Review Summary: Whilst often heralded as Metallica's return to form, Death Magnetic is a fantastic album in its own right that almost, almost matches up to the band's best.
After releasing probably the most fan-upsetting album of all time, 2003's universally despised St. Anger, Metallica didn't really have much to live up to with their next album. Some fans had given up with the death of original bassist Cliff Burton after Master of Puppets, some had given up with The Black Album's more commercial sound. More, still, gave up when the mid nineties due of Load and ReLoad showed Metallica turning more and more to mainstream rock, with the latter almost completely abandoning the band's thrash roots. But there were still a few fans left at that point, especially after 1999's live album S&M was superb enough to restore at least some hope. But St. Anger ruined any goodwill that was left. Metallica now had precisely zero fans (even though I personally soooort of liked it, as did some others, nobody would openly admit it) and were in the curious position of being one of the world's biggest bands, releasing one of the world's most nervously anticipated albums. Most had given up on the band completely, but some, like myself, held out hope that they had another Puppets in them, especially as guitarist Kirk Hammett had said so himself in interviews leading up to the album's 2008 release. It was a relief, then, that Death Magnetic actually proved to be pretty damn good and, in my opinion, actually criminally underrated in the grand scheme of all things 'Metallica.'
I'd like to talk about song length. Of course, we're all mature here, and know that four minutes of goodness is better than eight of mediocrity, but the fanbase's hearts undeniably sank, if only a little, as Metallica's song lengths constantly decreased, as their career's length grew. Sure, there were a couple of eight or nine minute tracks spread across Load and ReLoad, but where was the album chock full of epics, a la Puppets, or Justice? When Death Magnetic's tracklist was leaked, it came as a cause for concern, but also a sort of relief, when the album was made up of, for the most part, seven minute plus songs. Whilst this was also true of St. Anger, the key difference in Death Magnetic was that, well, these songs justified their lengths. Gone were the repeated lyrics and instrumental sections of its predecessor, and in were, finally, the sprawling and unpredictable breakdowns and grooves of the band's earlier work. The glorious album opener, That Was Just Your Life, was probably the most reassuring first track I've ever heard in music. Whilst St. Anger opened with a cacophony of snare and nu-metal riffing, Death Magnetic begins right where ...And Justice For All left off, with militant, rapid-fire drumming complementing Metallica's first true thrash riffs in, well, almost two decades. And whilst it is over seven minutes long, the song absolutely fills this running time satisfactorily, with numerous instrumental breakdowns which don't suffer from the arbitrary feelings that accompanied those found in St. Anger.
Whilst That Was Just Your Life was arguably the best Metallica song fans would have heard since, possibly, Dyer's Eve, the album could easily have taken a downward turn from there. What's most astonishing, then, is just how consistent it manages to be. There's nary a weak moment in the album's ten tracks, with highlights dotted around every single song, in large numbers. Take, for instance The End Of The Line's unexpectedly mellow bridge, or the absolute insanity of The Day That Never Comes' ending (which harkens back to the final few minutes of fan favourite One) or, perhaps most pleasing of all, the flawless first two minutes of All Nightmare Long. The sheer fact that one requires more than two hands to list off these highlights already puts the album above St. Anger, but that was, to be fair, not a difficult task. What is impressive, then, is that the album does actually begin to touch, during its best moments, the greatness to be found in 'old Metallica' albums.
Yes, I actually believe that. My Apocalypse has a riff that stands up to most on Master of Puppets, All Nightmare Long has an intro to rival Justice's title track, and The Judas Kiss has a chorus to rival (whisper it) Fight Fire With Fire. Whilst I may have, essentially, just committed the Metallica fan's equivalent of heresy, I genuinely do believe that this album is much more than a return to form for the band. A return to form after St. Anger could have just been another Load, such was the lack of quality to be found in the 2003 release. But Death Magnetic manages to be so much more than that. Whilst referred to by critics at the time, and still now, as basically being a vehicle to let Metallica show the world that 'they've still got it,' it's actually a brilliant metal album in its own right. Because of this unfair labeling, the album seems to have succumbed to the fate of forever being 'a solid 7,' or maybe an eight on a good day. But that's just not fair, because this is Metallica being Metallica at their best, regardless of the gaping chasm between this outing and the last truly great one before it. (see: 1991) And sure, it doesn't quite have a Dyer's Eve, or a Creeping Death, in it, but during its plentiful, and magnificent, high points, it gets pretty damn close. So yes, this is getting a 4.5, and it most definitely deserves it.