I’m not really capable of being objective about Metallica. I first heard them when I was, I think, 14 and on a school trip. A friend of mine passed me a badly copied cassette of Master of Puppets, I popped it into my wakman, and my world was completely and irrevocably rocked when I heard the immortal opening riffs of the title track:
We’re talking about a kid who, prior to this encounter with these gods of metal, would’ve named the Monkees as his favorite group. (n.b.: I was not cool.) This paradigm-altering experience opened a whole new world of music for me: I eagerly devoured Metallica’s other albums (…and Justice for All had recently been released at the time), and soon I was branching out into the other big names of thrash metal: Anthrax, Megadeth, Testament, Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies. And beyond that there was the whole world of punk, hardcore, “college rock,” and even some forms of rap. Basically, an entire universe of non-mainstream, loud, and aggressive music.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Metallica will always hold a special place in my heart. Not that they can do no wrong. Their first four albums are still the gold standard for metal as far as I’m concerned, and I liked the “black album,” and even a good number of tracks from Load and Re-Load, but I’ll admit to thinking that the band’s creative juices had pretty much dried up. 2003’s mostly atrocious St. Anger and the accompanying documentary Some Kind of Monster–which showed a band in the throes of a complete meltdown–pretty much confirmed it for me.
How happy I am to say, then, that with the release of Death Magnetic Metallica has, if not regained their former glory, then at least erased most of the bad memories of the last 15 years. Combining elements of all its past incarnations, Metallica has managed to record an album that is fast, loud, and aggressive while maintaining some of the pop sensibility and rock swagger that infused their post-Justice work.
The album opens with the faint sound of a heartbeat, as though a long-slumbering beast was about to spring back to life. And that’s just what the first track, “That Was Just Your Life,” delivers: an uptempo riff-fest reminiscent of past album openers like “Battery” and “Blackened.” The following two numbers, “The End of the Line” and “Broken, Beat & Scarred” hark back to the Load era, with their dirty rhythms and crunchy riffs, while “The Day that Never Comes” is a ballad in the mode of “One” or “Fade to Black” that quickly turns into a satisfying all-out aural assault. “All Nightmare Long” is a menacing romp and possibly the high point of the album.
Though not bad, “Cyanide” and the probably-unnecessary “Unforgiven III” are, in my opinion, the weakest tracks on the disc. But things quickly pick up toward the end with “The Judas Kiss,” “Suicide and Redemption,” an instumental epic the likes of which we’ve not seen since Justice‘s “To Live Is to Die,” and the album closer “My Apocalypse,” an Bay Area-style thrasher that compares favorably with nearly anything from Metallica’s classic era.
Not that there aren’t problems with the album: the muddy production, the inaudible bass (new member former Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo deserves better!), and the occassionally cringe-inducing lyrics. But these are mostly minor complaints and almost completely outweighed by the fact that lead guitarist Kirk Hammett has finally been let off the leash to solo like crazy all over the album.
Metallica is never going to make another Master of Puppets, or even another black album, in the sense of a genre-defining masterpiece. But that’s probably an unrealistic standard for a band at this stage of its career. U2 is never going to make another Joshua Tree, and REM is never going to make another Document either. What they have made is an album full of well-crafted heavy metal that is distinctively Metallica. Modern metal wouldn’t be what it is without these guys, and with this album they’ve shown that they can still shred with the best of ’em.
Overall grade: B+
“The Day that Never Comes”