Review Summary: Rumours of Metallica's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
When Metallica released their seminal “Black” self-titled album in 1991, they may have become the biggest band in metal, but they also gave themselves an Everest-sized mountain to climb. Their fifth opus was so huge, so important in the development of heavy music, that nothing the band could do from then on would be good enough. The “Load” and “Reload” double whammy were dismissed by fans of the band as too far removed from the thrashing metal of the past, while “St. Anger” was, quite frankly embarrassing. So while the band retained their pretty much untouchable status as the kings of heavy metal, they also had something to prove here.
Following another lengthy gestation period (which had become commonplace for Metallica albums following the self-titled), “Death Magnetic” had been billed as a return to the band’s complex, instrument-centric thrash metal of their early albums. In that respect, this album is a partial success, for the most accurate description of its sound would be “and Justice for All...” fed through the “Black Album” production machine. Though “Magnetic” doesn’t quite resurrect the brilliance of their mid 80s output, it certainly comes close in parts.
We kick off with “That Was Just Your Life”, a song that opens with some haunting guitar effects before ploughing straight into out-and-out thrash. While James Hetfield has never been the best singer, his snarling vocal style suits the aggressiveness of the material, while Kirk Hammett’s lead guitar work is the best he’s done in years, and one of the highlights of “...Your Life”, and other songs, is his incendiary soloing- wah-wah screaming out proudly. “The End of the Line” follows up strongly, riding a Pantera-esque groove before dropping into a wonderfully low-key bridge section.
On the opposite end is “My Apocalypse”, a runaway freight-train of a track packed with thunderous riffs and venomous hooks that stand as a throwback to the intensity of “Ride the Lightning”. There are many moments of brilliance on “Death Magnetic”, from the blistering instrumental outro of “The Day That Never Comes”, through the bouncing bass-driven riffs of “Cyanide” and on to the magnificent chorus of “The Judas Kiss”. But there also numerous problems with this album, and it’s these complications that prevent the album from reaching classic status.
There are of course, the typical Metallica complaints- Lars Ulrich continues his attempts to be the worst drummer in metal, while once again we get some lyrics so shockingly bad not even Fred Durst would consider them. And, like on St. Anger, the production of this album is sickeningly rough and, at times, down-right unlistenable. But another, more immediate concern is that “Magnetic” has failed to learn another lesson from its much maligned predecessor.
Quite simply, it’s too damn long. 10 tracks in 76 minutes comes out at an average song length of over 7 and a half minutes, and while sometimes the labyrinthine nature of the songs is justified, repeatedly across “Magnetic” do songs go on for far too long. “Broken, Beat and Scarred”, “The Judas Kiss” and instrumental piece “Suicide and Redemption” would all be significantly better if the band had just decided to cut about two minutes off of each one. The most boring moments are when the band drop the heaviness and try to resurrect the “Load” era soft rock. “The Unforgiven III” could easily be dropped from the album without much detrimental effect on the whole thing.
But when it’s good, “Death Magnetic” is very, very good. “All Nightmare Long” is a seven and a half minute track, not dissimilar to any of the other songs here. The difference is that “All Nightmare Long” is a bona-fide classic. For seven and a half glorious minutes, the band unleash riff after killer riff, never losing momentum, never dropping the ball. So brilliant is this song, it could sit on the band’s milestone classic album “Master of Puppets” quite confidently, and match up to any of the tracks on there. And if you can look past the hideously compressed production levels and unnecessarily mammoth song lengths, “Death Magnetic” is a fine release from a band who have finally rediscovered themselves.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is justice for all.