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Metallica - Death Magnetic CD (album) cover




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3.34 | 383 ratings

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4 stars The first decade of the 21st century was a rough one for Metallica, to say the least. First came the Napster debacle, with the band becoming public enemy number one in the music industry. Then came Jason's acrimonious split from the rest of the band. Then came all the stuff that happened during the recording of St. Anger, captured in all of its gory detail in the documentary Some Kind of Monster (a fine way to spend a couple of hours, by the way). And then, of course, was the general reaction of all but a small percentage of the band's fans to St. Anger; that it was one of the worst albums ever made by a major heavy metal band. By 2004 or so, the only things keeping the band from becoming an irredeemable joke in the eyes of most of the hard rock/heavy metal world were (a) a strong back catalogue (only through 1991 at absolute latest, of course) and (b) a great live show (mainly featuring, naturally, material recorded through 1991). It pretty much seemed like the band, as well as the majority of fans, was pretty much eager to pretend that its entire history past 1991 never happened. Consequently, it became pretty clear by this point that the only way the world was going to take a new Metallica album seriously was if the band followed the longtime wishes of a large portion of its fanbase to return to its classic sound (these wishes had been made known loudly for years, of course, but the band could afford to ignore them up to this point). Thus came Death Magnetic.

I have mixed emotions about the notion of Metallica returning so closely to its former sound on this album. The band's stated goal while recording the album was, essentially, to create the missing link between Justice and Metallica, and they certainly accomplish that task well. Now, I definitely agree with the idea that Metallica needed a significant change from the sound of St. Anger, and I say that as somebody who enjoys the album far more than other people. Whereas a lot of people seemed to assume that St. Anger reflected a significant change (for the worse) in general music philosophy for the band, I always felt that St. Anger was clearly a one-off kind of affair. More than anything, it was a fascinating look into the psyche of a middle-aged band falling apart at the seams, and it worked for me despite its many weaknessess largely because there's really nothing else like it (maybe others are similar in sound, but vibe is something else) out there. Well, and because I think a lot of the riffs are interesting, but that's another issue. Attempting to repeat that kind of sound, especially with the lack of guitar solos, wouldn't have worked out well at all.

Still, I find it a little disappointing that the band reached a point where it was so terrified of trying something new and failing that it decided to cling so tightly to a formula it hadn't used in a studio album in over 20 years. Aside from the fact that the album almost completely pretends the mid-90's and beyond never happened (apart from some slightly bluesy lines here and there), there's also the matter of the incredible level of blatant self-plagiarism, both on the general level and in specific details. The album apes the structure and form of Justice so closely in places that it even manages to resurrect that album's two greatest flaws: the hysterical undermixing of the bass guitar, and the way some of the songs feel overly stretched out and like they're a bunch of riffs cut-and- pasted together (with this problem coming through strongest in, naturally, the second track). Of course, there's a lot of aping of Lightning and Puppets as well (naturally, since Justice largely aped those albums to begin with), and some strong nods to Metallica in places too. Some fans will be thrilled to hear variations of the same old familiar ideas, but this is definitely an inferior companion to all of those great albums of yore.

Fortunately, the album has a lot of strengths to compensate for these flaws. It may be somewhat to the band's detriment that they returned so forcefully to the formula of yore, but at the same time it's really impressive that they managed it so well. The album's biggest coup is the complete rebirth of Kirk Hammett, whose soloing is more diverse and more inspired than it's been in years. There's still heavy use of the wah-wah pedal, of course, but it's mixed in well with other tones, and thus it has stronger impact in the moments when it's brought out. Hence, the band's greatest strength, its marvelous guitar interplay, shines just as well here as it ever did. I should also give credit to James' lyrics; one of the reasons I feared the band's return to thrash was that I thought that the lyrics would betray the band's rust more than any other feature, bordering on self-parody, but there aren't many moments that sound obviously awful, and that pleases me. The jury's still out for me on how I feel about James' singing on this album, though; he's got a lot of power here, as usual, and he hits the notes fine, but his usual over-emoting/hamming starts to grate on me a bit. Only a little, though.

And, of course, the songs are mostly just fine. Of the ten tracks here, only two seem obviously second rate to me. "Cyanide" has an interesting enough basic pattern to make for a good three minute track, but it gets repeated incessantly until the song becomes an almost seven minute bore. Then, of course, there's the one track that veers much closer to Metallica than to Justice: "The Unforgiven III." It's much better than "The Unforgiven II," but it's nowhere near as good as the first version, and the lengthy piano, string and horn introduction makes it feel like an overblown Guns and Roses ballad than a classic Metallica song. Plus, it doesn't really do anything well that the original version didn't do better, aside from a rather rousing build into a nice solo in the sixth minute.

The rest is quite nice, though. The opener, "This Was Just Your Life" sounds a bit too close to "Blackened" in a couple of spots for my taste (some of the vocal lines sound like they're lifted straight from that song), but it does a marvelous job of showing right away that the band had rediscovered that groove they'd left behind so long ago. The various riffs are magnificent, the vocal parts are genuinely memorable, and there's a solid solo right on schedule. "The End of the Line" reminds me a lot of the title track to Justice in some ways, but the main riff is a lot bluesier than anything from that album, and once again the other parts are done with flair. Were I in charge, I'd have shut down the song after the energetic, pounding climax with a couple of minutes to go, rather than letting the song go through a quiet bridge before returning to the main riff, but that's a relatively minor quibble.

"Broken, Beat and Scarred" is a solid mid-tempo stomper, driven by a tight groove and some nice work in the backing vocals. And, of course, there's a nice mid-song solo. The next track, then, falls squarely into the mold of "Fade to Black." I don't just mean in general similarities: I mean that the opening of "The Day That Never Comes" sounds almost EXACTLY like the opening of "Fade to Black," just with louder production, and the general flow of the song is basically a clone of that track. The track would be almost insulting, were it not for the fact that the guitar interplay in the thrashy climax is TOTALLY AWESOME. It's not quite on the perfection level of the corresponding section of "One," but it's close: there are ideas here that I've never come close to hearing from the band previously, even if I certainly recognize the general vocabulary of what they're doing. The only other track in my collection where there's quite this level of disparity between how I feel about the main song portion of a track and the extended instrumental coda would be "Every Day," from the Steve Hackett solo album Spectral Mornings. Overall, the song turns out pretty awesome.

The next track, "All Nightmare Long," starts off with another bluesy intro riff, before turning into a weird mix of the band's history. The delivery of the first vocal line is definitely reminiscient of the delivery of the first vocal line in "Wherever I May Roam," and the chord sequence in the chorus seems awfully Load-ish (the good parts, not the bad parts) to me, but the main attraction of the song is definitely the hardcore up-tempo instrumental parts (kinda reminding me of "Disposable Heroes"). It definitely sounds to me like what I'd have expected the band to sound like in the 90's had it explicitly stayed more in a thrash mode. Two tracks later, after "Cyanide" and "Unforgiven III," comes one of my two favorite tracks of the album, "The Judas Kiss." It has some of the most interesting tempo and meter changes on the album, but when it settles into a solid groove, it does that aspect as well as anything else on the album. Plus, it has some of Kirk's most varied and most interesting soloing on the album, which says quite a bit for this album. Two tracks after that comes the finale, "My Apocalypse." It won't make anybody forget "Damage Inc." or "Dyers Eve," but it's still a decent enough stab at tapping into the "angry speedy finale" part of the classic formula. James doesn't sound anywhere near as menacing as he's clearly trying to, but the riffs are ok, and that helps make the album leave a good taste in my mouth.

In a nice gesture, completing the throwback to the 80's format, the second to last track of the album is a ten-minute instrumental, "Suicide and Redemption," and I like it enough to name it as my other favorite. No, it will never surpass the three great instrumentals the band did in the 80's, as this seems a lot more like "combine a bunch of leftover riffs" than "write like we would any other track," but it's a great and varied bunch of leftover riffs, and that makes me happy. Plus, one of the sections features Kirk playing one of the loveliest lines he's played in forever, and other parts actually let the basslines shine through, a rare occurrence on this album indeed. Kudos must be given to the band for not only trying but actually succeeding in making an instrumental that (ideally) should be as much of a live staple as any of the other instrumentals.

Overall, I'd have to say that the aspects which make this album quite enjoyable are also largely the same aspects that prevent me from having any chance of really loving it. Aside from the near constant sense of "yup, I've heard this before, even if it's still kinda awesome," there's also the overly loud production, which makes the album jump out very easily but which also limits the presence of any serious contrast (a shame, because Metallica did contrast awfully well back in their hey-day). Good songs must be given their due in the end, though, and this album definitely delivers. A shorter version of the album, whether through edits to individual songs or through lopping off the two tracks I'm not really fond of, would probably make it a solid **** instead of a low one, but that doesn't really matter. I definitely recommend it for longtime fans, and if this doesn't satisfy them, I don't know what could.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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