Producer: Rick Rubin
I remember driving to my high school for a trip to an away game on the football team, the then brand, spanking new CD, Death Magnetic (DM) cooking in the CD player. I didn’t have time to listen to the whole album, so I made sure that I could at least sample the beginning of the first track before I packed my pads and loaded aboard the bus on our way to whatever middle-of-bumfuck-nowhere town we were playing that Friday evening. I distinctly remember loading the disc and almost immediately afterward hearing a solid heartbeat thumping in the bass of my stereo system. I remember how long I had waited for that album, Metallica’s first effort since their horribly received St. Anger way back in 2003. I remember, clearly, with how much anticipation I had awaited that new album’s release, wanting so badly for my (really, only) favorite metal to somehow redeem themselves from their lackluster efforts of the previous decade. What were the chances that that could happen? Honestly?
Metallica’s career had taken the now-cliched course that almost every band seems doomed to succumb to: An angry, youthful explosion on the rock scene (Kill ‘Em All ), followed quickly by several albums of what is now widely considered their best material (Ride the Lightning , Master of Puppets , …And Justice for All ), then a peak with a mainstream breakthrough album that pleased by old-school fans and newcomers alike (Metallica [The Black Album] ), then a series of uninspired, mostly boring material (Load , Reload ) culminating in disasterpiece in their most recent project (St. Anger ). In other words, Metallica had seemingly already completed the tried and not so true career arc of inception, explosion, mainstream success, loss of steam and peetering out, and then, finally, embarrassment. The only thing that remained for the greatest metal band in history to achieve was the comeback album. And if you know anything about rock ‘n roll, you knew that probably wasn’t much to look forward to.
When I did finally get through all of it, though, I was shocked. And not in a bad way. DM is a fantastic album. It not only exceeded my low expectations — it blew them right out of the water. Though not without it’s weak spots — most notably its beginning and ending tracks — DM is a powerful return for Metallica in every way. It does everything a comeback album is supposed to do, namely, be a comeback for the authoring band. DM corrects all the tedious mistakes built up in every Metallica album over the past three albums (especially St. Anger). Boring songwriting, lackluster (or absent) solos, and lazy lyrics — for the most part, all of that is corrected in Metallica’s latest album. DM is a true return to form for the metal giant, as it sees them going back to everything that made them great in their heyday.
Top to bottom, DM feels like a Metallica album released in the ’80’s. All of the songs are long, with each track clocking in at over five minutes. Every part of almost every track is packed with intimate detail, from the intro to the verses to the chorus to the bridge to the outro, most of the riffs are fast and furious, and the s0los are finally, once again, at an insanely high ass-kicking caliber. One thing that was particularly notable in every Metallica record post-Black Album, in Load, Reload, and St. Anger, was the distracting underuse of Kirk Hammett and his awesome guitar solos. No longer. Every track in DM features very long, technical solos that take full advantage of Hammett’s musical muscle. Now that’s not to say that the album doesn’t incorporate anything Metallica has learned since the ’80’s. In many ways, you could say that Metallica’s comeback record is a summary of everything positive and creative that the band has ever done. Aside from the aforementioned features that hearken back to the days of ‘Ride the Lightning and ‘Master of Puppets,’ DM features some of Hetfield’s best vocals, great slower movements, and even some bass guitar showcase from new bassist, Robert Trujillo. All in all, DM is the exact record that both the band and its fans needed: It brings dignity and respect back to the Metallica brand in a big, loud, aggressive way. Hell, even the old-school ’80’s Metallica logo returns on the back of the album packaging. It feels like some order is restored in the modern metal universe.
So where to start? After a forgettable (though not terrible) opening song, “That Was Just Your Life,” which features fast lyrical delivery in as close form to rapping as James Hetfield will ever get, the album kicks into high gear up until the very end. “The End of the Line” is a frantic, fast-paced, metal anthem that sets the tone for the rest of the record, switching riffs and solos just when things start getting repetitive. “Broken, Beat, and Scarred” sounds about as tough as its title, featuring more fast-paced, aggressive riffs with lyrics that put a new spin on the age-old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “The Day that Never Comes” is perhaps the best song on the entire album, opening with an incredibly deep and memorable slow intro, and it features some of Hetfield’s most haunting lyrics to date. It’s divided into a distinct, three-act structure that slowly builds to a terrifying, monstrous beat by the end. “All Nightmare Long” feels like a sort of unofficial sequel to “Enter Sandman,” Metallica’s most famous song from their 1991 self-titled record, recalling the dark, creepy emotions of “Exit light/Enter night.” “Cyanide” is yet another pleasant surprise in DM’s catalog, utilizing an potent bass riff on which the rest of the aggressive guitar work builds.
However, that surprise is nothing compared to what comes next in “The Unforgiven III.” I actually had a kind of sinking feeling when I first saw the name of that song on the back of the record. Generally, when a band has to keep returning to an old song to conjure up feelings of nostalgia and reworked songwriting, that’s usually not a good sign. I am so glad I was so wrong, though. TU III sounds nothing like the previous two incarnations of the song, even choosing to forgo the “What I’ve felt, what I’ve known” chorus. The track is probably the most diverse and fluid of all the songs on the album.
Following a worthy “Judas Kiss,” yet another mind-blowing, awesome surprise comes along. I still can’t decide which makes me happier, the rebirth/rejuvenation of the “Unforgiven” trilogy, or this next track. In a blast from the Metallica past, “Suicide and Redemption” presents itself as the first Metallica instrumental in over a decade. It never feels tiresome, it never drags, and never feels in need of a lyrical component. The song is as fully fleshed out and deep as any other track in DM. It truly feels like a recapturing of Metallica’s original essence, a re-channeling of what originally made them great.
Unfortunately, DM doesn’t end nearly as strong as it should. “My Apocalypse” is typical Metallica cheese that seems put there mostly just to pad out the album’s conclusion. It feels like the band was just checking off their list of typical, dark, angry Metallica phrases, as if they went, “Hey, have we used the word, ‘apocalypse,’ in this album yet? No? OK, let’s put in!” Seriously, the final track feels so lazy and boring compared to the rest of the material, but thankfully it’s by far the shortest, at just over five minutes.
Really, though, Metallica really could not have produced a better comeback album than this. Everybody was expecting a pathetic attempt after all that happened in the past seventeen years since The Black Album. I mean, how could we not? Metallica proved that, after all this time, they can still rock with the best of them in this day and age. ‘Death Magnetic’ is like an aging, heavyweight boxer way past his prime returning to ring after a ten year hiatus to kick ass in the ring once again. With this latest record, Metallica came back and won by knockout. It’s that good.
If you’re a metal fan, you can’t afford not to listen to this, but really, all music fans should take time to appreciate this metal powerhouse. It’s a great compilation of all that is great in metal, and it’s an emphatic celebration of the best metal band in history, and the only good metal artist to have ever broke into the mainstream. Death Magnetic is nothing but great news for Metallica fans and metal fans everywhere. It’s not perfect, but its damned close, and who could ask for more from Metallica than a kick-ass comeback in 2008? Cheers.
–> Death Magnetic comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Standout Tracks: “The End of the Line,” “The Day that Never Comes,” “The Unforgiven III,” “Suicide and Redemption”
? What don’t kill a rock band make them more strong.