2008 / Music

Review: Metallica’s ‘Death’ Flashes Back To Thrash Roots

Metal Gods Complete Ninth Album

Well Metallica fans, you finally got what you asked for.

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

Photo: Warner Brothers Records

More than 20 years after the lords of metal ditched their thrash roots for a slicker, more MTV-approved sound — and after enduring endless abuse from headbanger loyalists who charged that they’d sold out for superstardom — the Bay Area band has at long last recorded an album that returns to the long-form, metal mayhem that they mastered during the mid-’80s.

Now, metal diehards and fair-weather fans alike have to decide whether the new disc, “Death Magnetic,” is an inspired reawakening from the creative stupor that descended on Metallica during the tail end of their commercial period, or if this is the death gasp of one of rock’s few remaining brontosaurus-sized bands. If the fans listen close, there’s equal evidence of both.

The idea that Metallica could just return to its old ways of high-speed riffing and complex, classical-style arrangements is, on its surface, as ridiculous as Sylvester Stallone’s light bulb that Rocky Balboa could just return to the Philadelphia slums after living the fabulous life in “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV.” Stallone had already distorted and ruined the cinema icon that he’d invented when he transformed the big-screen boxer from a tenacious, working-class underdog to a polished, Hollywood-glitz champion. A little plastic surgery and an expanded vocabulary had given the character more legs to last each new flick, but robbed him of what made him endearing to audiences. Stallone, however, just couldn’t leave Rocky (or the sequel paychecks) alone. And with all the finesse of a Philly brawler, he sought to resurrect the good will the original enjoyed by almost parodying the character for two more movies. Both bombed at the box office and deservedly so.

Metallica, too, appears ready for a Rocky-style comeback and with the same brute force. To pull this off, they musically revisit the days when the band members were peering up at the rock-star mountain peak before them. By the middle ’80s, the group had earned a measure of fame and was certainly looked upon with awe within the metal community for a run of monster albums that rivaled those of early Black Sabbath in heaviness, intensity and influence. Although “Master Of Puppets,” “Ride The Lightning” and “… And Justice For All” opened the world’s sports arenas to the group, the records had so far failed to break the band with mainstream audiences.

With an eye toward broadening their appeal and still suffering from the 1986 death of wildly talented bassist Cliff Burton, Metallica surrendered themselves into the hands of producer Bob Rock. The studio veteran had previously guided efforts by more radio-oriented metal acts like Motley Crue and the Cult, and certainly promised to utilize his acumen to get the band heard. Sure, Metallica’s brain trust of singer-guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich are renowned for possessing a seemingly bottomless arsenal of riffs as well as plenty of cutthroat business conniving, but it was Rock who is most responsible for molding Metallica into a heavy metal hit factory during the ’90s. He pushed them to abandon the operatic thrash epics and wild soloing that the group honed in the metal underground and took as far as the stadium circuit. He forced them to streamline their songs and simplify their attack to suit popular tastes.

By most accounts, the sonic sea change paid vast dividends. The so-called “Black Album” is by all measures a classic. Even though each new Metallica disc following in its wake seemed to yield uneven results, the “Black Album” seemed to permanently crystallize the band’s status. Their long-term prospects might have darkened by the songwriting sputtering, but in the present, the group seemed largely unaffected.

In the big picture, this dramatic flip-flop in the band’s orientation vaulted them to rock’s upper echelon next to U2 and the Rolling Stones. It also saddled them with a growing legion of disillusioned fans. Metallica faced successive waves of negative feedback with each step they took away from their mullet days. Besides the songs, controversies about the amount MTV attention they received, their appearance on the 1996 Lollapalooza tour and even the cutting of their hair sparked more and more defectors. In the end, the Bob Rock strategy made them a household name, but robbed the group of their credibility.

All of this came to a head during the band’s infamous, reality show-like documentary “Some Kind Of A Monster,” which followed the recording of their last album, “St. Anger.” The band nearly imploded amid a furor of rock star clichés: substance abuse, group therapy session, writer’s block, intraband politicking and second guessing. The resulting album was fiercely aggressive, but also their most tuneless. The poor sales signaled that the band was creatively spinning its wheels and would need to dig itself out.

Rock’s overdue exit and that of unflashy bassist Jason Newsted (Rock filled in for Newsted on “St. Anger”) has opened Hetfield and Ulrich to new possibilities, or at least allowed them to reinvestigate old ones. Label mogul Rick Rubin stepped in as producer and he, like Rock, served as a catalyst to get them back to what the combo presumably does best — a full-speed, guitar gallop. Add to that the attributes of new bassist Robert Trujillo, whose spider fingers give the band a virtuosity that it hasn’t possessed since Burton’s tenure. This tribe of metallic marauders is again ready to create the ironclad anthems of “Mad Max” barbarians pillaging and murdering. The only components missing are a collection of great songs.

There are unadulterated thrills throughout the album as these guys finally roar to life and nimbly segue between a half-dozen knockout riffs with the kind of sprawling energy of young toughs. Metalheads will easily be won over by the concussive force of “Broken, Beat & Scarred” and the savage speed metal of “All Nightmare Long” and “My Apocalypse.” But often times, the tracks sound divided between competing urges and murky motivations — one to celebrate their past and one to duplicate it — and listeners can hear the battles and subsequent confusion play out.

Potential single “The Day That Never Comes” embodies what’s best and worst about re-exploring their thrash mentality. A melodic hook draws you into a lovely, overgrown power ballad. Hetfield croons with bristling energy, like his passion has been ignited by thousands of cigarette lighters rallying him on. Ham-fisted riffs and double bass-drum kicks eventually push the track away from Bon Jovi territory. The song eventually reaches its crescendo by directly paraphrasing the famous machine-gun rat-tat-tat of Metallica’s ’80s hit, “One,” followed with a solo that initially quotes “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” before again pinching the Eddie Van Halen false harmonics bit from “One” again. Given all the water that has passed under the bridge, listeners are left to wonder if this is a sly homage or just a bit of recycling. (One thing that hasn’t changed is Hetfield’s lyrical skills, which are about as subtle as the song’s Leni Riefenstahl titles.)

Extensive knowledge of the Metallic catalog will yield limitless parallels in the new cuts. And yet, the record’s unbridled energy and tenacity is such during certain songs that it threatens to overwhelm suspicions. Looking at the songs objectively is like providing color commentary for a guitar-driven street brawl. “Cyanide” sweeps everyone in earshot into a torrent of blows. The evil, frantic sprawl of “The Judas Kiss” rumbles over anything its path, maniacally cris-crossing anything they might have missed and shaking out any loose screws. The powerhouse instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” is a 10-minute cage match in which these veterans intend to teach all enterprising metal fanatics a lesson in raw power. Tumbling from one assaulting episode of riffs to another, this is a suite so expansive that recalls Soundgarden’s hard-nosed “Badmotorfinger” and a flight of fancy that reveals Metallica’s hidden prog-rock influences. Overall, the best songs re-enshrines the guitar has a loose cannon in the band’s music.

This is welcome news for lead guitarist Kirk Hammett as “Death Magnetic” is a return to the axeman’s promised land, a place where no good scale couldn’t use a few more notes delivered at blurred speed. After last being seen in “Monster” meekly arguing against deleting his noodling from “St. Anger,” Hammett is now given freedom once again to fill too many bars with wah-wah soloing. His enforced silence has apparently taught him nothing about soul. His six-stringed fireworks are unlikely inspire the “Guitar Hero” nation, but his enthusiasm is evident in the wild fury of his attack.

While the foursome is obviously excited to be chasing down their every heavy metal rush instead of building a better chorus, the group can’t resist suggesting their past triumphs. The lyrics to “The Unforgiven III,” itself the second sequel to one of the highlights of the “Black Album,” are a therapy session transcript disguised through analogy. The verses point toward Metallica’s choice of reaching for rock’s A-list instead of just remaining an underground sensation. “Set sail to sea/But pulled off course/By the light of golden treasure,” Hetfield again croons with much macho bravura. Although he sounds winsome, he’s defiant in the group’s decision, claiming their course is one solely of their own choosing. This claim can only come from someone who hasn’t watched enough episodes of “Behind The Music.”

“Some Kind Of Monster,” Metallica’s own brush with onscreen dysfunction, provided plenty of evidence that this band should have broken up long ago. Held together through jealousy, hatred and fear, the band members picked and tore at each other for nearly two hours. When it came time to record something, all that they shared was their love of volume and anger. “Death Magnetic” unifies Metallica around a new cause: nostalgia. It might be want the fans have always wanted, but it’s not something any vibrant artist should embrace.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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