As one music’s biggest names, METALLICA‘s ascension to international superstardom and subsequent alienation from the underground scene where they began has been well documented. Following what many considered to be the beginning of the end with the Black Album, the band released a series of sloppy, weak, uninspired tripe for nearly two decades. St. Anger, the band’s previous album was supposed to be a return to form but instead signaled yet another disappointment. Shoddy production, lackluster performances, no solos, all filler, no killer. Death Magnetic, however, finally sees some semblance of life from these titans, so it’s actually nice to hear METALLICA play well, metal again!
“That Was Just Your Life” opens the album with some ominous tones, before power chords and some punchy drum sounds signal the band’s return. Driving, crunchy rhythms are the order of the day, and listeners can practically hear Kirk Hammett smile as he rips a quick solo as the band revisits their NWOBHM roots with some guitar harmonies. Even Lars Ulrich throws in his two cents with a quick double bass flurry. Keeping the momentum flowing, “The End of the Line” follows up with more solid rock riffing although the band stumbles a bit between the pre-chorus and chorus with some awkward transitions. However, a long riff driven instrumental section follows bringing forth a variety of changes. Lead off single “The Day that Never Comes” is essentially a remake of the classic “Fade to Black” with its quiet beginnings and driving mid-section. It’s odd to hear the band repeat themselves and offer a dumbed down variation on a classic. “All Nightmare Long” makes several false starts before finally kicking in hard and heavy. Lyrically, the song sees the band attempt to bring back an edge to their sound, but it comes across as forced rather than menacing. Yet despite the absurd lyrics to the song’s chorus, the hooks remain intact and stick in the listener’s head well after the song is done. “Cyanide” on the other hand, is an uneven mess. While the verses to the song are quite strong with solid rhythms, Lars Ulrich‘s awkward drumming and James Hetfield‘s overbearing howl really overpower the pre chorus and its subsequent goofy chorus. But Hammett saves the day with another ripping, bluesy solo and the band flirts with ripping off IRON BUTTERFLY‘s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” creating an odd mish mash of ups and downs. Like an never ending franchise, “The Unforgiven” returns with part three, and the band benefits from some nice orchestration from David Campbell who bring’s out the band’s love of spaghetti westerns and Ennio Morricone to the forefront. METALLICA‘s performance is solid if not unspectacular, even borrowing from STONE TEMPLE PILOT‘s “Creep” in the process. The album’s next twenty minutes however go nowhere fast with plodding almost lazy approaches to playing and writing that do little except perhaps providing theme music for a pro wrestler’s entrance if nothing else. Closing out the proceedings is “My Apocalypse” (no, not an ARCH ENEMY cover) which is an uptempo rock thrash number that sees Hetfield try to rekindle the metal spirit with lyrics about deadly vision, hail of fire, annihilation and mangled flesh.
Death Magnetic is an uneven album that is at times invigorating and other times frustrating. The repetition can be at times numbing, and Ulrich‘s tinpot “snare drum for beginners” approach to playing actually borders on comical at times. New bassist Robert Trujillio is kept on a leash and in check throughout the album, with the creativity and virtuosity he displayed in SUICIDAL TENDENCIES and INFECTIOUS GROOVES being kept under suppression. The unexpected hero in all of this? Kirk Hammett. While he essentially reworks his bluesy at times wah-happy stylings, it’s great to finally hear him work unrestrained as he breathes new life and energy in to the songs. Hetfield‘s distinctive vocals exude confidence throughout Death despite a few ill-timed missteps. It’s sort of strange to hear one of the creators and leaders of metal struggle to find their bearings throughout the album, but oftentimes they do, with their marriage of CORROSION OF CONFORMITY meets DANZIG rock finding some odd middle ground with barn burning, at times progressive thrash they unleashed so skillfully back in the 80’s. A long way from classic, Death Magnetic is still a masterpiece compared to everything since the Black Album, and is a step in the right direction. It’s great to hear some of that old fire return to the band and hopefully they can keep it burning brighter when it’s time for album ten. (Warner Bros. Records)