drums for the first time since Justice.
St Anger chorus goes as follows:
Fuck it all and no regrets
I hit the lights on these dark sets
Damage Inc anyone?
Fuck it all and fucking no regrets
Never happy ending on these dark sets
Also, “hit the lights” wasn’t in the lyrics early version:
Fuck it all and no regrets
I hit the lights on these dark sets
James really might have been struck by nostalgia after rehab.
And what about the cheese? It still was on the table, but the guys couldn’t help joking like “it’s so good you’re gonna puke with joy”. Killing your babies is hard. Even the ugly ones.
Usually, Bob Rock saw what’s good and what’s crap, and Lars backed him up in that (cue the Sandman story). This time, though, everyone seemed deaf or in denial. And others just submissively nodded, not daring to say the mighty Metallica right in their face – “That aint sound good”.
Luckily, there were two dudes who had such authority: Torben Ulrich (Lars’ dad) and Cliff Bernstein (Q-Prime manager). Beards equal wisdom. Thereby, most of the Presidio sessions were scrapped and didn’t pass 2003.
However, “Shadows on the cross” had survived somehow. Why didn’t the boys leave it in Lars’ snare like other “unsainted” demos? Perhaps, they kept returning to the main riff. There’s something there. It just needed the right wrapping. Music is about context.
St. Anger’s grip
Late 2005 – early 2006. Metallica comes back from vacation. The Madly in Anger tour has long ended. Never has Metallica played so few new songs on the tour supposed to promote those. Few were fond of the latest record, to say it softly.
Thus, the primary function of the “Madly in Anger with the World” turned out to get back on track and introduce Robert to the fans. And despite the fact that Metallica tried to get over St Anger – they still tended to compose similar stuff!
New album was in progress, and Metallica did a traditional “Escape from the studio” mini-tour in the summer of 2006. It coincided with the 20th anniversary of Master of Puppets, which they celebrated by playing the entire album live (including full Orion at last!).
They needed to let the fans know that the 9th record was underway. And so, two untitled raw new songs were presented: The New Song (aka The Death Is Not The End) and The Other New Song (aka Vultures). James was carefullyNd asked to take the licks easy, since they might or might not end up on the new album. Jumping ahead, most of them didn’t.
The fans had high hopes for the reborn Metallica. They craved the long-awaited return of the band they fell in love with. They were hyped to hear new stuff…
The New Song was built poorly and in drop C#. Good thing there’s a solo, but it barely counted for its lack of elaboration (or simply put, it sucked). Vultures was in Metallica’s live tuning and more upbeat, but still below the standard. So, was St Anger part 2 coming?
Look at the times Metallica played songs in progress: The Call of Ktulu (1983), Disposable Heroes (1985), 2×4 (1994). Those demos sounded almost like the album versions. While the “new songs” from 2006 didn’t make it to Death Magnetic at all!
Well, they kinda did, but disassembled into riffs used in other tracks, much better ones. The fans could breathe a sigh of relief, because the album was indeed the return they waited and hoped for. Those 2006 demos now seemed like a prank.
Metallica had suddenly remembered how to write great old-school songs. Something must’ve happened in 2006/2007. Some sort of a fuck-it moment must have happened. Once again, thanks to a bearded guy.
Bob Rock shaped the band’s sound that took them into the stratosphere. He was always up to date with the music industry trends, and masterfully introduced Metallica to those. That didn’t work on St Anger, which was a sign their 13-year collaboration’s exhausted. Lars and James felt self-sufficient. They no longer needed a strict daddy, but a mild supervisor, an occasional “fresh ear”. Enter Rick Rubin.
Bob Rock was always there pushing the band, every note and drum hit passed through him. Rick didn’t come to Metallica’s studio often. But when he did, his advice was like a sniper shot. And one such suggestion turned out pivotal.
Rick asked the boys (paraphrasing), “Why don’t you just play like back in the day?” Metallica were running away from the good-ol’ thrash for two decades. They could have had doubts whether they can meet the standard set by their younger selves.
Nothing else held them back anymore, and Rick helped break the old habit. And the tipping point could be playing the entire Master of Puppets live in summer 2006. They reconnected to that long-gone hunger and fire. So fuck it, let’s jam!
Demo Magnetic and Beyond Magnetic perfectly show the transition from St Anger. They still have some of the raw, tribal, bordering punk elements. To get what exactly I mean, listen to the crazy outro of Ten (My Apocalypse demo) and the Frantic-ish freaky main riff from Just A Bullet Away.
But the best example of the transition is, of course, Flamingo. Structurally, it was All Nightmare Long, but still Shadows on the Cross in the groove.
So, we could trace at least three phases of the song’s evolution. And there could be another missing link.
Remember Robert Trujillo’s flamenco jam? That’s where the demo’s name came from. The bassist’s fresh licks brought a new life into the shelved song. Now Metallica saw how to make it work. However, the main riff Rob composed didn’t make the cut, even though they tried to metal it up. That’s the missing link.
Then the boys employed a couple more riffs from failed songs – welcome Flamingo! And then they tweaked the main riff and sped up the whole thing (except the intro) by 40% – welcome All Nightmare Long! Seven years of wandering ended.
Rick Rubin and Master of Puppets’ anniversary may have been the two catalysts of Metallica’s return to the roots. Would have that happened otherwise? Maybe later, for the 10th album? At that point, Metallica would have remained the only old thrashers that hadn’t done that. So, peer presume could work. What do you think?