So here we are again, more than five years after a whole slew of you ripped me a new one for my enthusiastic review of the last and most controversial METALLICA album ever, 2003's "St. Anger". Unlike many critics — especially in the UK press — who came out equally unabashed in their praise only to later recant their words in the wake of a fierce fan uprising against the album, I stand by my statements at the time: I think "St. Anger" was a great album. If I am to add one caveat to that, one slight revision, I would say now that it was and is a great album — for what it was.
And what was it? It was certainly not your typical METALLICA album. It was, simply, a scream of primal, inarticulate, incoherent rage, the sound of a band tearing itself down and trying to build itself back up again after denying for far too long the many internal issues that brought it to a loss of self-identity and the brink of self-destruction. It was the sound of a group of aging multi-millionaires discarding their entire history up to that point, and figuratively placing themselves back in a shitty, smelly garage, one light bulb burning above them, making an unholy, nearly unlistenable racket just for the sheer thrill of doing so, and fuck what everybody else thought.
It was, in other words, the perfect soundtrack to the now-infamous "Some Kind of Monster" documentary, which laid bare all the vulnerabilities and all-too-human frailties underneath the steely power of the mighty clenched fist we all loved as METALLICA. No one likes to see their superheroes brought to their knees, but here they were, the band squabbling like spoiled children and eventually finding their way back to each other, and letting out all that frustration and angst and fear in one long, reckless musical howl.
"St. Anger", however, was not the album that most, if not all, METALLICA fans wanted to hear after the increasingly bland and slick hard rock of the "Load/Reload" axis. They — and I include myself in this — wanted to hear the majestic roar perfected on legendary records like "Ride The Lightning" and "Master of Puppets" — the deadly combination of brutality, power and melody that made METALLICA perhaps the single most important and influential metal band of all time after BLACK SABBATH.
Well, I've got news for you: "Death Magnetic" isn't that album either. Not exactly. The truth is, METALLICA is never going to make "Master of Puppets" again. They were different people, different players, and different songwriters back in 1986. But this new 10-track effort is, in many ways but not all, the natural successor to the band's classic first four records. The playing is precision-sharp, many of the riffs are lethal, and much of the material echoes — without flat-out duplicating — the vibe of the "Master" and "Justice" days. The production is…well, we'll get to that a bit later.
"Death Magnetic" opens with "That Was Just Your Life", all fits and starts, quick turnarounds and rapid accelerations, close in structure and form to "Blackened". "The End of the Line" has jabbing single-word vocal hooks and a relentless mid-paced tempo that recalls the title track of "Master of Puppets", while "Broken, Beaten and Scarred" slows things down just a bit and has subtle guitar harmonies that add power and even poignancy to the sing-song chorus.
It's a solid triple-blow musically, but it also quickly points up the one immediate fly in the metallic ointment: the production. Now don't get all nervous: this is not "St. Anger II" by any stretch. The drums sound like drums, not trash cans, for one thing. But there's still a raw, unrefined element in the sound here that, instead of pumping up the band's power, ironically dilutes it of some of its strength. Quite often the songs build to crescendos that push the needles into the red, leading them nearly into the swamp of distortion and mud that appalled many on "St. Anger". But I said nearly — they don't quite get there. Nonetheless, instead of a gigantic, crushing yet precisely honed wall of power, many sections of "Death Magnetic" sound like high-quality demos. James Hetfield's vocals are dry and often low in the mix, and the guitars, while loud, lose a lot of subtleties as the faders are pushed to the breaking point.
The album will have Rick Rubin's name on it as producer, but I'm taking this opportunity to call bullshit on that. Rick Rubin, as great as some of his accomplishments have been (like the magnificent records he did with JOHNNY CASH), does not "produce" bands. By many accounts, he encourages them to find something within themselves, and does a good job at that, but then he leaves, entrusting the day-to-day work to loyal engineers on his payroll — in this case, Greg Fidelman.
You can call it a scam — and a guy who runs a record label yet doesn't even have an office there sounds like a scam to me — or you can call it some kind of higher spiritual level of working with an artist. The proof is the final results, and the results here suggest that Rubin pushed the band toward something without fully understanding what it was they wanted. And then he left.
One wonders what a producer like Colin Richardson or Andy Sneap might have made of "Death Magnetic", but we have to play the hand we've been dealt. It's a credit to the band that, despite making a "classic METALLICA" record without the "classic METALLICA" production, much of the material here still shines through. I wasn't a fan of "The Day That Never Comes" when I first heard it, but the song has grown on me considerably, the haunting harmonies on the chorus sticking in my head and the build to the fiery end finding their place alongside other epic ballads like "Fade to Black" and "One". "All Nightmare Long" is more speed riffing and sudden curves, the song starting with an eerie jungle march before whipsawing along in a midpaced rumble that revives Hetfield's fascination with dreams but in a considerably more aggressive way than "Enter Sandman".
"Cyanide" is okay, crunchy and ominous but never rising to true greatness, but I could do without "The Unforgiven III", which frankly flails pointlessly for eight minutes and does nothing to blot out the memory of the woeful "Unforgiven II". It soon gives away to my favorite cut on the record, "The Judas Kiss", which unleashes its syncopated verses to create a niche all their own while the chorus gets hammered home with its orders to "Bow down!" There's a catch-and-release groove to the tune that's extremely effective, and the interplay between Hetfield and Kirk Hammett is particularly powerful. This leads to the lengthy "Suicide and Redemption", METALLICA's first all-instrumental composition since "To Live Is To Die" way back in 1988, and it's gratifying to see the band back in this mode, with the song unleashing one inventive riff after another and Hammett especially fiery on his leads. In fact, after the solo-less "St. Anger", the often-underappreciated Hammett is a welcome and incendiary presence on this album.
Again tapping into the format of the classics, "Death Magnetic" closes out with "My Apocalypse", all-out thrash metal and, at five minutes, the most compact number on the disc. "Fear thy name, extermination!" bellows Hetfield, and I'll be damned if he doesn't sound like Tom Araya of SLAYER on that line.
James sings with more of his controlled ferocity on the record, losing much of the hysterical edge that crept into his "St. Anger" vocals, and even though many of the songs confront the specter of death head-on, he sounds like he's having fun again, giving the Grim Reaper the finger while acknowledging his inescapable presence. He could have benefited by having his voice a little less dry, though.
That and the drums aside, the real victim of the production is bassist Robert Trujillo. Making his recording debut with the band, this rock-solid musician is pretty much invisible here — the one unfortunate resemblance to the equally bassless "…And Justice For All". Perhaps we'll hear more of his work on these songs in concert.
I've seen a few commenters online wondering whether METALLICA will be able to pull off these complex songs live, and based on the recent performances I've seen, I don't think they'll have a problem.
It's no accident that almost all the material from the last three studio albums has been jettisoned from the live set — the older songs revived in recent years make the perfect setting in which to introduce "Death Magnetic" in concert. As for the album itself, the haters will undoubtedly hate it, a number of fans will love it unreservedly, and the rest of us — those of us who have been with METALLICA since 1983 — will continue to wrestle with our own expectations and whether they've been met or let down again. Every METALLICA album I've liked, including "St. Anger", worked because it succeeded at what it was intended to be. "Death Magnetic" doesn't completely succeed, but it tries. It tries damn hard. After 25 years, that's saying something.