Death Magnetic Review
They’re trying. Every song on Metallica’s newest album, Death Magnetic, will require Hetfield and Co. to concentrate in order to perform it live…and likely break a sweat. Of course a higher degree of technical difficulty does not mean that the songs actually warrant the furrowed brows and grimaces they will elicit from the band to pull off in the live arena, but the album is undeniably dense and filled with ideas. The production is arguably the best they’ve had since the blazing guitars sound of debut Kill ‘Em All: the guitars are rich and the drums are thick and roomy with a nice amount of distortion on the snare (kind of opposite the snare sound on the last one).
Assuming that everyone (intelligent) reading this magazine prefers 80s Metallica to the “stuff” that followed, the contrary thing to point out is that Hetfield has continually improved as a vocalist. Even though the Black Album, Load, Reload and St. Anger songs are composed of riffs that sound like reheated Danzig, Kid Rock or post-makeup Kiss, Hetfield continued to develop his voice. He became a crooner with a rich voice and often excellent inflection. (He had to do something while playing one riff for five minutes...) On Death Magnetic, Hetfield’s vocals sound good, but perhaps because of the complexity of the music— or maybe just a lack of good ideas— he comes up with far fewer memorable refrains than he did on St. Anger or the Black Album. His best singing is unquestionably in the album’s two most somber tunes, “The Unforgiven III” and the album zenith “The Day that Never Comes,” and he has other nice moments (“Broken, Beat & Scarred,” the bridge of “The Judas Kiss” and the chorus of “That Was Just Your Life”), but it is clear that this singer’s best ideas are when he is Sensitive Hetfield or Melodic Hetfield, not Tough Hetfield or Forcing-the-Idea-That-Doesn’t-Work-Ah! O-Yeah-ah-ah! Pirate Hetfield.
The album features the return of Lead Guitarist Kirk Hammett (as opposed to Standing-On-Stage-Bored-As-Hell Kirk Hammett), who was very missed on the St. Anger (and very needed). He does a fine job stomping his wah-wah/bluesy shredding when given his space, and his big solo in the later part of “The Judas Kiss” (around 6:00) takes a lot of very interesting and creative turns— it’s his best lead since “Dyer’s Eve.” Drummer Lars Ulrich continues with his expressive, deep groove, surprise-accent style of playing that—whether you think he’s a douche-bag or not— helped shape the genre. Though his playing has flaws (even after digital correction), like Carcass’ Ken Owen, I prefer his performance to many more perfect players: His instincts are great and he distinctively pulses the music without getting in the way (unlike that Tool drummer everybody loves who often makes their music stagnant by omitting necessary snare hits). Good, musical and thoughtful drumming throughout the album.
Unlike the other “return to the hard” album St. Anger, Death Magnetic focuses on the guitars: This is unquestionably the first time the band has put riffs first since …And Justice For All. Unfortunately, the riffs are largely okay groove, sludge, stoner and bar rock licks played with more distortion and the errant triplet or chugs to make them seem more active/metal. There are some genuinely good riffs— “The End of the Line” has one at 4:20, “My Apocalypse” has several (1:59, 2:58, and the bridges) “Broken, Beat and Scarred” has the best riff on the album at 1:00 and “The Day that Never Comes” has several good ones in the second half— but mediocre riffs outweigh the good ones by a big margin. This is the ultimate achievement and limitation of this album: Metallica metallicly puts the guitars in spotlight, but the ideas are not quite compelling enough to hold the stage. The vocals and synergistic details, and by this I mean stop-starts and drums/riff interplay, do help buoy things and make it functional metal.
Death Magnetic is a dense and way too long album that shows the boys can still play tough music well and passionately…even if the ideas are of varying caliber. “Cyanide” and “The Judas Kiss” are duds, “My Apocalypse” is a fun stab at “Damage, Inc.” but with a weak verse section, “Broken, Beat & Scarred” is quite good, “The Day that Never Comes” is almost great and the remainder of the album is pretty good— okay riffs bolstered by interesting arrangements, good details, synergy, strong performances and great production.
They’re trying…and succeeding to some extent.