Saturday, September 13, 2008
Death Becomes Them
I mentioned a few posts back that I've been waiting for Metallica to get back to the business of rocking. In the 80's, Metallica was a band that intentionally or not stood for something: Heavy Metal rebellion. They weren't on MTV, they weren't on the radio and were considered among the hardest of the hardcore in Metal (The friend who introduced me to Metallica's music would constantly debate with himself who was heavier, Metallica or Slayer. I don't know if he ever found an answer.). No nonsense, no bullsh*t, just straight up rock played faster and heavier than you could handle with total commitment. Their career picked up momentum through a combination of live performance, word of mouth and tape trading. The devil horn throwing headbanging masses championed the band as the source of pure music in an era of spandex and hair spray.
At the start of the 90's, the band slowed down their sound and hit paydirt with an artistic and commercial triumph in the Black album. Then they took a break for the first half of the decade. When Metallica returned, there was a noticeable change in their approach (more than just cutting their hair). In my view, their music from the late 90's seemed to be more about prestige, trendiness and above all gettin' P-A-I-D. Rebellion was no longer needed, they had become the standard bearer of all things Hard Rock in the 90's. A brand name, like Sears or Kleenex. That's not to say I didn't enjoy Load (1996), Reload (1997) or Re-Reload or whatever they put out at that time. It just wasn't as good to me, their albums were solid but not mind blowing like before (though Garage Inc. came close).
But for the new millennium, they shifted approach again starting with St. Anger (2003). Despite the total lack of guitar solos and a tin can drum sound (I actually enjoyed the drum sound though), I liked that Metallica were getting back to what made them unique. So why this three paragraph wind up? Because Metallica, the version of Metallica I'm a big fan of, has finally come back. At least musically.
Produced by Rick Rubin, Death Magnetic essentially picks up where ...And Justice For All (1988) left off. Death is filled with slash and burn guitars, complex arrangements, dog bark vocals and speed of light beats. It's all played with fire and uncompromising fury, something I didn't think the band was capable of anymore. New bassist Robert Trujillo fits in perfectly with a rumbling, agile style that is distinct from the prior bassists. James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett attack their established roles with renewed interest.
The opening track "That Was Your Life" sets the tone starting with an ominous sparse guitar leading into a slow buildup of the full band before a classic style rampaging riff starts. It's followed by shifting drum beats between mid tempo and fast while Hetfield yells out end-of-the-world lyrics without any sense of commercial melody. Then Hammett unleashes a squalling guitar solo and before you know it, you're back home.
Other highlights include the strutting march of "Broken, Beat & Scarred" and the cut throat thrash of "My Apocalypse". The lead single "The Day That Never Comes" utilizes their established slow/quiet to fast/loud song structure (like "Fade to Black" or "One") to great effect (it has grown on me). And the instrumental "Suicide & Redemption" proves the band has lost none of their chops. Even the sequel "Unforgiven III" shines and the string backed piano start surprisingly fits in well with the album.
The morbid Death theme lends the disc a jumping off point for what to me is their most satisfying record in nearly two decades. I was skeptical that Metallica would not fully return to their roots given their impulse to be arty for art's sake, but they have really impressed me. Out of the whole piece, the only thing that took me out of the album for a moment was "The End of the Line" with the main guitar part aping Pearl Jam's "Even Flow" (it kept bugging me as familiar and my wife walked in and nailed what it was). Otherwise, Death Magnetic is from start to finish a great album. Each time I hear it, I like it more than the last time (an hour ago I thought it was good but another spin is revealing even more to enjoy) and finally they sound like dangerous badass SOBs again. Welcome home (sanitarium), Metallica.