Wednesday, October 08, 2008

With Metallica's "Death Magnetic," What Is Old Is Once More New

...or, The Four Horsemen Ride Again...
As I've said many times before, I have an affinity for country music, but my tastes are actually pretty varied; I tell people often that I'll listen to anything from Metallica to Merle Haggard, and that's the truth.
I really started getting into the Metallica catalog in 2001, when I bought the self-titled Black Album that summer. Later on I went and bought three of the four albums that came before it, and in a neat little twist of irony I found that speed/thrash metal style much more to my liking than the slower, more melodic sounds of the pop-rock years -- and yes, I liked Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and ...And Justice For All even more than Black. (And I really meant to type "Bob Rock years" instead of "pop-rock years" there -- coincidence? I think not...)
Regarding the albums that came after Black, a friend of mine said to me once, "Load was a piece of shit. Re-Load was a pile of shit."  From what I've heard of those two I tend to agree. Go figure. But I didn't think "St. Anger" was quite as bad as a lot of people said it was. My opinion of that album could best be summed up in four words -- "good concept, bad execution." I actually thought it was a step back in the right direction, albeit a tiny one. But without those epic Kirk Hammett solos and the interplay between his lead and James' rhythm, it still wasn't...Metallica.
Enter their latest effort, Death Magnetic, produced by the legendary Rick Rubin. I actually picked this one up with no expectations either way, but I was curious to see where James and the guys would go with it, considering everything they'd done in the years prior to that. Quite simply, I was just blown away. It's as if they embraced everything that made them legends to so many, everything that made them synonymous with the thrash metal short, everything they forsook after Justice. The complex arrangements, the slow and deceptive introductions masking the fury to come -- think "Fight Fire With Fire" and "Battery" here, guys, I was reminded of those two songs several times -- it's just absolutely incredible. James, Lars and Kirk all shine here, playing with a fury and intensity that arguably hasn't been captured on record in 20 years. Not coincidentally, this is their best record in about as long. James Hetfield said Rubin told the band to go back to the Master of Puppets mindset...and it paid off, in spades.
The deceptively slow introduction makes its reappearance in the first seconds of the lead-off track, "That Was Just Your Life," with its creepy heartbeat and guitar intro somewhat reminiscent of "One," and in the same manner as "Battery," off it goes into an old-school Hetfield rhythm-guitar riff, and it's then you ask yourself -- this is the same band that recorded "The Memory Remains," "I Disappear," "Until It Sleeps," and "Hero of the Day"? In name only, it would seem, as the long-sleeping giants of thrash within have finally been awakened after two decades. Not quite five minutes in, Kirk Hammett's busting the door down with another solo that could have come straight out of Ride, Master or Justice.
And none of this is an anomaly as far as the record in its entirety goes, either. You'll find more of those delectable Hetfield riffs in "The End of the Line," as well as a vocal that's very evocative of "Creeping Death." Listen and you'll see. Surprisingly enough, you'll find Hetfield singing lower here, as he did on the Load album, on the song's slower segment. They really do give a nod to everything they did before, but more so to what they did before Bob Rock was sitting at the control panel. I really, REALLY liked the "Blitzkrieg"-type riff here.
I am sure I'm gonna catch hell from some for saying this, but I found a rather distinct similarity between "One" (and "Fade to Black") and "The Day That Never Comes" -- and it wasn't just the fact that they were both track No. 4 on their respective albums. Once more, there was the slow, melodic introduction, the subdued vocals, and then the lyrics... general feeling of hopelessness, "Born to push you around, better just stay pull away, he hits the flesh, you hit the ground..." I don't know, but I can't help but think that might have been more of James Hetfield working out his aggression from what I've heard was his rather stringent upbringing, and when you look at it from that perspective it's really not that bad of a song. They even go back to the fast and heavy outro here, with James, Kirk, Lars and new bassist Robert Trujillo going all out.
The best fusion of the old and new Metallica, though -- and arguably the best song on the album, as well as the best song they've recorded since the title track to "Master of Puppets" -- would have to be "All Nightmare Long." Another one of those slow intros, with what I'd heard described as a Middle Eastern guitar, and another brief pause, and BAM! Off go James and Lars into another one of their old-school rhythms. Hetfield channels the Black Album here, both with the vocals and the song lyric -- "Hunt you down without mercy, hunt you down all nightmare crawl back in, but your luck runs out..." More of this same vibe can be found on "The Judas Kiss," when James growls, "BOW DOWN! Sell your soul to me, I will set you free! Pacify your demons, BOW DOWN!" A lot of people are calling Death Magnetic the bridge between Justice and Black, and this song is the perfect illustration of why -- it has the Justice sound, complete with more old-school Hetfield-Hammett riffing, but Black-era vocals and much better production (although the distortion prevalent throughout the album is a bit of an issue...)
"Cyanide" would probably be the only song on here that feels a bit out of place; although it's got a good little groove going on, sort of like something off Justice, it seems as if it just plods along. Maybe that's just because it had the misfortune of being placed right after such a kick-ass song, as it's followed by another song in the "Unforgiven" saga. Even though "The Unforgiven III" has the word "unforgiven" nowhere in it, it still fits in nicely with the other two, though I wasn't terribly fond of its immediate predecessor. But the original is still the best.
Another nod to the old days is found here too, in the form of the instrumental "Suicide & Redemption." It may be just the production, but this song seems to recall "Orion" more than "The Call of Ktulu," with Hammett's slow, bluesy guitar, but then towards the end he cuts loose with another solo that sounds much like the outro on "Fade to Black." This might sound like heresy, but I never was that big a fan of the instrumentals. My preference, at least for Metallica, is for the guys to show what they're made of in the faster songs..., for example, the closer, "My Apocalypse." This one easily recalls "Damage, Inc." with its frenetic riffing and solo, Hetfield shouting the lyrics like a man possessed and the lyrics, too...fear thy name, extermination, desecrate into the fire..." Hey, more of that death-and-destruction theme so prevalent through the whole thing! And in the lead-up to the utterly epic Hammett solo, Hetfield yells "Spit it out!," it's like they've stepped into a time machine and gone back to 1986. An excellent closer to a career record.
Yeah, I said it. Career record. Death Magnetic is an absolutely phenomenal return to form, the best thing Metallica has recorded in 20 years, and the perfect bridge between the old Metallica and the new. Even if they'd never crossed that bridge, though -- even if they'd kept making music just like this, and everything before the Black Album -- it would have been just fine by me. It's what they're good at, and it's fantastic to hear them doing it again. If the fans of the old Metallica don't like it, then I think it's pretty safe to say that there's nothing the band could do to satisfy them.