I deliberately tried to steer clear of advance buzz in the press (thanks to an Armageddon-sized ?Mission Metallica? marketing blitz) when it came to Metallica's ninth album, as I wanted desperately to keep my mind clean of expectations created by the usual blog-buzz, from the party line ?They totally lost it after the Black Album so this one's gonna suck a dead mongoose,? to the Pollyanna optimism that ?Maybe the earth will shift its magnetic polarity and this one will be a glorious bucket of awesome.? I tried so damn hard to stay neutral, but after five years, I was still hoping against hope.
Well the record's out, jury's in, and apparently my compass is now broken, because Death Magnetic is Metallica's finest effort since ...And Justice for All. I say that with all sincerity, totally sarcasm-free, which for me these days is seriously hard to manage. Really, this CD took me right back to the days when my ideals were grand, my wallet was empty and my hair was absolute crap. In other words, happy times.
Maybe it was the result of the painful soul-purgation that was St. Anger (an okay album if you pretend it was recorded by a completely different band) or their final parting of ways with producer Bob Rock (who ushered in the band's radio-friendly era in the '90s), but right out of the gate it felt like everything old was new again. With legendary producer Rick Rubin at the console, Death Magnetic is every inch classic late-'80s Metallica (they even went back to their old logo!), infused with a gritty jam-session vibe but with the digital polish of 21st-century production.
After the anticipatory heartbeat of opening track ?That Was Just Your Life,? the band instantly reestablishes the hallmarks of their ground game: epic-length songs (all tracks on this album time out between 5 and 10 minutes) featuring long, indelible intros, equally long solos, Kirk Hammett's signature prog-rock/classical-influenced fingering, countered with the blistering tremolo triplets that are James Hetfield's forte, and hammered snares & minigun double-kicks from Lars Ulrich. Even new bassist Robert Trujillo (who had already been touring with them since St. Anger) is accorded prominence in the mix ? an honor seldom bestowed on any bass player in this outfit.
There?s an immediate, spontaneous feel throughout these 10 tracks, which I think may be a product of Rubin?s production style ? he tends to encourage artists to gain complete mastery of their parts through intensive rehearsals before tracking a single note in the studio. The end product captures the raw energy of a live show, and gives the producer almost unlimited mixing possibilities, since the band doesn?t spend excessive time tweaking riffs and leads on the fly.
On the downside, the band's lyrical skill ? something which almost always matures over the years ? is not on par with the classic era on this outing, but lyrics have never been their strong suit anyhow: case in point, the ?Nietzsche for Dummies? approach in ?Broken, Beat & Scarred?... ?What don't kill ya/Make ya more strong?? Whatever, Jim? we learned that from Conan. Just take it to the bridge, please.
That small quibble aside, there's scarcely a weak spot across the entire 75-minute epic. Technical excellence abounds in shred-happy goodness like ?The End of the Line? (which features a classic Hammett solo), but there's some good old-fashioned, crunchy riff mayhem in ?All Nightmare Long,? intricate solo tapestries on ?The Judas Kiss? and ?The Day That Never Comes? (which recalls the finest moments from ?One?), a beautifully resonant bass riff in the instrumental ?Suicide & Redemption,? and the haunting piano and string accompaniment of ?Unforgiven III,? a continuation of the Ennio Morricone flavor of the original. It's all capped off with the thrilling thrash fury of the appropriately titled ?My Apocalypse.?
To me it seems like Death Magnetic is a response from modern metal?s Old Ones to the legions of Guitar Hero-crazed junior thrash bands popping up every other week ? themselves a reaction to the perceived inability of legendary groups to recapture the sound that inspired them to take up the axe. It?s their way of showing those whipper-snappers that the old boys can still bring the thunder.
Imagine if Tobe Hooper suddenly decided to make a new Chainsaw movie to show the rip-off artists how it's done... and actually made a movie that measured up to his original masterpiece. Yes, it seems a virtual impossibility. But in this case, somehow Metallica actually pulled it off, and in the process got their mojo back. If they ended their career here and now (well, at least after a tour or two), it would be a worthy coda.
Give this one a listen, and you too may become a believer again.