St. Anger was packed sick with hate-worthy things: the lack of focus, the pretension passed off as reinvention, the omission of guitar solos, "experimental" drums, and allowing Montresor to handle the mix. Seeing that the follow-up was comprised of ten songs totaling 74 minutes didn't fill me to overflowing with the good vibes.
However…Death Magnetic is a very good album. A classic? No. But given the last few records in the Metallica discography, I will accept a very good album with a smile and plate of warm chocolate chip cookies, thanks. Metallica has whipped up a gumbo yet again but this time I don't detect the odor of rotted okra.
What is discernible, unfortunately, is a stench that permeates many modern musical releases. Whether it was the idea of the band themselves, or producer Rick Rubin, the fact is Death Magnetic was fed compression like Homer Simpson was fed donuts in Hell. This is just another salvo fired in the so-called "loudness war," a battle for listeners being shamelessly fought by studio warriors determined to create a product that can make a nuclear bomb detonation sound like a baby's sneeze. The emphasis on super-compressed dynamic range leads to distortion and clipping, and while everyone's ears hear thangs differently, over 22,000 fans signed an online petition to have the album remixed (not to be confused with the petition to have St. Anger re-written and re-recorded).
Did the band care? No. Their management even played up this crushing of musical notes against each other in a most inconsiderate orgy as an exciting new sound. Given that many articles concerning the "loudness wars" cite Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory? as arguably the first prominent example of this volume-worship, Lars was probably honored.
Do I care? Mostly, I'm not bothered. I have heard better music recorded worse. (See: Sleater-Kinney's The Woods.) It is unquestionably fucking loud. Soundgarden's Superunknown is a record I have long held up as an example of production that deliberately aims to level city blocks, and Death Magnetic makes that sound like a Nick Drake album.
"That Was Just Your Life"--A disarming, tenuous beginning builds momentum until finally nuking a volcano. The riff ninety seconds in is basically the main of "Frantic" tamed and surrounded by drums that wouldn't send a wounded ape into a flinging frenzy. Hetfield is not the beast behind the microphone he once was--that's just the way things go.
A heartbeat is the most complex "simple" thing I can think of.
"The End of the Line"--No mommy issues. No ill-advised country-western excursions. Just lotsa ugly. Richard Kiel and Andre the Giant extreme fuckin' close-ups.
Gotta love Hetfield and that "Creeping Death" vocal delivery (one word, then a line). Dude's pushing 88 like Marty McFly but it's 1985 forever in his lion heart.
"Broken, Beat and Scarred"--More awesome unpleasantness. No-nonsense, stop-start, terse and tense. The abandonment of randomness was a wise decision. The sandy production actually helps cloak the questionable angst in a grayer shroud than on St. Anger, and colors influence perception considerably.
"What doesn't kill ya makes ya more strong" works here, where it would have failed on the last album, because James was allowed multiple vocal takes, thus his voice actually fits with the band playing along with him. Kirk and Rob apparently provide backing vox, but I'll be damned.
"The Day That Never Comes"--"Fade To Black" with a promise of something on the other side. I can dig that. I appreciate the emotion, as it appears to be organic and I didn't even have to squint!
Any piece of art that deals with domestic violence piques my interest. I judge them less on merit and more within the spectrum of tastefulness. "The Day That Never Comes" is an overwhelming experience, the promise of a boy-turned-man who will one day free himself and his mother from the fear that's sapped the color from their days. One day at a time. One day, in due time.
In due time…I suppose so. The "what-if" game is so popular, and so pointless. Forget leaving after the first time, or the first year; if my mother had left my father after putting up with fifteen years of abuse, I still would not have been born. For a nice aural facsimile of how reflecting upon that makes me feel, enjoy the parasitic riffing that dominates the song's second half.
"All Nightmare Long"--Damn near their happiest riffing in years. Which goes great with the title. Big smiles, everybody! Somebody run up on Kerry King and ask what he thinks about Rick Rubin producing for Metallica!
Shadow marauders out on a mission, wearing Goodwill clothing, bearing hot 16's. Blackest, sketchiest.
"Cyanide"--Terrible lyrics, but the music races out of the dragon pen. Call it Volvagia, 'cause it eats Gorons and their hammers of would-be justice. Once bubbling under, now boiling over. They never found that guy in Chicago.
"Unforgiven III"--Nine minutes? Nein!
This is basically The Godfather III of the series. (Convenient!) The instrumentation and production has been pored over to lend gravitas to what are essentially ridiculous proceedings. I would have been devastated by Michael Corleone's silent scream upon witnessing his daughter's murder if Sofia Coppola had shown any acting ability at all. As it is, when the big scene went down, the only thing that upset me is that it wasn't a headshot.
Likewise, maybe "Unforgiven III" would have had some inspired some response from me other than a piggish snort if Hetfield didn't come off like a whiny, bloated grandpa who has to be super-conscious whenever he farts. When you sing, and it ends up sounding like Billie Joe Armstrong doing a James Hetfield impersonation, you should stop. And think about what you're doing. Especially if you are James Hetfield. It's that real.
"Judas Kiss"--So metal. The palm-muting, the fills, the transitions. Just enjoy.
"Suicide and Redemption"--Their first true instrumental since "Orion" is a ten-minute 101 course not in CPR but in the most vital step of that procedure.
Grooves in a manner older Metallica never did, or perhaps never considered. The parts flow into each other with ease, and no individual section overstays its welcome. It's not that St. Anger lacked artistic self-awareness; it just had too much of the deleterious kind. This is the kind that works.
During recording, Kirk Hammett brought a picture of late Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley to the studio. James Hetfield wondered why Staley, and so many of his peers, seemed so drawn to self-destruction and death when they were blessed with the talent to make what would be to most people a "successful" life of renown and financial security. There are no answers here, or anywhere. But I would always rather ask "I wonder why?" than "I wonder if…?"
"My Apocalypse"--An undistinguished speed-run that sounds rather Slayer in terms of musical accents, lyrical structure/content, and vocal performance. (Not the drums, however. Never the drums.)
I noted earlier on that I could handle the clipping and distortion on Death Magnetic, even though it would be an even better album if it had been treated properly as a piece of music to be sat down with and savored instead of another group of files to transfer onto yet another piece of technology. "My Apocalypse" is nigh unlistenable. If the mix throughout is comparable to two fingers up the ass, well here's number three jammed and crammed for ya. A poor way to finish what is a surprising return to form.
Death Magnetic sold well, making Metallica the first band to see five of their albums to hit the number one spot on Billboard's Top 200. (Megadeth is close behind, with zero.) Fiercer, smarter…welcome back, bastards.