[First things first- don't be put off by the fact I gave this album "only" 4 stars. Unfortunately, there's no option for 4 and 1/2 stars, and it wasn't easy to decide between 4 and 5 stars. Read on, and you'll see why this generally pretty damn good album ended up not making the 5 star cut.]
There’s no doubt that Metallica is one of the most influential metal bands out there, along with Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and a handful of others. Starting with the raw, street-level thrash/speed metal of “Kill ‘Em All”, Metallica raised the stakes with the more epic and polished “Ride the Lightning”, and created a bona fide masterpiece with “Master of Puppets”, which managed to be incredibly brutal yet melodic. 1988’s “…..And Justice For All” saw the band attempt to merge the ambitions of progressive rock with a sort of ultra-technical brand of thrash, and surprisingly enough, yielded their first hit single. When they released their self-titled 1991 album, Metallica made a conscious break from the frantic and dense structures of their prior efforts in favor of a much more radio-friendly, arena-metal sound. While it made the band incredibly successful and popular, it also was the first sign of trouble for many fans. While “Metallica” (aka the Black Album)could boast great production and tight (if somewhat mainstream) songwriting, 1996’s “Load” was, for many, a kick in the gut. While the album was promoted as containing as much music as a CD could hold, too much of it was filler, and the music itself was often incredibly unambitious. Songs that started as promising would end up flogging the same 2 riffs to death for far too long, while other songs were filler tracks that were dead on arrival. The new “bluesy hard rock” twist on Metallica’s approach to metal was applied in a rather sloppy and undeveloped fashion, something that continued in “Reload”, 1997’s companion piece to “Load”. While both albums did have some decent singles fodder and some “experimental” songs that were not half-bad (yes, I did actually like “Mama Said”), the overall results weren’t good. Metallica continued to buy time with their “Garage, Inc.” covers compilation, and the live orchestral “S&M” CD, until 2003, when “St. Anger” was released amidst promises of a “return to form”. The energy was there, but everything else went painfully and horribly wrong, and the CD has been gathering dust in my collection since the first couple of listens. Suffice it to say that after St. Anger, I would no longer buy a Metallica CD on pure faith.
Lars and those other guys must have been reading my mind, because they actually put up the full songs in streaming format on their website right before the launch of “Death Magnetic”, allowing me to judge for myself. And you know what? I bought it as soon as I could, because “Death Magnetic” is their best album in years, finally following up on the tease of a return to form I heard in their 1998 “Mercyful Fate” medley (on “Garage Inc.”). While the end result shows that Metallica wasn’t lying this time about the quality of their new release, it does show them to be liars in a different way. Namely, Metallica tried to justify their mid-90’s direction by claiming they were “playing more naturally”, thus requiring them to be much more simplistic and sloppy.
The thing is that “Death Magnetic” shows that they could’ve been more organic than “…Justice”, yet still interesting and ambitious. On songs like “End of the Line”, “Load”-era groove and swagger will inundate one riff, only to have the band suddenly kick into a “Master of Puppets”-inspired tight and heavy barking gallop. Indeed, vocals that are reminiscent of 1990s Metallica (and occasionally “St. Anger”), but more energetic, can be found layered on top of song structures that recall past songs such as “No Remorse” and “One”. Guitar harmonies simply abound throughout this album, sometimes even evoking Iron Maiden. “Cyanide” rides on a groovy flow that would be at home on “Load”, with a “Black”-album catchy melody, but seemlessly incorporates a much more complex song-structure midway through. And while other reviews indicated that “Suicide and Redemption”, Metallica’s first new instrumental since 1988, was disappointing and repetitive, I’m not sure which song they were listening to, as it has plenty of variety, and hits hard. The whole CD exudes a shockingly effortless and unlabored feel in general, given how hard Metallica tried to disassociate themselves from metal in general.
That being said, “Death Magnetic” occasionally stumbles, making what could’ve been a masterpiece merely a very good album. The production is too dry for my tastes, and there are times when James Hetfield’s voice is strained beyond capacity (such as the mid-point of “The Day That Never Comes”). While “The Unforgiven 3″ is a good enough song (with a nice piano intro), a questionable “emotive” lyrical decision midway through the song reeks of cheesiness. In addition, while the constantly shifting and syncopated riffs and beats keep things from becoming too repetitive, there are times when putting in a total shift in key for a few moments could’ve taken the music to a higher level. The truth is that other bands, such as Rage and Blind Guardian, have been filling in admirably in Metallica’s “absence”, and have raised the bar (even if Metallica innovated first). As a result, Metallica is at a bit of a disadvantage, despite the obvious effort they put forth. But that’s like complaining that the pretty Asian girl next door isn’t Helen of Troy. While “Death Magnetic” can’t rise to the level of “Master of Puppets” (few bands ever can top their truly definitive album), it may well knock “…And Justice For All” or “The Black Album” out of their current spots, being less stiff and stilted than “Justice”, and more complex and aggressive than “Black”.
In the end, I can’t help but recommend this album. For the first time in a long while, my first listen to a new Metallica album was actually a fairly pure joy, where I didn’t feel I had to self-justify enjoying any of it, or where I didn’t cringe that often. Get the album, crank “My Apocalypse”, and you may actually find your head bobbing. Sometimes people do deserve a second chance, and Metallica has re-earned my faith, at least for the time being. Go buy yourself a Jaegerbomb, Lars…..you’ve earned it.