Monday, September 29, 2008

Metallica: Death Magnetic

Metallica: Death Magnetic
Year: 2008

No doubt about it, Metallica has been through some "rough" times. Twenty years ago they were the preeminent US metal band. Master of Puppets and ... And Justice for All were both fantastic albums, true triumphs of American metal.

Enter the 90's, grunge on the rise, a new brand of heavy music gaining ground, and Metallica made a drastic change. Their self-titled album skyrocketed to the top of the charts, firmly entrenched them as one of the most popular metal bands, and alienated a significant portion of the cadre of fans that had supported their rise from the musical underground. In the ensuing years, the band flirted with music that was less and less metal, more commercial, and increasingly boring. In an attempt to get back to their roots, in 2003 St. Anger was released. A truly terrible album in every way, many wondered if the mighty Metallica would ever return to glory.

In an attempt to answer that question, the band has released Death Magnetic. A new producer, James well out of rehab, and reports of a more positive working environment (any wonders as to why St. Anger was so horrible are quickly put to rest watching even clips from the documentary "Some Kind of Monster"), created some positive buzz before the official release. A deal with Activision to release the entire album for Guitar Hero III added to the hype. So how does Death Magnetic rate?

For starters, Death Magnetic is, by no means, a bad album. However, nor is it a good album. What it is, in one word, is mediocre. It is average. A relatively standard, run-of-the-mill metal album, its most distinguishing characteristic is that it is not the unmitigated disaster that St. Anger was.

Metallica attempts to bring back their lost sense of epic songwriting, with 7/10 tracks weighing in at over the 7 minute mark. Initially this appears promising. However, too often the longer tracks feel just that: long. Lost is the sense of progression, of unity, of common themes being weaved throughout the songs, as was found on MoP and AJfA. Instead, they sound like disparate, random riffs (all of course in the key of E) just hooked together with no real thought of composition. Long jams fill many of the songs, with a welcome return of Kirk Hammett's guitar solos. However, again these feel artificial, with no cohesive nature to them.

Lyically, James has reported a recent fascination with death, hence the album's title. Sadly, his lyrics deal with serious subjects with less tact and grace than that teenager down the street with the black nail polish and calculatedly brooding look. They are just atrocious. In an attempt to convey a sense of gravitas James sings "Love is a four letter word." Seriously. You can't make that stuff up. If you like being brutally beaten over the head with the lyrics, this is the album for you. If you want something thoughtful, eloquent, and subtle, look elsewhere.

Despite all the negative from Metallica's time in the 90's, at least the production of their albums was awesome. Clear, powerful, deep and rich guitars filled out the albums. Gone is all of that. The production hearkens back to MoP, but not in a good way. The guitars sound thin and tinny. The bass is nearly nonexistent. And Lars, good old Lars, sounds, again, like he is pounding on a set of trash cans. Then there is the clipping. A modern production method, the album is mixed far too hot. Clipping abounds, with a terrible distortion to the guitars and drums that comes from forcing the album to sound loud.

Yet, underneath it all, there is a new sense of energy, a sense of a return to their roots that helps the album. It can't save it from itself, but it elevates above anything the band has done in the past 20 years, at least if we still consider Metallica a thrash band. Unfortunately, this too sounds forced and contrived at times, almost like James and co. are hoping we will forget all the crap from the past 20 years and just pretend it never happened. Well, those years did happen, and no matter how much they may want to forget them, they have left an indelible mark on the band the used to be the preeminent American thrash band.

Rating: 3/5

Metallica has its work cut out for it. There is just so much good metal these days, that Death Magnetic cannot stand above the crowd. However, for the first time in decades, it doesn't sink to the bottom. Death Magnetic is a competent album, marred by atrocious lyrics and repulsive production. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dethklok: The Dethalbum

Dethklok: The Dethalbum Year: 2007 Click here for the artist's site
I remember last year when Dethklok's first CD dropped, people couldn't seem to heap on enough praise. But I took one look at it and thought to myself, 'It's the soundtrack to some silly cartoon show about the most popular metal band in the world. How good could it be?' and I never listened to it. I'm sad that happened. For those who aren't familiar with Dethklok, they're the fake metal band from the television show 'Metalocalypse'. This album is a collection of the most metal songs that were created for the show, released as though it was a real record by a real band. But it's so much more than just a soundtrack. This album is ridiculously fun - it's got the most overblown metal lyrics you'll ever hear, from screeds about murdering mermaids because you can't leave fingerprints underwater to hate-filled invectives directed straight at their fans (or as they refer to them in the aptly titled 'Fansong', 'brainless mutants') to blisteringly heavy symphony-backed rants against the government for wanting them to pay income taxes. But it's even more than that - it's one of the most thunderous, mean, uproariously fun metal records I've ever heard. It's louder, meaner, and has as much teeth as any other metal album that came out last year (and is, in fact, a lot more metal than many of the supposedly 'heavy' discs released). The fact that all of the instruments are played by one guy (with the exception of the drums) makes it that much more impressive. Now, don't expect this to be the next great progressive metal epic. It's very straightforward stuff - this isn't going to change the way you think about metal. However, creator Brandon Small does a very good job of capturing the essence of death metal - if only in the name of comedic parody. The amazing thing is that it's through said parody that he makes one of the best examples of what death metal should be. It's supposed to have silly lyrics. It's supposed to have horrible sounding vocals. It's supposed to feel driven and thunderous, cacophonous and agressive, with flying guitar solos and in-your-face downtuned chugging. And all of those are found by the bucketfull in this album. Small has a sufficiently ugly voice as vocalist Nathan Explosion (he also does the voices of most of the rest of the band), and his rhythm guitars are lean and mean. His basswork is quite adroit. And he does impeccable guitar solos. These things soar above thump of the music, meedling and noodling enough to make most other metal guitarists jealous. They are a beautiful icing on a delicious metal cake (with mercury frosting, babeh) that truly tie this album together. In fact, the only thing that Small doesn't do is the drumming - however, SYL veteran Gene Hoglan is in the battery, and the 'Atomic Clock' is as good as he ever was, beating his double basses with his feet almost constantly, making the album that much more abrasive and aggressive. He rounds out the sound perfectly, adding his signature noise just where it needs to be to make things that much more impressive. Tracks to catch: Album opener 'Murmaider' is great, with the silliest lyrics about underwater killings you'll ever hear. 'Fansong's heavy beat and message about how their fans should all kill themselves parodies the aloofness and uppityness that so many artists espouse with deftness. 'Briefcase Full of Guts' should be self-explanatory. But the true gem of the album is the track 'Dethharmonic', with full orchestral backing, lucid, gorgeous violin work, and words about how the band would rather kill people than pay taxes. It's hilarious. Rating: 3/5 As I mentioned earlier, this album isn't going to change one's mind about metal - if you like it, you'll dig this album. If you don't, you can't expect Dethklok to change your mind. But there's enough enjoyment here to really merit a listen or ten, if only to revel in the delicious irony of parodies. This CD really is comedy gold and blisteringly heavy, invasive metal.