September 13, 2008
For Metal-Heads, an Album to Die For
By Jeff Miers
Bands that form deep bonds with their audience grasp a double- edged sword. They benefit greatly from the loyalty of fans. At the same time, that loyalty freezes them in time, puts them in a glass case, and can make the natural unfolding of the collective art over time a painful process.
The band's reputation is essentially based on the album's "Kill 'em All,""Ride the Lightning,""Master of Puppets" and "And Justice For All," all of which came out before the '80s groaned to their inevitable conclusion. When, in the early '90s, "The Black Album" became Metallica's mainstream crossover mega-success, it felt justified, like the logical outcome of the dense, challenging, uber- aggressive work done during the previous decade.
Metallica became one of the biggest bands in the world on the strength of "The Black Album," while simultaneously hanging onto both its original fan base and its credibility. That couldn't last. As the band members grew up, both as people and as musicians, they became interested in more than simply molten, complex, bludgeoning metal, and they strove to broaden the Metallica sound.
They succeeded, but the old-school fans were not happy. Believe it or not, when the guys in Metallica cut their hair in the late '90s, this was big news, a knife-in-the-back to loyal metal-heads. Perceived as having "sold out" to the mainstream, and following the rather embarrassing public profile conjured by the confessional "Some Kind of Monster" documentary, Metallica needed to reaffirm its predominance in the heavy music world. With Friday's release of "Death Magnetic," the band's ninth studio album, it seems to have done just that. How? By looking backward, not forward.
From the opening salvos of the epic album-launcher "That Was Just Your Life," it's clear that Metallica is hell-bent on reclaiming the knotty, prog-metal glory of yore. There's nothing even vaguely "pop" about this maelstrom of distortion-saturated riffery, militant, muscular drumming, and the drill-sergeant yelp of guitarist/ vocalist James Hetfield. The intensity never lets up from that moment forward, even when the band (briefly) skirts metal ballad territory. This is pure testosterone, and even if Metallica deserves significant praise for exploring its collective potential over the past 15 years, this is clearly the sound of a band returning to what it does best.
The thrill of it all for a Metallica fan has always been full immersion in the dense shifts in meter, unexpected accents and well- tuned-engine precision of the machine that is this band. Sing-along choruses were never the goal. The more difficult and initially off- putting the tune, the better.
Judged by this criteria, "Death Magnetic" is a masterpiece. Throughout it, the band takes stock of its quarter-century past and battens down the hatches for the next 25, fate permitting. There's much to marvel at here, from the cranium-crushing, deep-pocket riff anchoring "Broken, Beat & Scarred," and its definite "We die hard!" refrain, through the truly scary instrumental "Suicide & Redemption," as bassist Robert Trujillo's low-end figure groans beneath the weight of Hetfield and Kirk Hammett's wall-of-guitar.
None of it betrays any of the "sensitive, troubled guy" drama that longtime fans found so repellent throughout the "Some Kind of Monster" film and the "St. Anger" album. This is Metallica entering the room, cojones first. Producer Rick Rubin knows how to make this happen; he captured the band as it sounds live, with a minimum of fuss.
Admittedly, the lyrical content is grim; as the album title suggests, this is a record concerned with death. As in, every song is about death. It remains unclear whether such morbid fascination acts as catharsis or self-fulfilling prophecy for the band's fans. But taken as art, it makes perfect sense. These songs would sound absurd if their text spoke of skipping through a field of flowers or contemplating the transformative powers of romantic love. In Metallica's world, all men are not brothers. What bonds us is our anger.
Twenty-five years after the release of "Kill 'em All," Metallica sounds like a band with plenty left to prove. "Death Magnetic" suggests a bright future for four musicians who've made peace with their past.
Metallica Death Magnetic
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Originally published by NEWS POP MUSIC CRITIC.
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