At one point during Sam Dunn’s excellent documentary Global Metal, we hear from a Middle Eastern fan who says that his country’s entire metal scene owes everything to being able to illegally download music on the internet. Immediately, the film cuts to Lars Ulrich. The timing is impeccable; he doesn’t even have to say a word before the laughter in the theater erupts. No matter that the Metallica drummer/mouthpiece has since distanced himself from the Napster debacle of eight or nine years ago. The damage has long been done. If you’re looking for a perfect encapsulation of Metallica’s annus horribilis that has now dragged on for so long you might want to call it a decadis horribilis, that’s it.
From the downloading controversy, to abrupt departure of bassist Jason Newsted, to the torturous sessions for the calamitous St. Anger album that nearly imploded the band (unflinchingly documented on Some Kind of Monster), to vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield going into rehab, to a seemingly endless streak of poorly-timed public relations moves, everything has snowballed to the point now that Metallica’s situation has become tragically comical. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, everything they’ve done in the last year leading up to the release of their ninth album has been met with extremely harsh criticism from the mainstream media, the metal media, the indie rock media even piling on, fans, former fans, obnoxious bloggers, message boarders, and Blabbermouth commentators. Metallica decides to preview a work in progress at a summer festival show, they’re pilloried. They treat fans to a series of studio webisodes, something every single metal band does these days, they get slammed. They preview the new artwork and title, the “Metallica continue to dig their own grave” jokes fly. They benevolently offer advance peeks of the new material, magazines and blogs are quick to savagely write them off. Having gone from a metal innovator to a pariah in the eyes of many, where does Metallica go from here?
If one thing sunk Metallica more than anything, it was the amount of creative license they had. Each time Metallica put out a new record from 1983 to 1991, the entire genre of heavy metal was irrevocably changed, and every album since, despite a rapid decline in quality, has nevertheless continued to throw the music world for a loop. With album sales in the millions, and extensive tours raking in the cash, the band had rightfully earned a level of artistic freedom afforded only to the very elite of popular music, and for more than a decade, they ran like hell with it, assembling one of the most exhaustive live collections ever released (1993’s Live Shit: Binge & Purge), exploring new sounds on Load and Reload, putting out a just-for-the-hell-of-it collection of covers, performing with an orchestra… all because they could. By the new decade, however, the arrogance that so much creative control had spawned, combined with internal strife that had been simmering for years, resulted in the now infamous St. Anger, the sound of a band in the middle of a dense forest screaming that it can’t see any damn trees. Four years later, producer Rick Rubin knew exactly what had to be done. The days of progression were over. Regression was the key.
There comes a time when a popular, long-lasting band has to accept that they’re no longer innovators, to simply learn to have fun by sticking to their strengths and put out good, solid albums that please the fans. The Rolling Stones know that, metal gods Iron Maiden, Motörhead, and Judas Priest know that, and in recent years, both U2 and R.E.M. have learned it as well. Rubin’s tactic was straightforward: to get Metallica sounding like Metallica once again by going back to the salad days of the 1980s, and as we hear on the confident and rejuvenated Death Magnetic, it’s exactly the kind of therapy the band needed all along.
It comes as quite a surprise to hear this band sound as focused as they do, as if all the cobwebs have been shaken out of their heads. By embracing those old sounds and avoiding the trap of sounding like Metallica Trying New Things, it feels like that hunger of old has returned. Three quarters of Death Magnetic scorches, the first six tracks sounding downright inspired. Opening with a flamboyant overture, those half dozen songs revert to a sequencing formula that dominated the classic run of Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and ... And Justice For All, something the longtime fans will pick up on immediately. “That Was Just Your Life” is a back-to-basics thrasher in the vein of “Battery” and “Blackened”, complete with palm-muted rhythm riffs and flamboyant Kirk Hammett solos. The vicious, epic “The End of the Line” launches into a nasty little groove riff that benefits greatly from Rubin having the band use normal guitar tuning instead of their recent habit of tuning down, as Hetfield going back to the vocal cadences of “Creeping Death” (“Need! ... Bleed! ... Fame! ... Stain!”).
The lurching, yet very catchy “Broken, Beat & Scarred” is reminiscent of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “The Thing That Should Not Be”, and “Eye of the Beholder”. “The Day That Never Comes” draws heavily from old fourth tracks like “Fade to Black” and “One”, perhaps dangerously so (the descending triplets at the 5:30 mark are a dead giveaway). In the vein of speed-riddled headbangers like “Trapped Under Ice"and “Disposable Heroes”, “All Nightmare Long” just might be the album’s high point, sounding vicious and ebullient at the same time, going from dark, crunchy verse riffs to a disarmingly contagious chorus. It would be easy to criticize these tracks solely because of how they’re sequenced to reflect that formula of past classic albums, but in the end, the songs win out. They’re formulaic, but that’s exactly Rubin’s point. It’s a great formula.
Metallica’s worst habit over the last four albums has been their obsession with filling out each album to the absolute limit. Rarely do 75-minute albums work, and indeed, after the bruising, immensely enjoyable “Cyanide”, Death Magnetic starts to bog down. “The Unforgiven III” has Hetfield self-indulgently going into Desperado mode once again, and while its brooding main riff and final crescendo are well-executed, the song clashes too much with the old-school urgency of the bulk of the album. “Judas Kiss”, although not a failure by any stretch, starts to feel repetitive, while the loose, mid-tempo jam of instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” doesn’t exactly grip listeners the way “Orion” or “The Call of Ktulu” did in the past.
“My Apocalypse” wraps up the album in exceptional fashion, though, a straight-up thrash tune akin to great last tracks like “Damage Inc.” and “Dyer’s Eve”, with a second half that has the band tightening up to the point where the song rivals anything off Justice. And like that 1988 album, the production on Death Magnetic is decidedly dry, rhythm guitars mixed above Robert Trujillo’s bass, though not as severely as on Justice. Ulrich’s drumming has been very inconsistent in recent years, and the fact that his drums are mixed unusually high will raise more than a few eyebrows. Recorded naturally, with no click tracks or triggered samples, it’s bit of a gamble on the part of Rubin to go for “feel” instead of proficiency, especially considering the album’s emphasis on intricate rhythm riffs, but in the end the gambit works, as there’s a fluidity to Ulrich’s drumming that hasn’t been present since 1991’s Black Album. The real star on the new record, though, is Hammett, who clearly sounds thrilled to be allowed to perform solos on record for the first time in a decade, and while he often lets loose with the same old noodling we heard 20 years ago, we do hear more of a mature, blues influence in his solos that we haven’t really heard in the past.
In a way, Death Magnetic is most similar to Megadeth’s 2004 comeback The System Has Failed. Megadeth was in a shambles at the time, just singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine and a handful of session musicians, but by going back to the basics, he was able to rediscover his classic sound, and it eventually led to a very impressive career rebirth. Now Mustaine’s former bandmates and rivals ironically find themselves in the same boat, and have come through with an album exuding passion, hooks, precision, and mercifully, some dignity. All the skeptics, the bloggers and boarders, the critics and scenesters, won’t cease the catcalls any time soon, and the members of Metallica know they brought all that upon themselves, but by choosing to make a simple statement instead of a grandiose one, it appears they’re on their way towards perhaps restoring some of that long-lost credibility.