Seventeen years since they last put out a great album, eight years since the much-decried Napster lawsuit and four years after Some Kind of Monster pulled back the curtain on this once larger-than-life band to reveal a quartet of all-too-human wusses, Metallica’s image is tarnished beyond repair. Blame it on an endless line of shoddy PR moves and even shoddier musical decisions, combined with our snipe-happy blogger culture: It’s become so easy to hate on Metallica that it’s just no fun anymore. Actually, that’s not true. Stuff like this makes it pretty fun to hate on them.
Metallica’s influence has been mostly absent from modern rock radio since grunge took the airwaves in the early nineties, and as Metallica outgrew heavy metal, so has heavy metal outgrown Metallica. For the millions of fans that came to metal through Metallica’s unimpeachable first five records, and the millions more that never cared to explore metal beyond them, any excitement at the prospect of a new album is linked to the hope that it’ll sound like Metallica used to. Our hopes have been thwarted by every release since the eponymous “black album” (1991). With three straight studio albums that felt disconnected from Metallica’s past and both metal and rock ‘n’ roll’s future, plus a half-useless covers set Garage, Inc. (1998) and bombastic orchestral collabo S&M (1999) joining in the band’s nearly two-decade tripe parade, Metallica’s worked out the perfect recipe for continued irrelevance.
Strangely enough, irrelevance works in Metallica’s favor on their ninth studio album, Death Magnetic. The cross-the-board failure of St. Anger (2003) taught us that a return-to-form was unfair to expect. Here, the members of Metallica aren’t trying to relive past glories or redefine themselves — they’re just writing their toughest metal riffs we’ve heard from them in ages, shoved into songs that, absurd track lengths notwithstanding (seven of ten tracks eclipse the seven-minute mark), feel more dynamic and energized than anything they’ve done since Metallica.
Producer Rick Rubin gave the band the directive to work back to the Master of Puppets mindset, and yes, we hear plenty of galloping “Battery”-style riffs in the thrash sections of “All Nightmare Long” and “My Apocalypse.” The verses to “The End of the Line” closely echo “The Four Horsemen” from Kill ‘Em All, and with “The Day That Never Comes,” Metallica have essentially written a middle-aged revision of the classi …And Justice For All track down to the half-power ballad, half-machine gun riff format and war-centric video clip.
More often than not, the backtracking feels natural, but there’s no need for nostalgia to enjoy Death Magnetic. Some of the album’s best songs borrow just as liberally from the blues swagger of Metallica’s ’90s output as their thrashing, tritone-obsessed days of yore. “Broken, Beaten & Scarred” and “The Judas Kiss” possess killer grooves and anthemic Hetfield hooks that you might find yourself not embarrassed to howl along with. Though Hetfield’s no poet, he’s perfected the art of ramming down death-addled clichés with conviction (sing it with me: “Bow down/ Sell your soul to me/ I will set you free/ Pacify your demons!”). He’s pulling off vocal risks that he wouldn’t have tried in Metallica’s glory days, especially a high note in “The Unforgiven III” that’s more hair-raising than the song’s title.
Bitch all you want about Lars Ulrich’s flat time-keeping and the barely there inaugural studio performance of bassist Robert Trujillo. Metallica was always a guitar band, and both Hetfield and Kirk Hammett hurtle through Death Magnetic like they aren’t halfway toward carpal-tunnel age. One of St. Anger’s worst traits (and there were a lot of bad ones to choose from) was its lack of Hammett’s solo wizardry. Clearly he was practicing the whole while. His wah-ful solos in “End of the Line” and “The Unforgiven III” are some of the best of his recorded career, full of prickly speed-demon runs and buckets of sloppy soul.
The main thing that Death Magnetic lacks — and it’s a biggie — is edge. Several tracks dull their razor-sharp riffs with excessive lengths — the ten-minute riff/rinse/repeat instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” should have been left in the studio — and there’s at least one section in every song that feels either tacked-on or not nearly as hard as the band wanted it to be. But edge is just as much about perception as sound, and the bigger problem is that at this point, we simply know too much about Metallica to believe they’re badasses. After a year of publicity squalls and three months of humanizing fly-on-the-wall videos at MissionMetallica.com, Uncle James and Cousin Lars and Big Bro Kirk and his pal Robert are all part of the family now.
If that transparency prevents Death Magnetic from ascending to the mythical plateaus of Metallica’s albums from the ’80s, it’s also part of why the album works. Metallica sound human, hungry and like they give a shit. Forget about relevance. For the first time in nearly two decades, Metallica have released an album that you don’t have to make concessions to enjoy. With Armani on the outside and faded denim underneath, Death Magnetic is just about the best album Metallica could have made at this point.