A new Metallica album is always a massive occasion, that one time when all metal fans, from the underground heads to the weekend warriors, unite in listening to one record. And despite the ironic/faux-earnest t-shirt protestations of the world fashionista party, this shit wouldn’t happen for AC/DC, Motörhead or Maiden.
The last few releases have seen the bands fans complain to varying degrees, but then the band has always been selling out in the eyes of certain sectors of the fanbase. Ride the Lightning had a ballad. …And Justice for All had a music video. The black album was produced by Bob Rock and they slowed everything down. The loudest complaints were saved for the Load/ReLoad section of their career, during which Metallica continued doing exactly what they wanted to do. Boo on them!
Then, in 2003, they really stumbled with St. Anger. Funnily enough that album was supposed to be a concession to the fans, in which they got angsty again, played fast again and wrote their most complicated songs since …Justice…. It sold a relative pittance, and the fans disowned it. Then the band did. Time to go back to the drawing board and find a new producer for the first time in well over a decade.
Enter Rick Rubin, the foremost talent in making has-beens, if not good per se, at least marketable. The band was determined to make it up to the fans, this time. They were gonna be angsty again, play fast again and write their most complicated songs since …Justice…. Wait a minute.
This is a more successful attempt at reclaiming old glories than the last effort, though not to the self-fulfilling extent that some circles are claiming. The production has largely been sorted out, with the drums more solid than on the last album, and guitars way more mouthy than in the past. In fact, given how lame the CD master of …And Justice for All was, they are mouthier than they have been in a long, long time.
Opener ‘That Was Just Your Life’ starts as the album means to go on, all snarly and quick changes. ‘The End of the Line’ is similar, but something seems to be missing. Could all this sound and fury be signifying less than Hetfield and co. are letting on? This unease is highlighted by the first truly fantastic song of the album, ‘Broken, Beat & Scarred’. The title would suggest a touch of the Roni Size post-Jungle sound, but instead we get a mean descending riff and it would appear the masters truly are back.
‘The Day That Never Comes’ is the brave new entry in the Metallica song #4 pantheon though, after the magnificent likes of ‘Fade to Black’, ‘Sanitarium’, ‘One’ and ‘The Unforgiven’, it rather disappoints. It’s more on a level with the unfairly maligned, but far from great, ‘Until it Sleeps’ then. What begins as homage to Iron Maiden’s ‘The Evil that Men Do’ ends up sounding even more like an Americanised Maiden than Mastodon do before finishing in a mess of sub-’One’ staccato and solo.
The song seems to be lacking the melancholy running through the veins of those great Metallica ballads. And this is where it all starts to make sense: while they (specifically Hetfield) are making the right noises, the emotional impact seems absent without leave. In fact, the Guardian recently ran a surprisingly good article mentioning that same thing.
And this is where, if I may be so bold, we step through the looking glass. The band has listened to the fans. The fans complained that Load lacked fast riffs, a harsh leading edge and wanky, wah-drenched blues-scale solos. Well they’re here in droves, to the point where lead axe-man Kirk Hammett passes through self parody into Kerry King, complete-lack-of-self-awareness, territory. Hetfield got too soft and ‘country’ in the past with his introspection and self help.
Not any more! No, these lyrics are by far the dumbest ever to feature on a Metallica record.* Even Kill ‘em All had its moments. Examples:
...You rise, you fall, you’re down then you rise again
What don’t kill you make you more strong
...'Cause we hunt you down without mercy
Hunt you down all nightmare long
Feel us breathe upon your face
...Suffer unto my apocalypse!
My apocalypse… Go!
Crushing metal, Ripping Skin
Tossing body mannequin
While the lyrics are nearly uniformly poor, the vocal performance is top-notch. While some have referred to this album as the return of Hetfield from some kind of vocal wilderness, he has been consistently very, very good for ages. His best work was during the mid-late 1990s, though this record shows no sign of slowing down.
Yes, while the band may dismiss with an embarrassed laugh what they term the ‘CNN days’ of their late 1980s political writing, I would love for them to imbue their current songs with the kind of lyrical intelligence that both set them apart from their rivals in the thrash scene and that forged the link between band and fan. Even the mildly embarrassing concepts, such as the doomed convict in ‘Ride the Lightning’ or fearful witness of Cthulhu in ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’, were written with a sense of character and place that made them work.
It is rather telling, then, that the finest piece of work on this current album is Metallica’s welcome return to the perilous world of the heavy metal instrumental. This is a world the band owned in the days of ‘Call of Ktulu’, ‘Orion’ and (the sorta-instrumental) ‘To Live is to Die’ and, while they lag in the tech stakes behind the deranged likes of Behold… the Arctopus, they really shred. Yes, the main riff may be a tad similar to that of the one they play during the verses of ‘Broken, Beat & Scarred’, but you can never have too many descending guitar motifs, and they do enough with the rest of the song to justify the similarity.
For the third time, a Metallica album comes with a version of ‘The Unforgiven’. The problem here is that the original was such an amazing piece of work, the idea of writing sequels is a tad loopy. They just about pulled it off with ‘The Unforgiven II’, a power ballad par excellence, which switched the dynamic of the original by beginning heavy and switching to mellow verses. It also had enough call-backs to the first song to qualify as pretty nifty intertextuality as opposed to running out of ideas. Just.
The third in (what one hopes is) the trilogy lacks the fade-in intro of the past two, and the dubbing ‘thee unforgiven’, as Hetfield offers the strongest lyric of the album, from the perspective of one requiring forgiveness, drifting aimlessly as absence of expectation results by default in avoiding disappointment. To tie in with the series, the song refers back to the first in backing the verses with a fantastic, heavy, groove riff, while the solo – admittedly not a patch on the first** – is one of the better ones on the record.
Sadly, this is followed by a weak entry into the canon. ‘The Judas Kiss’ is Death Magnetic by numbers: awkward riffs, bellowed threats and a lot of disorganised noise. Something tells me this is not an après ballad grower in the mould of the excellent – and awesomely disjointed – ‘Shortest Straw’.
Fortunately for all of us, the album goes out on a high note. After the aforementioned fantastic instrumental, Metallica channels their 1986, 1988 and (to a lesser extent) 1991 selves as they go out on a fast one. ‘My Apocalypse’ is a thrashfest of the kind they could write in their sleep, though it is imbued with such exciting freneticism that I don’t see anyone sleeping while it’s playing.
In all, then, this is a success. Clearly better than the last album, it also easily surpasses the stodge and b-sides that was ReLoad. While more consistent, aggressive and focused than Load, Death Magnetic shows signs of compromise, is still overlong and lacks a standout like ‘The Outlaw Torn’. It’s not a patch on albums 2-5, but then it doesn’t have to be. In 2008, a Metallica album has to sound good in a beered-up arena and effectively soundtrack an American military invasion. It fulfils those criteria with flying colours.
* Perhaps this is why the lyrics booklet provided with the CD has coffin-shaped holes cut out of every page. The strange death of James Hetfield’s lyric writing ability.
** Evil though I’m sure he is, Bob Rock infamously told Kirk not to just rip through scales for once, and to write an actually great solo. So he did.