By Aamer Qureshi
Anyone will tell you that Metallica’s grand trilogy of thrash-metal albums in the 80’s were their best ever. These were 1984’s Ride The Lightning, 1986’s Master of Puppets and 1988’s …And Justice For All. Everything starting with their 1991 self-titled album, and most successful release, is a subject of much debate. As far as their image goes, taking on Napster in the early 2000’s made them one of the most hated bands around. Their previous album was lambasted by nearly everyone who heard for, simply put, crappy production and songs which milked a riff for eight odd minutes. Most aggravating of all, the lead guitarist was chained up and there wasn’t a single guitar solo on the album.
Five years after St. Anger, Metallica is a band invigorated from mended personal ties and years of touring. Anyone who’s been keeping up with their set lists in recent years will see an almost complete eviction of new material and a return to playing their classics – complex material with time changes and played in their entirety. It was in this spirit, of embracing what made Metallica so incredible in their angered youth, that producer Rick Rubin advised them to try to create a sequel to Master of Puppets.
Of course, Metallica were different people back then. Dubbed “Alcoholica” by the mainstream media for their hard partying lifestyle, they released a set of albums so brilliant and soul-crushingly angry, that it’s hard not to yearn for the old days to return. Sadly, any realist will tell you that this just cannot happen. With an average age of 45, Metallica are now family men and have spent over ten years recreating their sound and becoming more of a hard rock group. So for them to try to return to their roots on Death Magnetic is a staggering proposal, but not surprising from a producer known to push bands into doing what they do best.
The songs on Death Magnetic, for those wondering, are really complicated. The jarringly superb guitar riffs, courtesy of mastermind James Hetfield, invigorate the songs with the punch that Metallica were known for. The album opener, “That Was Just Your Life,” begins with a heartbeat ala Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and moves into a harmonized clean guitar intro. This was a point of excitement for me, as it indicated a return to Metallica’s seminal album format. The first song from the classic trilogy begins with clean and harmonized guitars. And, in staying true to their legacy, the song launches into ferociousness and then into solo. It’s hard to think of a better way to begin the album.
The next two songs continue Metallica’s sonic assault on the senses with powerful and merciless riffing. It is at this point that I must curse every human being’s biological clock. Although they retain the stamina to play extremely fast and intricate riffs, Hetfield’s much-celebrated old growling and roaring vocals have gone away – never to return. It is in realizing this and moving on that one can truly appreciate the effort he puts in and makes do with what he has. This is shown clearly on the fourth song and first single “The Day That Never Comes.” True to their format, it’s a ballad placed fourth in the track listing and echoes their classics “One” and “Fade To Black,” maybe even a bit too much. But stands up as a damn good song regardless.
When addressing lyrics, Hetfield’s abstract and disjointed take on this album is at times quite hilarious. A line repeated in “Broken, Beat and Scarred” a lot is, “What don’t kill ya make ya more strong” – sure to become an in-joke with any Metallica fan. However, as odd as the lyrics may sound, the music makes up for them. The eastern-tinged and mid-tempo “Cyanide” follows the rage-filled “All Nightmare Long,” which is silly only in title.
“The Unforgiven III,” a sequel to two of Metallica’s most celebrated ballads from the 90’s, was a complete surprise. While the first two shared some music and lyrics to create a story, this one did away with it all. At first I was disappointed, not understanding how it worked in the grand scheme of a possible song trilogy. After some listens though, you can appreciate how it stands on its own as a really good ballad – the final one on Death Magnetic.
Nothing could have prepared me for the next song, titled “The Judas Kiss.” A sing-song chorus, bended main riff and an incredibly sinister solo make this one of the high points of the album for sure. It’s a song that will definitely be a live favorite and, to put it simply, gets in your head and stays there.
Now, the highly awaited second to last song is the instrumental, titled “Suicide and Redemption.” This song truly marks a return of Metallica to their music-intensive old days. The listener is attacked with riff after riff, which segues into a slower and softer middle section. Each melody on this song sounds highly emotional in nature and seems to signify a feeling of mood changes. It goes from angry, to sad, to triumphant, to eerie and ultimately returns back to the original riff. Fans who missed the lack of a customary instrumental since 1991’s self-titled album will rejoice.
The last song, titled “My Apocalypse,” is such a classically Metallica way to end an album that it makes you smile. While most bands would have their saddest and most melodious song as the album closer – Metallica pile it on with a seedy and heavy thrasher. The shortest song on the album (clocking in at 5:01) recalls everything from their early days to Slayer, as Hetfield sounds a lot like Araya in his vocals.
A real return to form and an immensely enjoyable listen, Death Magnetic successfully captures what Metallica and Rubin wanted for the release. However, it has some major flaws. The production on the album is brick walled to the point where it clips. As an audiophile, I was lamenting the lack of dynamics in the songs until I came across an ironic discovery. Before sending the album to their mixing and mastering department, who royally fucked it up – they sent the unedited master tapes to Guitar Hero headquarters. The creators of the massively popular video game created their own superior mix of the album, which is now one of the most downloaded items on the Internet. When you see me with my iPod, it’s this mix that I’m listening to with a clear conscience, as I’ve bought the album itself.
Labeled by Metallica as the album which belongs in between 1988’s Justice and their 1991 self-titled album, Death Magnetic has some of their most intricate songwriting ever. The simplicity since 1991 is gone, to be replaced by numerous time changes and breathtakingly complicated solos.
Just ask anyone who plays Guitar Hero about this last detail. Who plays an actual guitar anymore? However, the retail version has the bass turned down – so it is indeed a sequel to ‘Justice.’ This isn’t a problem if you have the Guitar Hero version but it’s quite annoying, as Rob Trujillo’s a supremely talented bassist.
So, difficult riffs, solos drenched in Hammett’s fetish (the wah-wah pedal), Lars’ simple (very simple) but visceral drumming and Hetfield’s vocals make this a true Metallica release. I give it four out of five stars.