Death Magnetic

Metallica

Warner Brothers, 2008

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/12/2008

Let’s get two things very clear at the outset of this review. First: “classic” Metallica is dead. They have been since the loss of Cliff Burton in 1986. His guiding hand in the music (as well as his mastery of the bass guitar) has been sorely missed in the band, and with due respect to anyone who fills this position in Metallica, they will always have to face Burton’s ghost in comparisons.

Second: “popular” Metallica is dead as well. That went the way of the passenger pigeon after the endless tour for the self-titled album. Load? Reload? S&M? St. Anger? Those albums, while enjoying some level of popularity (as well as quite a bit of fan backlash), featured a band resting on its laurels amid in-fighting, addiction, and recovery.

Yes, by all rights, Metallica should be dead. That’s why, for their ninth studio release Death Magnetic, one can honestly say: long live Metallica.

The first release featuring bassist Robert Trujillo (St. Anger had producer Bob Rock handling bass chores following Jason Newstead’s departure), the lessons learned in the ultimate failure of St. Anger seem to have not only been learned, but internalized. That said, one can draw parallels on this album to St. Anger in terms of some styles of songwriting and James Hetfield’s singing, but there’s just as much tying this disc back to …And Justice For All in terms of the songwriting and the speed.

Now, I normally hate reviews that give the reader a track-by-track breakdown, but Death Magnetic, as well as all the drama that has surrounded Metallica over the years, almost begs that each track be taken on its own.

First out of the gate is “That Was Just Your Life,” a track that makes the older Metallica fans think that the glory days have definitely returned, with an intro that harkens back to “Battery” and “Blackened” as it builds from a sonic wall of guitar and feedback into the whole-band explosion. The whole group -- Lars Ulrich, in particular -- quickly prove that they might be in their mid-40s age-wise, but they can still do speed metal with the best of the bands. Hetfield’s vocal delivery still sounds like the stream of consciousness that was St. Anger, but at least the message here is much more focused.

A welcome change of pace is the return of the guitar solo; Kirk Hammett doesn’t get a whole lot of time in the spotlight -- surprising, since most of the songs on this disc clock in at over six minutes -- but he uses his time to prove that he still is one of the best guitarists on the planet. Based on this one song, even the most fervent doubters, myself included in that bunch, would say that Death Magnetic succeeds in putting Metallica back at or near the top of the metal world.

The other half of the opening one-two punch, “The End Of The Line,” follows in a similar vein (and sounds a little similar to “Harvester Of Sorrow” in its opening riffs), keeping the listener engrossed to the point that, were you not watching the timer on the CD player, you’d never know that you just spent eight minutes listening to this song. That takes skill, kids -- something which, quite honestly, Metallica had not been showcasing over the last decade. The guitar riff around the four-minute mark is so incredibly complex and heavy at the same time that it could, quite possibly, be one of the most memorable sounds Metallica have put onto disc. I do, however, take issue with Hammett’s reliance on effects during the solo; diehard fans have waited so long for Hammett’s guitar solos to be returned to prominence, so why hide them with what sounds like a wah-wah gone mad?

The disc dares to dip into St. Anger-style music with “Broken, Beat & Scarred” -- and this marks the first misstep on Death Magnetic. The guitar work is stellar, but when things open sounding like the sequel to “Dirty Window,” that’s not necessarily a great sign. Make no mistake, Hetfield’s vocals are still much more focused than anything he’s performed on any album since, well, The Black Album, but this track just fails to light up the room or my ears, despite the presence of a really good Hammett solo.

That said, I really can’t fault Metallica on this one. Remember, the Metallica of past was declared dead twice at the start of this review. A weaker track this may be, but it still kicks the ass of anything on St. Anger, with energy left over.

“The Day That Never Comes,” the first single off Death Magnetic, feels like Metallica’s modern-day nod to “Fade To Black” off bim_ad_daily_vault_print_250
Ride The Lightning -- and, if one does follow the band’s history, one can appreciate the way this song develops from a simple, plodding beat to its growth into faster, more complicated rhythms. Now, I admit that the first time I heard this song (courtesy of bravewords.com), I hated it. But it does grow on you if you give it a chance, and if you remember your history of Metallica. Had this been on Master Of Puppets back in the day, no one would have given it a second thought since “Fade To Black” basically built up the same way; twenty-four years later, I found myself damning the same kind of progression. Oops.

And, truth be told, it’s not a bad track, my first impressions aside. I’d dare to say that it could have easily fit on Metallica and been a perfect fit.

“All Nightmare Long” starts out sounding like it’s going to be similar to “Wherever I May Roam” -- then, hello! -- it kicks into one of the thrashiest rhythms Metallica has recorded in a very long time. Frankly, it’s a welcome change of pace and even dares to challenge the listener with its complex time signatures. Unlike the challenge of merely getting through St. Anger, this is one the listener will gladly come on board for, and they will not be disappointed. Of special note is that Hetfield’s vocals sound the best they have in a long time; that patented vocal “hiccup” as he slides down a musical scale was welcome relief to my ears and brought back memories of Metallica’s earlier days.

The other “pre-released” song, “Cyanide,” gets the second half of the disc off to a less-than-stellar start. It’s not that “Cyanide” is a bad song; it just feels like Hetfield and company are still playing up to FM radio in a bid to get airplay, and this track is their ticket. Despite another killer Hammett solo, this song just never gets off the ground for me -- but, in all fairness, I’d rather listen to this than most anything off of Reload, so progress has still been made.

Now, then -- when I first heard that Death Magnetic was going to contain “The Unforgiven III,” my first response was, “Oh, Jesus, not again.” It was bad enough, I thought, when Metallica mimicked the original by doing “The Unforgiven II” on Reload; now it seemed like they were trying to milk this cow one more time.

Seven words: I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong! From the opening piano (!!!) lines to the slow buildup into the song, Hetfield and crew leave no doubt that this is a ballad with some muscle, but they wisely stay away from copying anything from the original “The Unforgiven” and take a whole new path with this track, creating what I would dare to say is the best of all three versions. Yes, I wish they would have chosen a different name -- honestly, I went into this track expecting to absolutely hate it. But I can actually understand the links (musically and thematically) between versions one and three, and it makes perfect sense.

The muscle kicks back into overdrive on “The Judas Kiss,” the one track that will leave Metallica fans wondering if this is where Hammett was finally given the green light to let loose on the solos he’s been deprived of for so long. It must be, because not only is this Hammett’s longest solo on Death Magnetic, but he absolutely is on fire! I could actually see this track being released as a single (though I think most conglomerate-owned stations wouldn’t have the stones to dare play it -- their loss), because if any one track signals the fact that Metallica are back, “The Judas Kiss” is it.

The same can’t be said, regrettably, for “Suicide & Redemption,” Metallica’s first instrumental track since “To Live Is To Die” off …And Justice For All. It’s not that this is a terrible track -- hell, any band who can make an almost ten-minute song feel like it just started as it’s fading out had to have done something right. But where Metallica’s other instrumentals seemed to have some substance behind them, this one just doesn’t have it. Follow me here: “The Call Of Kthulu” had a menace behind it, thanks to the H.P. Lovecraft reference. “Orion” dared to make headbangers discover the groove behind the music, thanks to the drawn-out mid-section. “To Live Is To Die” felt like a musical goodbye to Burton. Then, there’s “Suicide & Redemption” which, quite honestly, has the feel of a jam session recorded for posterity.

The closing track, “My Apocalypse,” does re-capture the fury and anger that Metallica became known for on similar tracks, namely, “Damage, Inc.” off Master Of Puppets and “Dyer’s Eve” from …And Justice For All. Simply put, this track has the feel of Hetfield and company sprinting towards the finish line, determined to give their all in their performances until the final note fades from their amplifiers. Does it succeed? Most certainly, it does.

There is no doubt that opinions on Death Magnetic are still going to be wildly varied -- after all, it’s difficult to live up to expectations after a five-year wait. But Metallica wisely listened to producer Rick Rubin and finally chose to embrace their past, without necessarily trying to re-live it. Yes, there are a few minor missteps on this disc, but compared to the crater that was St. Anger, these are small flaws in an otherwise impressive sonic offering. After all the flak about Napster and Metallica suing fans who download their songs, I’d be willing to bet that anyone who obtains this disc through the familiar “alternative” means will be so impressed that they’ll gladly plunk down their money, knowing that, for the first time in many years, Metallica is giving them equal, if not greater, value for their dollars.

Over a decade ago, I wrote the following opening line for my review of Load: “The kings of speed metal have abdicated their throne.” With Death Magnetic, they may not have quite reclaimed that position, but they sure as hell have reminded people they have a legitimate claim for power.

Rating: B+

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© 2008 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers, and is used for informational purposes only.