Review Summary: More of the same with a dash of something new.
Nobody expects you to reinvent the wheel when you’ve been lingering in the spotlight for 40 years, even if that wheel was one you invented yourself. Metallica’s wheels have especially been stagnant for the last two decades, only pushing out an album every seven years or so that has ranged from mediocre at best to absolute trainwreck at worst. Perhaps there’s no better time to shock the world when expectations are nonexistent, though of course Metallica "shocking the world" is something they've tried and failed to do several times. Thankfully, that doesn't seem to be the end goal for them this time. Although 72 Seasons is nothing groundbreaking, and although Metallica have still yet to shed themselves of the flaws that have plagued them for two decades, 72 Seasons at least has a few things the last few albums were sorely lacking; fun, energy, passion, momentum, and a few great riffs.
If Death Magnetic was an attempted reinvention of the self, and if Hardwired was an attempted summarization of the career, 72 Seasons is neither. Death Magnetic failed to recapture the glory days, and Hardwired failed to keep the momentum consistent; 72 Seasons comfortably straddles the lines between what both aforementioned albums were trying to do. Instead of desperately begging to capture the passion from Metallica’s mid-to-late 20’s while pushing their 60’s, 72 Seasons looks back at Metallica’s career with nostalgia, endearment, and a certain fervor that the band has been sorely missing for the last few decades. So many of the songs across 72 Seasons feature open references and obvious-as-day inspiration from old-school metal acts that galvanized Metallica’s members when they were young and angry. After the pitifully banal Hardwired, which suffered severely from a lack of creativity, 72 Seasons is the musical representation of digging through your attic, recovering the box of relic vinyl that has been sitting placidly for years, blowing the dust off of the artwork and giving those worn records another spin. Metallica did just that, rediscovering the love for the bands of yore, like Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and UFO, and gazing fondly at them with a warm smile, saying “wow, I forgot how much I used to love this stuff!”
Most of Metallica’s albums have a certain checklist of song variety, which has usually been one of their strengths; you can’t have the Metallica album without one or two blazing thrashers, the monumental epic, the groovy chuggers, the instrumental, and the power ballads. 72 Seasons differs from this checklist, as James Hetfield said “we were just experimenting with riffs we liked and going with what we felt worked, which we haven’t done since Kill ‘Em All.” Indeed, 72 Seasons has no ballads and no discernible interest in cataloging a specific variation in sound. This serves the album both well and poorly; while there are no lifeless attempts at recreating “One” or “Fade To Black”, nor do they desperately venture into pushing out an ‘Enter Sandman 2’, the album suffers from rarely leaving its comfort zone of churning mid-paced stadium groover after mid-paced stadium groover. After four or five anthems in a row with the same chuggy tempo, theme, and atmosphere, it becomes easy to start begging for ‘The Unforgiven IV’. However, the album’s stubbornness to conform to Metallica’s set rules also serves as its lead strength, as the band tool around with concepts they never have before. 72 Seasons is gingerly sprinkled with beautiful vocal harmonies, juicy guitar leads, and piquant jam sessions that breathe new life into a band most would assume are exhaling their final breaths. “Lux Æterna” and “Screaming Suicide” bear an obvious token of appreciation to golden-aged British metal like Motorhead and Diamond Head, and are songs that would fit quite well on their Garage Inc. cover album. Similarly, “Room of Mirrors” is so reminiscent of Thin Lizzy, with James even impersonating Phil Lynott the same way he did when he covered “Whisky In The Jar”, it’d be easy to assume the song is a Thin Lizzy cover that belongs on a new Garage Inc. In addition to its worship for late 70’s British heavy metal sound, 72 Seasons also introduces unheard elements of Sabbathy doom in tracks like “Inamorata” and “Crown of Barbed Wire”, where the booming production shakes the Earth harder than anything Metallica has put out since the 80’s, and James’s vocals sound more lively and dynamic than they ever have before. With these odes to sludge, James is able to display a newfound ardor of power, stabbing the microphone with a fiery flare he’s probably been pining to do for years now.
Perhaps some of this has to do with the newfound variance in songwriters. Rob Trujillo finally gets to show off some of his natural talents on the 5-stringed demon, with over half of 72 Seasons’ tracks putting his amazing bass abilities on display. Kirk Hammett also gets to experiment with new kinds of lead guitar work fresh to Metallica’s sound, including some interesting tribal guitar effects on the beginning of “Sleepwalk My Life Away” that sound more marooned from typical metal licks. “You Must Burn!” and “Chasing Life” also have distinct leadwork and put a spotlight on Hammett’s artistic mentality better than any Metallica album has in a very long time. Noticeably, 72 Seasons is the first Metallica album since the 90’s to feature a near-equal amount of songwriting from all four members; Trujillo and Hammett are both credited as primary songwriters on four separate songs each, compared to only one co-writing credit for Trujillo and a depressing zero credits for Hammett on Hardwired. Though James and Lars have always hogged Metallica’s songwriting, they’ve finally tossed the pens and quills to their other bandmates on 72 Seasons, which has graciously allowed more ambitious and memorable tracks like "Shadows Follow", “Sleepwalk My Life Away”, “Crown of Barbed Wire”, and “Inamorata” to enter existence.
I've mentioned Metallica "having fun" several times, though that fun for them doesn't always translate into fun for us. Of course, 72 Seasons is plagued by a plethora of issues, many of which have wounded Metallica for the last several decades. After all, would it not be 21st-century ‘Tallica if the songs didn’t needlessly plod on and repeat themselves over and over and over again? As figured, most of the tracks on 72 Seasons go on for far too long, droning out every riff as if Metallica thinks it's the best riff to ever grace our ears, and they’re just so thoughtful to play each riff 15 times so we don’t have to keep hitting the rewind button. Thankfully, Metallica do seem to have discovered a modicum of self-awareness, as tracks like “Crown of Barbed Wire”, “Too Far Gone?”, “Screaming Suicide,” and the gracefully short “Lux Æterna” seem to perfectly display an understanding of pacing and length. Meanwhile, the title track, “If Darkness Had A Son”, and especially “You Must Burn!” make it hard to defend Metallica as they irksomely repeat the same so-so riffs a half-billion times into oblivion. The disappointing thing about all of those songs, mainly “If Darkness Had A Son” is that there lie three excellent 4-minute bangers within those tedious slogs of 7-minute metal NyQuil. Similarly, Kirk Hammett’s solos continue to be humdrum and uninteresting, with most of his excellent leads coming from every part of the song besides the guitar solo. When he’s given his mandatory minute of the song to show off, Kirk instead wah-wah’s away just like he’s back on ReLoad worshipping Stevie Ray Vaughn, or, at the very least, just lifelessly shredding as the shell of the guitarist who penned the solos to “One” and “Disposable Heroes”. Tracks like “Chasing Light” and “Too Far Gone?” feel incredibly forced and, while not downright unlistenable, are sheer reminders that Hardwired and Death Magnetic’s bottom tracks were not that long ago, in the sense that they would fit right in on either of those two albums.
Despite its highs and lows, there isn’t too much to say about 72 Seasons. It is certainly a good enough album, and it is certainly a move in the right direction. Whether for better or for worse, that move is to pay homage to music from 50 years ago and write songs that are palatable, but not groundbreaking. Most of the album lies comfortably in the realm of “pretty good”, which can be a huge sigh of relief or a huge disappointment. There is nothing shamefully putrid on 72 Seasons in the same way there is nothing mind-blowing or prodigious. There is no “Purify”, but there is no “Master of Puppets” either. Metallica are definitely creeping slowly in the right direction, yet that’s clearly not the worry nor the intent for the band whether they get there or not. These are four guys nearing their 60’s jamming music that hasn’t been popular for decades, having fun for what is probably the first time in decades too.