Old Is New Review: “Death Magnetic” by Metallica

Metallica_-_Death_Magnetic_coverThis November, Metallica will release Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, their tenth LP and first release in eight years. “Hardwire”, the first track from the album, has kicked the hype machine into high gear as fans everywhere rejoice over the track’s quick one-two punch that recalls the band’s sound on their debut record Kill ‘Em All. Just like that, the often divisive and mocked Metallica is turning heads again even among the most elite and of the metalsphere. All this buzz spurred me to revisit the band’s previous album (not Lulu) that, from what I can tell, no one really seems to talk about much: Death Magnetic.

The usual pitch you’ll hear regarding Metallica’s discography is that their first four albums are amazing and then The Black Album is where they started to go downhill (because fuck the mainstream, amirite?). Then Load, Reload, and St. Anger are all lobbed into the general category of utter shit, the last of these being considered particularly utter shit. They also did a kickass covers album, but I’ll skip that one since it’s not an original LP. I’m also not talking about Lulu, so don’t ask. Now, I’m not quite as harsh on Metallica and have admittedly gone to lengths to defend them.True, I also think the first tour albums are superior like most people, but I enjoy the The Black Album just fine, and there are a number of songs from Load and Reload like “Hero of the Day” or “The Memory Remains” that I enjoy spinning. As for St. Anger, while I can’t say I like the album (I can’t do the snare drum, Lars, I just can’t), it’s not the worst album I’ve ever heard. And yet, I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone about where Death Magnetic places in the band’s discography. At the time of release in 2008, many hailed it as a return to form, my seventeen-year-old self included. But how does it stack up today?

Right out of the gate you can tell that Metallica went through a lot of effort to emulate their 80’s selves just by returning to standard E tuning as opposed to the E flat they started playing in when Load came out. There’s also the matter of the first four tracks; on the albums Ride The LightningMaster of Puppets, and …And Justice For All, the first four tracks on each follow this pattern:

Track 1: Quiet intro, possible acoustic/clean guitar, builds into a thrashy opening track

Track 2: Slightly slower, hard-hitting track, title track

Track 3: Slower, heavier track

Track 4: Depressing subject matter, first half of the song is slow and clean, then gets fast and heavy

Death Magnetic follows this pattern pretty closely, the only exception being that the second track is not the title track. This does work in the album’s favor, as the opener “That Was Just Your Life” stokes the fires of nostalgia and presents the album as something familiar but new. “The End of the Line” is a solid followup track and “Broken, Beat, and Scarred” is pretty catchy. “The Day That Never Comes” is an okay track, but falls prey to being compared to “One” in terms of structure, especially with the thrashy, double bass drum part at the end.

Then comes “All Nightmare Long”, which I consider the best song on the album. It’s in D, which is different for Metallica, but is fast and catchy like you’d expect. The lyrics evoke a good aesthetic as well, making you feel like you have to outrun some unseen terror right behind you (which, incidentally, makes this a great running song). Next is “Cyanide”, the first track revealed from the album after the band played it live at Ozzfest ’08. It’s got some good punchy riffs and a nice bass groove. So all in all, the albums doing pretty well up to this point.

“The Unforgiven” is one of Metallica’s staples from The Black Album. “The Unforgiven II” is fine if not unnecessary sequel. As such, more than a few fans likely groaned when they saw “The Unforgiven III” on the track listing for Death Magnetic, and then groaned even more when they finally heard the track and it started with piano. Those of us who aren’t bothered by keys on metal albums sat through the rest of the song and basically shrugged; it doesn’t really connect to its predecessors in terms of sound. Really, it’s only connection is the use of the word “forgive” in the chorus. It’s not a bad song, but I wasn’t upset they didn’t play it live when I saw them.

“The Judas Kiss” is another fun track with some more solid riffs and a catchy chorus. Next comes the nearly ten-minute instrumental “Suicide & Redemption”, which I’m mixed on. Another classic Metallica albums staple was including an instrumental, usually composed by late bassist Cliff Burton, and those songs are held in the highest regard. On Death Magnetic, it seems a bit unnecessary. It’s not bad and I even like lots of the riffs towards the middle of the track, but it could have just been a bonus track.

Finally, we arrive at the final and shortest track on the album “My Apocalypse”, and I feel kind of weird about this one. In terms of rhythm and lyrics, it’s almost true-blue 80’s thrash and everybody is killing it from Lar’s drumming to James’vocals. But the riff…I don’t know why but the main riff doesn’t completely gel with me; those two notes at the end of it just sound a bit weird and it keeps me enjoyment off balance. Other than that, it’s an decent song that fits the role of a thrashy conclusion to the album.

That’s the track-by-track walkthrough, but there are two general criticisms about the album I thought I’d briefly address. The first is that the production is bad because the music is overly compressed in an effort to make the songs sound louder (see also: loudness war). The second is that the songs are too long. In regards to the first critique, I do notice the overt loudness a bit on certain songs, but nothing that ever bothered me much. As for the second, I point to the albums Master of Puppets and Justice, both of which feature tracks ranging from 5 to 8 1/2 minutes, nearly ten on the latter. If people are bored by it, I can only shrug. Didn’t bother me.

So what do I think of Death Magnetic eight years after its release? Honestly, I enjoyed revisiting it. It’s not an amazing album but it didn’t need to be. It just needed to show that Metallica can still kick ass, and they prove that on this album. They emerged five years after St. Anger to give fans what they wanted, and they did. You can really tell they put a lot of effort into this album to try and evoke that classic Metallica feel, and while it may feel a tad forced in some ways, I still appreciate it. This was never going to be as good as the old days, but for some reason people still sign them off because their new music isn’t as good, which you could pretty much say about most artists who have been around for 35 years. It’s just another classic case of going with the crowd and hating what’s cool to hate. As for me, I’m glad I listened to this album again because now I’m as excited as I’ve ever been for a new Metallica album.

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