In 2003 Metallica releases St. Anger, a messy, often directionless album that sounded like it was recorded using a boom box in someone's garage. There are no guitar solos, and James Hetfield sounds like he's never more than a second away from bawling. Fans and critics the world over revile the record, roaring for a return to the "classic" albums of the 1980's, specifically Master of Puppets.
Metallica goes away for five years.
Autumn 2008 is right on our doorstep, and Metallica release their new album Death Magnetic. Hearkened as a "return to form," it's bursting at the seams with solos, abrupt chord changes, and drums that don't sound like they were built out of a garbage heap a laFat Albert. The last two songs are an instrumental and a blistering thrash song, just like Master of Puppets (and ...And Justice for All, incidentally). Critics and fans label it as a "mid-life crisis," "muddled," and "not like Master of Puppets."
Ah, what's a multi-platinum, multi-millionaire band to do?
But before I talk about Death Magnetic as an album, I want to say a few words about St. Anger.
It's not that bad a record.
Sure, the production does sound like crap, and a majority of the songs go nowhere, or don't have the sense to stop when they wear out their welcome but c'mon: it could have been another Re-Load (of crap). My biggest complaint (besides the lack of solos and production) was that often a song would be tight and compact and, just when you thought it was about to end, it would launch off in a totally new direction that lacked any cohesion to the song that had been playing for the last five-plus minutes. Despite all that I still say "Frantic" and the title track are great songs, and a few more ("Invisible Kid", "Shoot Me Again") had promise. Overall, St. Anger was still yards better than the 1-2 blech of Load and Re-Load.
So while I wasn't in the camp of sweaty fans demanding a return to the glory days, I did feel that a new album had to prove that Metallica remembered where they came from and what it was like before movie soundtracks and appearances on late night talk shows came calling.
And for me, Death Magnetic does that. The songs are modern, but have echoes (sometimes alarmingly so) of what they were doing circa Lightning, Puppets and Justice. The present isn't entirely ignored, but neither is the past forgotten. Opener "This Was Just Your Life" carries a hint of "Blackened" and has the tight palm-muting E-chug that Metallica completely own. Early favorite "The End of the Line" feels like it could have been written during their 80's heyday. There's an aggression to the playing that's been missing for a while, and you can hear everything spotlessly, a credit to Rick Rubin's team of engineers.
Or, almost everything. The one thing Metallica can seemingly never get spot on is the bass playing, which is a damn shame because new player Robert Trujilio (from Suicidal Tendencies) is a ridiculously talented player, and when you can hear him in the mix, he's all over the place, playing in between the notes and refusing to be relegated to simply backing up the drums or rhythm guitars. But too often he's placed so far back in the mixhe's barely a presence.
Elsewhere on the album there's plenty to be happy about about. "Broken Beat & Scarred" has some audible bass, tight riffing, and a solid Hetfield refrain with "What don't kill ya make you more strong." Lead single "The Day That Never Comes" takes a couple listens before you can get past the obvious "single" feel and almost blatant ripoff from heavy double-bass bridge in "One" but, once you do, it has a lot to offer. "Judas Kiss" manages to mix old Metallica with everything that was good from "St. Anger" - the loose, bluesy chords, melodic vocals and tonal shifts. And anyone looking for lyrics that recall the old days, look no further than closer "My Apocalypse", a bludgeoned thrash anthem in the vein of "Damage Inc." and "Dyer's Eve."
Not everything works like a second coming, and I don't want to give off the impression this is perfect. Metallica continues their string of uninspired sequels to "Unforgiven" with the sad, hapless "Unforgiven Part III" which is about eight minutes of waste. The lyrics to "The Day That Never Comes" get a little silly when, using his best Iron John cry, Hetfield proclaims, "Love is a four-letter word" and "The Son will shine...this I SWEAR!!" If I didn't have the lyric sheet I would have thought he was screaming "the SUN will shine" which is maybe a little more ridiculous, but not by much. And again, while Rubin and his team offer up a better production that Bob Rock did for St. Anger, it still feels tinny and light at times.
But overall Death Magnetic is a huge improvement in the discography of Metallica, and an album I've been playing non-stop. Maybe it's because any semblance of the old Gang is cause for celebration, but my not-so-secret suspicion is that Death Magnetic is a damn fine album.