Metallica winds up 17 months on the road

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When Metallica arrives at the E Center Monday, the band will be less than a week from the end of a 17-month tour, a road trip that might destroy lesser bands.

But most bands aren't Metallica, arguably the biggest hard-rock band ever after two decades together. As guitarist Kirk Hammett said in a recent interview, 17 months touring is nothing to write home about in Metalliworld.

"In the overall scheme of things, it's a decent Metallica tour," Hammett said. "But we've definitely done longer."

Metallica might have longer tours in its past, but the quartet of Hammett, singer/guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Robert Trujillo has never had a tour quite like the one supporting its 2003 album, "St. Anger."

Most notably, this is the first tour since the band confronted its various chemical and interpersonal demons with a band therapist, as was memorably tracked in a feature film, "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," released this summer. It's also the first Metallica tour after Hetfield spent a year away from the band in rehab and therapy of his own, the first after the other band members sobered up considerably and the first with new bassist Trujillo on board.

"I'm having the time of my life out here without killing myself slowly," Hammett said, describing how this tour differs from past jaunts. "On past tours, I spent a lot of my time in a slow self-destruction. Self-destruction on the installment plan. This is a much more clear, more responsible, more mature tour, and I'll be able to remember most of it."

The tour has also taken a turn into spontaneous territory since it rolled through Utah a year ago in its early stages. At first, the "St. Anger" tour was like most Metallica road trips, a meticulously planned production with plenty of punch but few changes from one show to the next.

For the past couple of months, though, the band has consciously been changing sets every night, pulling songs from older albums into the fold, like "Disposable Heroes," "Harvester of Sorrow" and "Four Horsemen." When Hammett called The Salt Lake Tribune, he had been working with Trujillo on "The Call of Ktulu," a song from 1984's "Ride the Lightning" album Metallica wanted to add to its set before tour's end.

"It's a bit of a challenge for us, to keep us on our toes, to keep our chops up and reconnect with the old music," Hammett said. "On previous tours, you have the tendency to just play the set list and then all of the sudden, at the end of the tour, those are the only songs you know and remember.

"Everyone benefits. The audiences love it. We have a contingency of fans who follow us around and they're thrilled by it because they don't know what to expect. It's a different show every night."

Even so, all the classic Metallica elements are present. Hetfield's growl hasn't changed too much over the years, even if he sings more than screams these days. Hammett's solos still sting, and Trujillo's teaming with Ulrich in the rhythm section turned out to be a blessing after the departure of longtime bassist Jason Newstead. Trujillo is the most visually interesting member onstage these days, crouching to the ground while plucking his bass strings.

The current tour is an in-the-round set-up, with Ulrich's drum set spinning in a circle while the other members are free to roam. That makes it easier to communicate directly with the legions of Metallica fans who religiously follow the group through its ups and downs, Hammett said. And that is something he never takes for granted.

"Every time we go out on that stage, I just appreciate the fact we've managed to pick ourselves up and band together and make this happen every single day," Hammett said. "Every day it's like, 'F--- yeah, we're still doing this, we're still together, we're still out there kicking ass.' Because as has been well documented, at one point we were just about to melt away with our own problems and issues."

After surviving the recording process and therapy sessions it took to make "St. Anger," and a 17-month tour afterward, Hammett and Co. will have a new challenge in about a week - adjusting to not being on tour.

It's harder than it sounds, Hammett said.

"Being on tour is like driving a car 120 miles per hour, and the day it ends, it's like you're suddenly going 5 miles per hour," he said.

"It's hard to adjust, but I have my plans. I'll pursue my own interests. I'm way into horses. I'm way into surfing. I'm going to catch up on some reading. I'm going to play my guitar and re-establish my relationship with my cats."

At least for six months, when Metallica regroups and plots its next move.

Metal madness

l Metallica, with opener Godsmack, plays West Valley City's E Center Monday at 7 p.m.

l Tickets are $55 and $75, available at all Smith's Tix outlets.