METALLICA’S DEATH MAGNETIC (SAMMY O’HAGAR’S TAKE)
With Death Magnetic, Metallica’s latest attempt at getting back into the good graces/wallets of their fan base, the band officially descends into the realm of the Rolling Stones of metal. The Stones, of course, have the stronger legacy and the better/more extensive catalog of songs. But both bands have four unimpeachable albums to their credit (the Stones have Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Exile on Main Street, and Some Girls; Metallica obviously sport their first four) and, in essence, have only been recording albums as an excuse to tour since the end of their heyday.
The biggest difference, though, is that the Stones are aware of this; though they keep trying, the songs off of anything post-Tattoo You disappear from their setlist after their first supporting tour. They recognize that they’re essentially creatively bankrupt as a band, and just happen to have one of, if not arguably the, best back catalogs of songs in popular music history, so playing live until one of/all of the band members die is both a financial and populous-satisfying maneuver. Metallica, on the other hand, have yet to notice that their best years are now 18-20 years behind them, and that they’ve been making increasingly lazy and uninspired hard rock for more than a decade. Though their fan faithful (this writer included), the ones that were initially saved by their quartet of timeless metal albums, have been waiting for a rousing return to form even after the spectacular misfire that was St Anger, this album isn’t it. In fact, Death Magnetic boils down to one thing: new Metallica playing old Metallica. They’re not unlike a pack of middle aged dudes playing their favorite Motorhead songs at the corner bar, not paying attention to how sloppy they’re performing or that their attempts at recapturing youthful abandon are just really, really sad.
This isn’t for a lack of trying, though. In fact, Death Magnetic is easily the best thing Metallica have done since the pre-Load days. Of course, when taking into account their brazenly shitty output since 1996, this is not much of a statement. Yes, it’s better than St. Anger, but to be worse than St. Anger would have to involve bringing a DJ into the band, parachute pants, frosted tips, and James Hetfield being referred to as “The Hett” in the liner notes. But like all post-“Black Album” Metallica, the album collapses under its slick production, radio-friendly composing (even if Death Magnetic’s songs are much longer than usual, they’re still infused with the same tired Metalli-hooks that have plagued their bloated hard rock as of late), and the simple fact that they’re just not as good as they used to be. And while the record is more of a disappointment than an abomination, “better” is not a substitute for “good.”
The most frustrating part of Death Magnetic is the record’s basic M.O.: great, interesting, and I-shit-you-not Justice-era riffs that go on for a few bars or minutes before they’re ultimately ruined by the band’s Load-and-onward trademark of lazy riffs and James Hetfield’s terrible Danzig impression. The first two minutes of the record set the tone perfectly: a faint heartbeat sample giving way to an ominous arpeggio reminiscent of Master of Puppets’ “The Thing That Should Not Be.” The song leads into a magnificent buildup worthy of Ride the Lightening, working into a stock-but-effective thrash riff with Lars lending his best …And Justice for All-era drumming. Then James comes in, howling like he has been since he blew his voice out during the extensive tour for the Black Album, and you remember this is still new Metallica, and that in order to enjoy Death Magnetic, you’re going to have to sit through the same crap you’ve had to sit through on Load, Reload, and St. Anger. And dare I be presumptuous, but I thought enjoying things didn’t involve sitting through crap.
And though James’ vocals have always been passable at best, a pale facsimile of metal vocals at worst, his guitar wor – obviously alongside Kirk Hammett’s – is Death Magentic’s strongest trait. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there are solos on the album, and yes, they’re really, really fucking good. The best part about them is that most of the time, they’re paired with Metallica’s attempt at recapturing their 80s thrashiness, thus effectively evoking the same virtuoso noodling of Hammett’s golden years, but also hearkening back to …And Justice for All’s brilliant dual-guitar interplay. It’s the one aspect of Death Magnetic that provides a bridge back to the original and undeniably metal spirit that spewed forth Metallica’s unimpeachable first four records; it’ll even get a reluctant nod of acceptance from even bigger cynics than me. Of course, in the end, all these solos do is remind us of the Metallica record that could have been if the band had been willing to commit to the idea of making an out-and-out good Metallica record.
The album’s second half is hard to get through: “Cynaide,” as we all know, is shitty Metallica by numbers, “The Unforgiven III” is just as bad as an idea as it sounds, and the near-ten minute instrumental “Suicide & Redemption,” despite some interesting riffs and solos, is dreadfully hit of miss, and when Metallica’s instrumentals include the likes of “Orion” and “Call of Ktulu,” hit-or-miss shouldn’t be allowed. The album ends with “My Apocalypse,” the closest Death Magnetic comes to old Metallica: the song is packed with B-grade thrash riffs, James’ most tolerable vocals, great soloing, and propulsive drumming (even if Lars’ drum sound is still unbearably shitty). It provides the kind of sneer that sounds like what Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica would be playing today. It’s not as good as that album or any of the band’s oldest and best output, but by far the most admirable thing they’ve done since they became the world’s biggest metal band. It’s also the shortest and last song on the album; Death Magnetic cuts out right when things get interesting.
If this had come out in place of Load, I’d be optimistic. But we’ve been fooled by false Metallica comebacks many, many times, and much like the Stones, I call that we stop giving a shit about new Metallica. Clearly they’re never going to be the band they once were, and any new direction they’ve gone in has proved to be massively uninspiring or borderline unlistenable. We’ve been too good to them for too long, and need to stop buying into the hype of their new records. Death Magnetic is the best they can do now, and clearly, after one return to any of their classic first four albums, their “best” is not good enough, or even “good” anymore. Though the opportunity to see them play “Master of Puppets,” “Dyer’s Eve,” “Fade to Black,” and so forth is clearly worth the idea of a new Metallica album, the metal community needs to accept that they’re far past their expiration date creatively. When you’re the world’s biggest metal band, when people who have never listened to Slayer, Testament, Morbid Angel, Cryptopsy, Slipknot, Carcass, Mayhem, Nachtmystium, Devourment, Necrophagist, Arsis, Dying Fetus, Marduk, Emperor, Anaal Nathrakh, Napalm Death or even Black Sabbath know who you are, and the best you can represent the metal underground is with some re-heated thrash riffs, respectable soloing, and borderline embarrassing yodeling in lieu of vocals, then the metal underground – the last bastion of what’s good, respectable, and undying about metal – should respond in part by permanently distancing themselves. Death Magnetic should mark the death of the hope that Metallica will put out another album that will stand up with one of their greats. And it’s sad that it took us this long to figure it out.
(2 out of 5 horns)