It has now been nearly a year since the release of Metallica’s Death Magnetic. As Metallica rips it up all over the world on the World Magnetic tour (coming soon to California), it seems like a good time to take stock of where this album stands in the Metallica catalog.
With the release of Death Magnetic, Metallica took a major step into the future. From a musical standpoint it is clear that Metallica is making an effort to get back to the style that made them famous, metal, while at the same time not abandoning their mainstream fan base. This album represents an attempt to get back to playing faster, harder and louder than their last four studio albums, an endeavor that should help them reconnect with their hardcore metal fan base while holding onto the catchy choruses and guitar riffs that helped them build a mainstream fan base over the last 18 years. Their early work on such albums as Kill em all, Ride the lightning, Master of puppets, and … and justice for all was characterized by machine gun style rhythm guitars, elaborate guitar solos, growling vocals, long instrumental pieces and a speed that the world had not yet experienced at such a high level.
Most of the songs on those albums were very long, in the 6-9 minute range. On Death Magnetic the machine gun guitars, growling vocals, long songs (most in the 6-9 minute range again), and especially the guitar solos have returned in full force. On their last four studio albums, (St. Anger, Garage Inc, Reload, Load) they had abandoned many of these qualities in favor of more radio friendly vocal hooks and a pace that was more accessible to a wider audience. While this exposed them to new audiences, it led them away from what made them great in the first place and what they do better than anyone else: play faster and harder, while still under control. Once upon a time, they were not just four guys in a garage playing as fast as they could, not caring what it sounded like. They once were four world-class musicians playing as fast as they could, crossing musical boundaries and barriers that the music world didn’t even know existed. Death Magnetic represents an attempt to get back to the style that made them great, while holding onto some elements of their mainstream success.
This album finds vocals and choruses that are catchy, while at times still very bold. Lead guitarist Kurt Hammet, having been given the green light to solo like the days of old, emerges at times with the fury of a caged beast and at times with the restraint of a professional doing what he needs to do to be true to the music, putting his abilities in check for the good of the band and the music when he needs to. His solos on such songs as The day that never comes, unforgiven 3 and The Judas Kiss will remind old school Metallica fans of what they once loved about the band. Drummer Lars Ulrich is as solid as ever, displaying his skills in particular with double kick bass drum playing that lends to the tempo, style and pace of the album and helps hold the music together.
New bassist Robert Trujillo does a fine job of holding down the low end and clearly shows his musicianship and professionalism on a level far exceeding his predecessor in the band Jason Newsted. Lead singer and rhythm guitar player James Hetfield is a mixed bag on this album. His guitar playing and trademark growling vocals are as strong as ever, however, his lyrical concepts and execution leave much to be desired. Lyrics and choruses like, “we die hard” and “I burn my eyes to force it out” may seem ok today, but once upon a time in this band’s history would have seemed ridiculous and wasteful. Perhaps this leads to an important issue with this band: perception. It seems that the Metallica of today is judged more harshly than that of 20 years ago because of their history of success. Had this album come out in 1985, it may well have been viewed as a musical landmark. Today, it is compared to their masterpieces of the past and as such, just doesn’t measure up.
The album begins with “That was just your life”, which opens the album very slowly, before building up to a fever pitch, with two full minutes of instrumentation before the vocals jump in. When all is said and done, this song is seven full minutes of metal anger and rage, peaking with a Hammet guitar solo that would make any metal-head happy.
The next song is, “End of the line”, which starts out very quickly, going straight into some fast instrumentation then moving into a more traditional guitar riff. The main riff of the song will remind many of the tuned down but very clean sounding Master of Puppets. The song is also chalk full of trademark Ulrich double kick bass drums and Hetfield growling through the main verse, “nevermind, you’ve reached the end of the line!” Watch for a blistering Hammet solo around the 5:00 minute mark of this 7:52 long song, leading into a powerful dual guitar closing overtop of Hetfield’s screams of, “the slave becomes the master.” This is a song that would easily have fit right into Ride the Lightening or Master of Puppets.
Next comes, “Broken, beat and Scarred.” This songs gets going strong with a very bendy guitar riff, chalk full of ‘palm mutes’ by Hammet that flows smooth and hard, leading into a decent riff. Ulrich backs him with double kick bass, eerily similar to Load’s, “Hero of the Day.” “Broken…” has some of the best music on the album. The problem with this song comes from the lyrics. Hetfield is unconvincing as he tries to hit some high notes while singing, “what don’t kill ya make ya more strong… show your scars!” I’m just not buying him on this one and I’m not sure anyone else is either.
The next track brings, “the day that never comes.” In contrast to the previous song, this one displays Hetfield at some of his best moments. The chorus gives him ample room to display some range in his voice and he executes to perfection. The name of the song and the chorus are mirrored in the length of the song, which is nearly 8 minutes. There are several points where it feels like the song may be ending, but it builds back up and keeps rocking. This is a good thing, as the instrumentation is fantastic, moving seamlessly from riff to riff, changing tempo while holding it all together. This is truly an example of what can happen when four world class musicians find their groove.
Next comes, “all nightmare long,” an 8 minute speed monster with the bite to boot. It begins with a nice little bass groove and leads into some old fashioned shredding on the guitars and a hell of a hook as Hetfield screams, “still you run, what’s to come, what’s to be?” This is arguably the most ‘catchy’ song on the album.
The first single off of this album, “cyanide” follows. I found this song a bit bland and I’m really not sure why it was the first single released. There’s over six minutes of some pretty stock guitars and vocals, nothing that impressed me or inspires me to comment further.
Next up is “Unforgiven three.” This is arguably the best track of all on this album. Beginning with a slow piano and string accompaniment, then picked up by some slow guitars that sound a whole lot like the original “ The unforgiven.” From there it leads into some smooth but powerful guitars that sound a lot like re-load’s “unforgiven too.” The guitar chord progressions flow naturally, leading to the chorus that Hetfield nails as he sings, “how can I be lost if I got nowhere to go… how can I blame you when it’s me I can’t forgive?” After a few times through, with some brilliant ups, downs, and tempo control, Hetfield finds himself screaming, “forgive me, forgive me not!” This leads into a one minute Hammet solo that is nothing short of spectacular, easily the best guitar solo on the album and comparing favorably with his work of the last 23 years… outstanding! A final note about this song is that the lyrics do not resolve the story, leaving open the possibility of the unforgiven franchise continuing on future albums.
Next comes the 8 minute metal piece, “The Judas Kiss” a song about that one thing in life that you know is so bad for you, but you can just never seem to escape it (the Judas Kiss). Here, Hetfield’s lyrics and vocals come through as strong as ever. Metal guitar riffs, heavy bass lines, and complementary drums also highlight this song that steps up and kicks the listener in the gut as hard as possible.
Next comes the entirely instrumental, “suicide and redemption.” This song is just short of ten minutes long and is an exercise in musicianship. No vocals, only two guitars, a drum and a bass, with each instrument being highlighted at various points in the song. The foursome of Metallica repeatedly move seamlessly from brilliant riff to brilliant riff. It sounds like an old jazz band improvising and moving around effortlessly as they transverse the musical spectrum… only hard! As the song moves along the listener finds themselves asking when it will end… but they don’t want it to. There is an obvious parallel between this song and Master of Puppets’, “Orion.” Both are very long instrumental pieces that come late in the album and set the stage for the big finish. “Sucide…” doesn’t quite match the brilliance of Orion… but it’s definitely in the ballpark.
Closing the album is, “my apocalypse,” running just five minutes long but closing the album with a bang. Speedy power chords, but with a sense of urgency that can be felt in your gut fill this song. This song moves probably the fastest of any song on the album. Hetfield’s vocals move outside the box a bit into more traditional metal singing, while the lyrics address issues such as claustrophobia, violence and death.
Meanwhile, Hammet’s solo brings the sound to a boil before Ulrich’s drums slow it down to a stop and you realize the journey through Death Magnetic has concluded. Short and sweet, “my apocalypse” is a fitting finisher to the album.
On Death Magnetic Metallica has taken a major step toward the great heavy metal they once consistently produced and is quite an achievement in it’s own right. It is also, arguably, better than most of the similar styles of music that can be heard on the radio today. If, however, a fan is hoping for something as great as the Puppets or Justice of the past, they are sure to be let down. Compare this album to the Metallica of the past and you will be disappointed; compare it to all the other music of the day, and you will be blown away and happy.