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.
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.