Back in May 2022, Metallica were midway through a concert in front of 60,000 fans in Brazil when singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield astounded everyone with a rare admission of vulnerability. “I’ve gotta tell you, I wasn’t feeling very good before I came out here,” he admitted, fighting back tears. “[I was] feeling a little bit insecure, like I’m an old guy, [I] can’t play anymore — all this bullshit that I tell myself in my head…And seeing you out there, I… I am not alone. I am not alone, and neither are you.”
There was heavy metal’s definitive alpha male, the stoic co-leader of the genre’s biggest band who had projected toughness for the past 41 years, openly admitting that he was going through a rough time. Most folks who struggle with anxiety and depression can take a mental health day when things start to spiral downward too much, but in the music industry, where thousands are counting on you, the show must go on. For Hetfield, the constant inner conflict while onstage was too much to bear, but instead of retreating inward and self-medicating like he used to, he openly confronted and acknowledged his issues in front of everyone. Heavy metal is only seven years younger than Hetfield, and it’s only now beginning to learn there are consequences for perpetually projecting power to millions and not taking proper care of yourself. It was a watershed moment in the history of a young genre that’s only now coming to grips with mortality.
Hetfield, the chief lyricist in Metallica, has been in rehab multiple times to deal with his inner demons – most recently in 2019 – and when the group decided to explore the idea of possibly making new music in 2020, he came forward with the concept of “72 seasons”. “72 Seasons came out of a book I was reading about childhood, basically, and sorting out childhood as an adult. And 72 seasons is basically the first 18 years of your life. How do you evolve and grow and mature and develop your own ideas and identity of self after those first 72 seasons?”
The result is a fascinating, lyrically deep, and musically restrained album, with Metallica sounding the most comfortable on record they’ve ever been. Considering how much of their highly influential body of work has been made amidst tension and duress, that’s an accomplishment in itself. Hetfield’s muscular rhythm riffs dominate as they always do. Kirk Hammett’s lead solos are nimble, inventive, and fun. Bassist Rob Trujillo doesn’t waste his chance to make valuable contributions to the songwriting. Lars Ulrich’s drumming, long a source of debate, is minimalist yet at the same time tremendously dynamic, alternating between d-beat punk tempos, Ian Paice-style swinging, and Phil Rudd-inspired four-on-the-floor grooves. Greg Fidelman’s production is typically crisp, capturing the off-the-floor chemistry of the band well.
However, for a record with a running time of 77 minutes, that comfort comes perilously close to sounding monotonous. Because the bulk of 72 Seasons is firmly locked in the same tempo and often the same key, the lack of tonal and structural variety makes the first few listens arduous. It’s a far cry from 2016’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct, whose similar running time benefitted greatly from riskier, more dynamic arrangements. 72 Seasons requires a lot more work and patience for listeners to unpack, and while it’s not the resounding success that Hardwired was, it’s still a very rewarding album.
Four specific tracks make an immediate positive impression. The towering title song, which opens 72 Seasons, flirts with greatness, returning in full to Metallica’s vintage thrash metal sound. In the wake of their 1990s hard rock experimentation and St. Anger‘s chaotic dalliance with catharsis, Metallica have been slowly trying to recapture the magic of their 1980s output, and “72 Seasons” nails it. Hetfield’s trademark right-hand picking is explosive, and Hammett is clearly having a blast providing additional melody amidst his shredding. Trujillo’s rapidly plucked bass goes into overdrive, and Ulrich gleefully steers the song, upshifting and downshifting with the enthusiasm of a teenage drummer. It reminds this writer of when former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine got his thrash mojo back on Megadeth‘s 2004 album The System Has Failed after too many years of milquetoast releases. The biggest metal band in the world can still sound like the greatest metal band when they want to.
The three-and-a-half-minute “Lux Æterna” is a burst of classic metal fun in the same vein as the early classic “Motorbreath”. A simple ode to the joy of playing metal and listening to metal, Hetfield doesn’t hide the song’s influence, cleverly nicking the central riff from Diamond Head’s “It’s Electric” and name-checking the New Wave of British Heavy Metal band’s landmark 1980 debut album in the lyrics. Hammett unleashes a wild, atonal solo as though he’s still the lead guitarist in Exodus. Ulrich, meanwhile, works his double-kicks into a frenzy, even offering a nod to Motorhead‘s “Overkill” with a well-timed false ending before leading the band into a few extra bars.
Along with being one of 72 Seasons’ catchiest tracks, “Room of Mirrors” is the most structurally dynamic song. Once again, Ulrich is the crucial ingredient, smartly maneuvering from mid-tempo to half-speed to full-on thrash double-time. It’s a master class in heavy metal groove, accentuated wonderfully by some tasty twin guitar harmonies that bring some light into an otherwise imposing, cathartic track.
In direct contrast is the closing, 11-minute epic “Inamorata”. Fans have heard Metallica dip their toes into Black Sabbath-derived atmosphere before, but never as thoroughly as here. Hetfield’s string-bending riff during the chorus deftly captures that Iommi-esque mood and even adds a little Lynyrd Skynyrd-style flourish that segues smoothly into Hammett’s blues-inspired solo. Best of all is the mid-song breakdown where Trujillo plays a solo reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s “Hand of Doom” as Ulrich plays 16th beats on his hi-hat to add tension. After a steady crescendo, the song kicks into the album’s climactic moment with layers of guitar harmonies. Triple, quadruple harmonies – Thin Lizzy‘s Black Rose is a reference point – bring stately beauty to an already desolate track. It’s been a long time since Metallica has leaned this hard into melodic territory without sounding forced, and “Inamorata” ends the album on a powerful note.
While the rest of 72 Seasons suffers from a lack of stylistic variety, that’s not to say there are poor tracks, making for a befuddling first listen. On the one hand, no egregious mistakes are made, as Metallica are happy to play it relatively safe. But like most of their 50-something male fans, it’s long-winded and a little soft in the middle. Besides, it isn’t easy to single out any tracks that would best be left off. “Shadows Follow” and “Sleepwalk My Life Away” are two mid-tempo groovers that hold their own, while “You Must Burn!” returns to the monolithic stomp of “Sad But True” and “Harvester of Sorrow”. “Crown of Barbed Wire” echoes the brooding tone of 1996’s Load, “Chasing Light” boasts Hetfield’s most spirited riffing, while “Too Far Gone?” cleverly references the riff from Blitzkrieg’s “Blitzkrieg”, which Metallica covered back in 1984.
As long as 72 Seasons is, it is somewhat redeemed by Hetfield’s openness. He lays himself bare in a way he’s never done before, a brave step for any artist who deals with mental health issues, especially in his case. “Are you good enough?” he sings in the standout “Screaming Suicide”. “You don’t recognize / Head is full of lies / You should just give up.” On “Too Far Gone”, he expresses desperation: “I am isolation / Static and disarray / Need this, gotta have more / Crawlin’ out my skin / Sickness, scarring returns / Burning me again.” Meanwhile, “Room of Mirrors” has him confronting that inner pain: “In a mirrored room, just a simple man / Naked, broken, beat, and scarred / What do I really know? / That fear of letting go.”
“Misery, she fills me…but she’s not what I’m livin’ for,” Hetfield sings in “Inamorata”. That’s the critical moment on 72 Seasons. The trope of the tortured artist, how it romanticizes mental illness as a necessary ingredient for creativity, is bunk. Yours truly once heard a president of a hugely successful multinational company say, “Happiness leads to complacency, and complacency is a success killer.” James Hetfield and Metallica sound healthy and empowered on 72 Seasons, and they’re clearly having fun. Metallica have earned the right to go at their own speed. If an album is a half-hour too long, it’s a small price to pay, especially when a guy like James Hetfield has taken a massive step in his healing journey and when the rest of the band, to a man, backs him up with an impassioned effort. The onstage group hug Hetfield’s bandmates gave him onstage that night in Brazil speaks volumes. We all deserve to be happy, including our heavy metal heroes.