It was an improbable match: Lou Reed's cutting-monotone voice and explicit stories of desire and despair, lashed to Metallica's apocalyptic charge. It is now a perfect fit. In a recent rapid series of sessions at Metallica's studio north of San Francisco, the New York king of avant-rock and the world's bestselling thrash-metal band have recorded a new studio album together that is unlike any either artist has made before. The record, not yet titled, features 10 songs composed by Reed with significant arrangement contributions by the band that suggest a raging union of his 1973 noir classic, Berlin, and Metallica's '86 crusher, Master of Puppets.
"A marriage made in heaven," Reed says in his first interview about the project, in the studio lounge during a break. "I knew it from the first day we played together: 'Oh, man, this is perfection, right in front of me.' "
"I don't think we've ever felt this free," Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich says, sitting next to Reed on a couch. "There's nothing that's totally outside of the boundary for us, nothing that feels like 'Oh, what happens if we go there?' The strength of us" – he gestures at Reed – "is it feels like we cannot land on a wrong place."
"They're bringing Metallica, with all that power," Reed confirms. "And because they're pretty sophisticated, wherever I go, they're still with me."
Reed and Metallica first played together in October 2009, at the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concerts in New York. Ulrich, singer-guitarist James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo backed Reed on two of his classic songs. "We knew from then," Reed says, "that we were made for each other." He and the band first planned to cut an album of his older material, "fallen jewels that no one remembered," as Reed puts it. That changed a week before Reed showed up at Metallica's studio. He called the band, proposing a record of songs he'd written for Lulu, a theatrical production of stories by the German author Frank Wedekind, directed by Robert Wilson and currently running in Berlin.
"Lars and I listened to the stuff," Hetfield says of Reed's demos, "and it was like, 'Wow, this is very different.' It was scary at first, because the music was so open. But then I thought, 'This could go anywhere.' " Metallica started writing parts built from vocal rhythms and electronic patterns on the demos.
The result is at once unpredictable and viciously tight. "Pumping Blood" opens with a drone that breaks into a crunching march, goes into speed-metal gear and breaks into free-fall sections – all over seven minutes, cut live in one take. Another track, "Mistress Dread," features Reed singing across a relentless staccato riff played at manic velocity. "It doesn't feel like we're his backup band," Hammett claims. "It feels like we're a different band, in a situation we've never been in before." And, Trujillo notes, "it's making us a better band."
Ulrich says the album is "90 percent" finished. But there are no release plans yet. Reed does not have a record deal, and Metallica are no longer on Warner Bros. "We are free to go wherever," Ulrich says. "I'm obviously psyched for people to hear this, in whatever way we feel is right."
Hetfield has one condition. "I told Lou I want to be there when people hear it," he says, grinning. "I want to see their faces."