METALLICA’S DEATH MAGNETIC (CHRISTOPHER RODDY’S TAKE)
When considering their latest album, it’s important to bear in mind the lasting power of Metallica’s legacy, especially when taking into consideration the weak efforts of the past couple decades. This is a band that had had a hand in building up the traditional Thrash framework throughout the 80s into an impenetrable fortress. But the castle has crumbled and they’re left with just a name. In the early 90s, they entreated us to take their hand and we would be off to the Never Neverland of mainstream success. But then Metal lost its foothold on radio and MTV, falling victim to the Grunge/Alternative phenomenon. Metallica forged onward but many were forced to ask: were they following their instinct, not a trend? Deep down inside fans felt the need to scream. The band seemed to be putting dignity to shame, with dishonor.
The Metallica of that decade was leaner, more open to pop constructs and, to their credit, this did translate into commercial success, along with a flurry of less-than-flattering press. Yet to longtime fans, when the circus rolled into town, they were playing the lead clown. Welcome to where time stands still. No one rocks and no one will. Hell, they even went country (for only one song, but still!). The band eventually lashed out at the fans and the fans revolted. Hey, honesty was our only excuse. They can try to rob us of it but it’s no use. Load, Re-Load and St. Anger each grew progressively worse. We were left to face the thing that should not be: a flaccid hard rock outfit of aging, emotionally unavailable sociopaths that had long ago lost their hunger and, subsequently, their edge. But please excuse them while they tend to how they feel. They went to therapy, filmed it and foisted it on a bewildered public. Fuck it all and fucking no regrets. Would there be a happy ending in this dark set? Did Metallica drift on numbered days?
In their minds this life of death is becoming clearer and Death Magnetic, their ninth studio album, fails to live up to the hype of being a “return to form.” Oh, sure, it does jump in the fire of those early albums to a limited extent but it also solidifies the argument that there’s no going back, that they’ve progressed well beyond the vitality of their formative years and all that time spent seeking the approval of mainstream radio has dulled their chops to a significant degree. You know it’s sad but true. They’ll still keep at it and they’ll probably score hits along the way. Endurance is the word; looking back instead of forward seems, to them, absurd. There’s no guarantee, it’s life as is. And damn you for not giving them a chance.
Opening the set with “That Was Just Your Life” we get a weak-sounding pulse which leads into an eerie intro that gives way to bombastic chords and a propulsive riff that is Justice touched by Black. You can even sing the lyrics to “Dyer’s Eve” during the chorus – they actually fit. Hetfield’s vocals sound better than they have in years, his gruff growl nailing it on “The End Of The Line,” a fantastic chugger with a shockingly blistering wah-inflected solo by Kirk Hammett. In fact, Hammett is all over this album, coming at you with a vengeance born of his open displeasure with being leashed during St. Anger. On “Broken, Beat & Scarred” he wails with Slayeresque abandonment, adding more feeling than the track even deserves.
That song along with “All Nightmare Long” have a decided groove that is grounded in Ulrich’s straightforward and direct approach to pounding out aggression. His style hasn’t aged well and at a time when blast beats and polymetrics have elevated metal drumming a few levels higher than where Ulrich has stagnated, and much of the criticism against Metallica lies with him (and his big mouth over the years certainly hasn’t helped). Yet bassist Robert Trujillo, writing and recording with the band for the first time, brings a funky low-end rumble to the proceedings that actually manages to elevate the percussion to some degree.
Even so, the overall songwriting is clumsy and lumbers along in a piecemeal fashion that doesn’t flow as well as the material from their first five releases. It’s almost as though they’ve forgotten how to adequately write songs.
Then there’s the matter of “Unforgiven III.” Like many I winced the moment I first read the tracklist. But I was clinging to a desperate hope which was centered around the possibility that, since this album was heralded as a return to the classic style, perhaps they would use the goofy sequelization of this song as an opportunity to self-deprecatingly acknowledge how many fans have refused to forgive them for all the dreck they’ve released over the years, becoming the public eye’s disgrace, defying common place. Alas, not only is this song not the clever turn-around I had hoped for it isn’t even a reworking of the original riff as “Unforgiven II” seemed to be. If there’s a feeling deep inside that drives you fucking mad it involves songs like this pile of crap and why it winds up making the final cut. We’ve outgrown this fucking lullaby.
The other ballad-oriented song, “The Day That Never Comes,” possesses plenty of cringe-worthy moments, usually revolving around Hetfield’s weak vocal performance, and ultimately dissolves into a mess of a jam which ends with the band sounding as though it’s falling all over itself.
Whipping up a fury the album draws to a close with a ten minute instrumental that comes across as a collection of left-over riffs stitched together in an effort to make something as good as “To Live Is To Die” or the magnificent “Orion.” It doesn’t even come close but it does have some mildly interesting moments. And adrenaline starts to flow with “My Apocalypse,” a five minute burst of thrashing all around and acting like a maniac that isn’t quite as impressive as “Dyer’s Eve” or “Damage Inc.” but is better than most anything off their previous three releases. There’s still a modicum of life in this outfit ye, and producer Rick Rubin makes them sound a little younger and a lot more vital even if the songwriting and personal styles of these four have grown past the youthful attack of anger that made Lightning and Puppets classics of the genre. Even though they may now wear all the finest clothes and vacation on all the nicest beaches, Death Magnetic does make the case that they still remain acutely aware that life out here is raw. And they’ll never stop, never quit, because they’re Metallica.
(3 out of 5 horns)