Death Magnetic is the best album that Metallica has released since …And Justice For All.
Now take a quick peek at the band’s catalog since that release and listen as the air escape from that hot air statement. What’s even more fabricated are the tales originating of how Rick Rubin set out to make an album with the same type of quality control as Master Of Puppets. It is that highlight from the numerous pre-release hype machines that convinced me—and thousands of others—that Metallica might have indeed come to their senses and set out to make an album that redeemed themselves after nearly twenty years of calculated bids for mainstream acceptance and embarrassing side steps. Yet there was that nagging understanding that there is no way that Metallica could make an album as good as Puppets regardless of whose name is listed as producer. What we really wanted to see was if Metallica could make an album as good as Justice.
Justice is a more appropriate benchmark because, and this is something that I’ve firmly believed ever since The Black Album, the spirit of Metallica is no longer with us. The late Cliff Burton seemed to embody the idea that it was the band’s responsibility to test themselves before anything else and he also seemed to be the voice of reason that the band ultimately needed, and spent the better part of two decades trying to find again. After he was so callously taken, the burden of running Metallica was shared by a pair of drunks with major communication issues and a guitar player who seems incapable of any form of confrontation unless he’s plugged in to an amplifier.
Justice possesses the residue of Burton’s spirit while everything beyond it found an outsider, Bob Rock, serving as the band’s resident headmaster. He filled each album with an abundance of radio-ready songs that were heavy on rock formula and devoid of any of that aforementioned thrash spirit.
There is no spirit…anywhere…on Death Magnetic. It is as by the numbers as anything the band has done in the past twenty years and it demonstrates that the band, specifically James Hetfield, has actually reached a point where he thinks that returning to the type of music that made them so legendary means that he needs to dumb down his lyrics. Words are thrown together with phonetic abandon, totally disregarding their meaning while gaining inclusion on the sheer merits that they sound gnarly.
Musically, there are some moments of heart-swooning aggression. Beginning with the opener “That Was Just Your Life,” so unmistakably awesome that you start to consider, “Holy shit. These guys just might have pulled it off.”
With greater scrutiny, however, you begin to see the formula. It’s perfectly executed, so the formula is carefully hidden underneath layers of precise guitars and some of the most aggressive arrangements the band has come up with in years. But Death Magnetic at its core is a patch job of rehearsal riffs, eloquently pieced together under the pretense of some retarded concept (death, I guess) and the mighty pen of their management company’s press release.
The documentary Some Kind Of Monster did more than shed light on the dysfunction of Metallica’s communication skills, it showed us how the band creates music post-Black Album. Guitar parts are mined, saved to a hard drive, and then pasted together with other riffs until they form a collective song.
Sometimes it works (the aforementioned “That Was Just Your Life,” “All Nightmare Long”) to the point where the sounds actually sound rehearsed. But more often than not, they just sound like cherry-picked riffs held together by ProTools, waiting for the human interaction to happen during the rehearsals for Death Magnetic‘s world tour.
Ironically, one of the album’s strongest cuts occurs when they strip away the thrash nostalgia and buddy up to the hard rock mantra that made them household names. “The Day That Never Comes” sounds like the kind of Metallica that we’ve come to expect over the past 15 years, or come to resent depending on what side of the fence you’re sitting on. I’m firmly entrenched on the side that they’re trying to cater to with Death Magnetic, but I understand that they’ve had more years now at adapting to being a rock band than they did during their ascent. Maybe that’s why “The Day That Never Comes” sounds so credible. It may not be what I like in Metallica, but I’m resigned to admitting that they’re very good at being a hard rock band and that song proves it.
Much has been said of the over-use of compression on this album and it’s true. There is no dynamic to this record at all. It barks and carries very little depth. Repeated listening not only provides listeners with a certain amount of audio fatigue, it also points to a more serious question: Where the fuck is Robert Trujillo? If I recall, nearly everyone in the band wet themselves over his ability, to the tune of a $1,000,000 advance, full partnership rights, and “It hadn’t been played that way since Cliff” comparisons. All of this praise and money, apparently, has been flushed down the toilet as Trujillo, regardless of his abilities, is completely off the radar in the mix. Whether this is another Jason Newstead type of “initiation” is not clear, but one would think that someone with Rick Rubin’s resume could have suggested that they turn up Trujillo’s contributions.
Speaking of contributions, guitarist Kirk Hammett‘s are critical. He’s a maniac throughout Death Magnetic and that’s a good thing. Without Hammett’s brutal guitar work, this album would fall under the weight of Hetfield’s sub-par lyrics, Lars Ulrich‘s standard issue drumming, and the Frankenstein arrangements.
There’s a huge difference between needing to make and album and having to make one. Metallica had to make Death Magnetic or be forced to contend with a fast eroding fan base. Considering the drama that prefaced the new album, it’s a fine effort that assuredly serves its purpose and stops the bloodletting. Underneath this band-aid remains a wound that can no longer heal, the pain from it is the reality that Metallica has now logged more years as a mega-platinum rock band than a hungry and challenging thrash band. When you listen to Death Magnetic with this mindset, it’s easy to consider it as a return of the band’s youthful exuberance. But when you remember the spirit that fueled their early work, Death Magnetic is nothing more than an open casket visitation.