Review Summary: A fine album from a heavy metal juggernaut that might just be kicking back into gear.
Five years ago, music critics raved about an album called St. Anger
, a record many hailed as a return to the harsh and carefree malevolence of Metallica’s ‘80s heyday. Pushing the group well outside their comfort zone, St. Anger
was in some ways everything it was held up to be: it was still vocal-centric, but a renewed sense of vigour had crept into Jaymz Hetfield’s voice, and the relatively simplistic song structures of the ‘90s had been jettisoned in favour of more technically demanding passages. Yet St. Anger
didn’t resonate; worse, it was considered by many fans to be the final nail in Metallica’s coffin. The reasons were obvious: in terms of resistance to change and unwillingness to embrace new ideas, old school metal fans generally rank somewhere between Noel Gallagher and the Unabomber, and anything less than a faithful retread of old tracks was bound to be met with hostility, and even then…
On a more basic level, though, St. Anger
highlighted a basic difference of perspective between fans and critics: critics tend to swoon over distinctiveness and complexity, while the casual listener tends to be a bit more savvy to the bigger picture. For instance, how many people can honestly say they still listen to that one Sufjan Stevens record? If Stevens ever does get around to delivering the next instalment in his “50 States” series, he’ll never achieve the notoriety to which he was vaulted by Illinois
’ disproportionate status among tastemakers; his music didn’t have that much mass appeal to begin with. And so it was with St. Anger
: critics proclaimed “Metallica are back!” and the public responded, “are you sure?” For all the band’s efforts to update their sound and re-incorporate some of the progressive instincts of old, the album’s flagstone tracks, ‘St. Anger’ and ‘Frantic,’ were transparent attempts to hammer three-minute pop songs into six-minute suites, and the deceit was not lost on the band’s long-term fans.
Half a decade later, music journalism isn’t what it used to be, and with leaks fans have the chance to make their own first impressions on the band’s ninth studio album, Death Magnetic
. Buoyed by the band members’ pre-game hype, during which the album was variously described as a mix between The Black Album
and any one of Master Of Puppets
, Ride The Lightning
and …And Justice For All
, Metallica’s profile is as high as ever, and with “new” bassist Robert Trujillo (Infectious Grooves, Ozzy Osbourne) in tow, expectations were high that Metallica could finally make an album to please the old-school fans as well as the newer recruits. Trujillo, a fingerstyle player like original bassist Cliff Burton, brings a subtle element of funk to the Metallica sound that’s particularly evident in the head-bobbing main riffs of ‘Broken, Beaten & Scarred’ and ‘End Of The Line,’ and quite rightly draws comparison to thrash disciples Pantera.
On the whole, however, Death Magnetic
doesn’t bring an awful lot that’s new to the table, but neither is it an honest return to former glories. Instead, Death Magnetic
can best be described as the Metallica of 2008 emulating the Metallica of 1984, as the overall vibe invokes the current band’s live performances of Ride The Lightning
and …And Justice For All
tracks. Aside from the sublime Puppets
throwback ‘All Nightmare Long’ (more on that later), the band never thrash quite as hard as they did in the ‘80s. And when they do try, as they do with the frenetic galloping riff that kicks opener ‘That Was Just Your Life’ into life, they betray their age more than ever. For all the obvious merits of of ‘That Was Just Your Life’ (it’s the most exciting and arresting Metallica opener since ‘Fight Fire With Fire’), it self-consciously apes the sound and structure of ‘One,’ while lead single ‘The Day That Never Comes’ could easily be confused with a modern-day live performance of ‘Fade To Black’ (provided the listener had an active imagination).
Self-plagiarism aside, Death Magnetic
’s positives far outweigh its negatives. Unlike St. Anger
, there’s a definite structure and direction to all of the tracks, but unlike Load
they still manage to incorporate the rapid interchange of riffs and instrumental sections that was such a hallmark of their sound during the 1980s. With an average track-length of about seven-and-a-half minutes, a couple of the tracks could well do with a little paring down- particularly the lead single, which still managed to chart well despite its almost-eight minute length- but aside from the monotonous Arabian-inspired hard rocker ‘Cyanide,’ Death Magnetic
steers well clear of the tedious and aimless noodling that was epidemic on St. Anger
and even …And Justice For All
. ‘The Judas Kiss’ even flirts with a rarity in Metallica’s catalogue, a (GASP!) upbeat melody, and the reward is one of the record’s finest moments, as Kirk Hammett’s half-speed drill-like effects clash tantalizingly with Hetfield and Trujillo’s galloping thrash rhythms.
One area of concern which hasn’t been addressed is the poverty of Jaymz and Lars’ lyrics which, for the most part, appear to have devolved into a search for the sh
ittiest pun known to man. St. Anger
brought us gems like “I’m madly in anger with you”
and “my lifestyle determines my deathstyle.” Death Magnetic
raises the stakes even further with the corker, “we’ll hunt you down without mercy, hunt you down all nightmare long,”
a sore spot on what is otherwise the most badass track Metallica have put their name to since ‘One,’ 20 years ago. Granted, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’’ eponymous chorus never made a great deal of sense, but it at least conveyed a sense of hopelessness and despair that characterized the track. Who knows what emotion Jaymz intended to convey when he penned the gem, “suicide, I’ve already died; you’re just the funeral I’ve been waiting for”
? There’s a worrying air of desperation running through the band’s lyrical choices that thankfully doesn’t spill over into the music, but it is nonetheless a frequent distraction on an otherwise fine album from a heavy metal juggernaut that might just be kicking back into gear.