Metallica - _Death Magnetic_
(Mercury Records, 2008)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (7 out of 10)
For well over fifteen years the release of a new Metallica album has been a pundit's wet dream. With each new record there are arguably more people lining up to take pot shots at the once venerable 'Tallica than even such luminaries as Dylan and the Stones are forced to contend with. But hey, every action deserves an equal and opposite reaction, and so for every unconditional accolade proffered just because it's Metallica -- who obviously can do no wrong -- you get an excoriating dismissal which anything short of _Puppets Pt. 2_ would have automatically preordained. With _Death Magnetic_, Lars and co. have wisely figured out that they can have their cake and eat it too: if half the potential audience would scarf up anything with the Metallica logo on it, why not placate both sides at once and dish up what the naysayers have been demanding all along?

Naturally after a good ten years of _Load_ baiting, dumbed down arena rock and the subsequent promise of a return to "the heavy" with _St. Anger_, a good deal of skepticism awaited the release of _Death Magnetic_. The finished product finds Metallica delivering on one hand while deviously taking it back with the other. Living up to the neo-thrash hype on extended workouts "My Apocalypse" and "The Judas Kiss", the band hedge their bets with _Load_ era throwbacks "Cyanide" and "The Day That Never Comes", the latter pair not coincidentally the most publicized of the pre-album singles.

There is certainly more _...Justice_ than _Load_ here, and thankfully little to no _St. Anger_ at all, but that's only if we're talking musicianship. James Hetfield is still belting out the rehab-damaged free association lyrics of the post-_Load_ era, although maybe not stretching quite as much for catharsis. Nonetheless, for anyone who witnessed the Oprah-esque vagaries of "Some Kind of Monster", this style of artless self flagellation is still hard to stomach. The clich├ęs are endless: the inarticulate machismo of "we die hard!" ("Broken, Beat & Scarred"), the late '90s renunciation of self worth in discarded NIN / Marilyn Manson lines such as "the slave becomes the master" ("The End of the Line") and "I've become your new god now" ("The Judas Kiss"), token stabs at adolescent alienation and persecution with "realize you don't belong / disconnect somehow" ("That Was Just Your Life") and "hunt you down all nightmare long"... the list goes on. There are truly -no- good lyrics on this album. None. Just some that are less embarrassing than others.

But the beast that is Metallica doesn't live or die solely on the shoulders of James Hetfield, and as such _Death Magnetic_ finds redemption in other areas, namely Kirk Hammett's reinvigorated guitar playing. After more or less relegating him to "Fifth Beatle" status on _St. Anger_, Hammett's given a huge amount of input here, and aside from the decidedly more subtle rhythmic contributions of "new" bassist Robert Trujillo, Hammett accounts for the lion's share of _Magnetic_'s pleasures. At a gnat's hair shy of ten minutes, sole instrumental "Suicide & Redemption" makes the most use of Hammett's talents and, far from being a mere shred marathon, is actually a fairly well structured tune that trades virtuosity for song craft and tastefulness.

"Suicide..." offers a sharp contrast to the remainder of _Death Magnetic_, though, which in spite of the youth reclaiming genre regression does have one notable feature in common with _St. Anger_: a scatter shot, highly obvious lack of unified direction, a sort of mismatched riff stacking that used to be copacetic in early thrash until _Puppets_ and _Justice_ came along and upped the ante for everybody. _St. Anger_ may have been the more notable offender, but there is quite a bit on _Death Magnetic_ that suggests individual band members sequestering themselves in isolation and coming up with song fragments that would later need to be stitched together in Frankenstein fashion. Roughly half the album bears the modern rock melodicism of _Load_ married with out of place thrash breakdowns and momentum crushing riff sidebars -- the most notable being "The Day That Never Comes", the first half of which sounds like nothing if not a _Load_ outtake before inexplicably segueing into an old-school mosh pit for the latter four minutes without ever even bothering to bring things full circle.

Inconsistency aside, the main victory for Metallica this go 'round is the dearth of outright clunkers, although "The Unforgiven III", which finds James opining "how can I be lost / when I got nowhere to go?" and "how can I blame you / when it's me I can't forgive?", revisiting the question of what would happen to the earth's orbit if all the people in China puked in revulsion at the same time. In keeping with the tradition of ending the album on a blistering note, "My Apocalypse" is pound for pound the most old-school of the new songs, and as such ultimately sums up the ambivalent nature of _Death Magnetic_'s corpulent whole: sure, much of this sounds like something that could have been written circa 1988, but how does it compare to the material that actually -was- written in 1988?

It's in that regard that I feel _Death Magnetic_ has thus far been greatly overrated. It's not enough to sound like _Justice_ outtakes, and while this is easily the best album Metallica have written in quite a long time, it's simply indefensible to call this a "return to form". If anything, while solidly listenable, _Death Magnetic_ could be the worst news for _Puppets_ fans yet: this time they actually put their heart and wallets into an unadulterated (OK, slightly adulterated) '80s revival, but apparently this is as close as it gets for them anymore. And if that seems harsh, consider the way the early flush of guarded appreciation for _St. Anger_'s church of heavy quickly subsided into a sobering reappraisal of its lack of songwriting merits. _Death Magnetic_ is clearly a better album than _St. Anger_, no one is arguing that, but I think in the months to come the honeymoon period will cool off and fans, casual and diehard alike, will have to reassess just how high this ranks in the pantheon of Metallica efforts.

[You can read Jackie Smit's review of _Death Magnetic_ here.]

(article published 18/9/2008)

9/18/2008 J Smit 8 Metallica - Death Magnetic
6/30/2003 J Smit 7 Metallica - St Anger
7/17/1996 A Bromley 3 Metallica - Load
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