Although St. Anger was possibly Metallica’s worst received album, the hardcore fans of Metallica have been claiming that the band sold out long time ago ever since the release of their hugely successful and highly critically appreciated 1991 “Black Album”. Load and ReLoad generally continued the trend of the radio-friendly Metallica formula established in the Black Album with inferior results. St. Anger was supposed to be a return to the roots for Metallica, but the horrible production and largely unfocussed musicianship ruined the album for legions of Metallica fans, to whom the Best of Metallica in the 1990’s was the unconventional live album “S&M”.
Death Magnetic seeks to take those hardcore Metallica fans to the promised land of “Pre-90’s Metallica” and the initial demo tracks suggested the album being in the vein of “..And Justice for All” rather than the attempted recreation of “Kill ‘em all” which “St. Anger” tried to be. After five years of rabid anticipation, Death Magnetic was finally available in stores in September 2008, although singles and live versions of the track surfaced in the summer before.
The album certainly grabs the attention of the listener with pounding heartbeat to start proceedings with, instead of guitar riffs, blast beats or screeching bass. In fact, the opening track That Was Just Your Life starts off with quite somber guitar, leading us to believe that Metallica has opened up the album with a power ballad- not quite the Promised Land we expected. Soon enough, however the drums and heavy rhythm kicks in and builds up for around two minutes in typical old school Metallica style. The vocals indeed suggest that Metallica is trying to go to the 80’s instead of trying to emulate the 90’s – and the production, although still loud and quite unnerving at times, is way better than St. Anger.
The song, however, loses its way half way through, partially because its lyrics are not really an improvement over the lackluster recent Metallica stuff and also because the structure starts to get repetitive. After their conspicuous absence from St. Anger, instrumental solos make their return in the very first song, but in this song itself, is not very good. However, all’s well that end’s well and a nice change of tempo in the last verse saves the song from being played out like a broken record and it nicely segues into The End of Line.
The End of Line is quite possibly the best track of this album. It has a unique structure resembling that of Nu Metal with rap style short verses and they work well with the song; I am not a fan of either Hip Hop or Nu Metal. Even the chorus of the song is fairly nonsensical, but the beat maintained throughout is awesome with clever tempo changes to avoid repetitive beats. The interlude instrumental harkens back to the classic “Master of Puppets”, and after a verse of clean singing vocals, the song goes back to where it started to end on a nice note.
Broken, Beat & Scared, however, is possibly the worst song of the album, after getting the expectations level so high with the previous track. The song starts off well enough but soon, the entire song structure, beats, vocals and lyrics start to feel formulaic. Worst of all, the hip-hop type formula employed so successfully in the last song does not manage to work here at all and the song is quite frankly, a mess.
Perhaps Metallica realised that BBS was not quite up to the mark and thus brings out all stops with their next three tracks, being three singles released from the album beforehand. The first of these is the first single released off the album by Metallica, the ballad The Day That Never Comes. Now, Metallica ballads give me two images in my mind; one that involves awesome 80’s ballads such as “Fade to Black” and “One” and another that involves poppy, whiny, nevertheless hugely commercially successful ballads such as “Nothing Else Matters”. Fortunately, The Day That Never Comes is a throwback to the former category and can be classified as “Fade to Black” of this album. As such, this is one of the top songs of the album, although the chorus, catchy and all, feels a bit cheesy. But good verses, lyrics and instrumental interludes makes up for the most part, but towards the end, the “jam session” style instrumental loses touch with the rest of the song and leaves an annoying ringing to my ears.
Next is the horror inspired All Nightmare Long in the vein of Metallica’s Cthulhu Mythos influenced “The Thing That Should Not Be”. It starts off terrifically with ominous sounding instruments followed by harsh drumming by Ulrich and guitars. The style of vocals also does justice to the horror theme of the song, although the chorus is standard Thrash Metal fare. From this point onwards, the song starts to go wrong and falls in to the trap of the opener by repeating itself ad infinitum. To his credit, Hammett tries to keep things interesting by some wicked guitar play in parts, but it adds little to the overall monotony the song becomes after half-way.
Apart from the ballads, Cyanide is probably the most “mainstream sounding” and “radio friendly” of the tracks; no points for guessing why it was released as a single. That does not mean it sounds overtly run-of-the-mill though. In fact, its conventional structure and vocals is actually a refreshing change from the metal experiment gone wrong sound of the previous track. Also, for a supposedly conventional track, there is a surprising number of vocal variations and the instrumental interludes does not feel tucked in for ego boost, but rather fits nicely into the song.
Continuing on mainstream, we have The Unforgiven III, The third in the series of immensely popular yet generic power ballads to come out of the Metallica factory in the 90’s. Now, although I am one of the harshest critics of The Unforgiven series of ballads, I have to admit it does not sound bad in the album overall, certainly better than BBS and somewhat of an improvement over the opener and even to some extent All Nightmare Long. The lyrics are pretty generic, the melody is catchy but forgettable, but the chorus is nice enough to sustain your interest for one hear. However, like all 90’s ballads of Metallica, I wouldn’t recommend it for multiple listening or “outside-the-album” listening, things will start to get boring real fast.
Judas Kiss is an unusual song. It’s starts off with nice bass guitars and soon begins to resemble “Master of Puppets”. In an effect ,it may sound like a clone of “The End of The Line”, but the verses are more conventional poetry than hip-hop. However, the song does not flow well enough and we are not sure how the instrumental interlude comes into play. However, the interlude itself is good enough and Lo and Behold! The song picks up after the interlude and the second half finishes the song on a much stronger note. This song, although a single, had potential to be a bigger hit if produced correctly.
We move on to the much hyped “Instrumental Return” of Metallica, Suicide & Redemption. It starts with heavy chops courtesy of Lars Ulrich, good chord progression and it builds, to nowhere basically. Perhaps I expected too much of Metallica, composing an instrumental after 20 Years, but it is at best close to their inferior instrumental “To Live is to Die”, and nowhere near to the epic greatness of “The Call of Ktulu” and the Holy Grail of Instrumentals – “Orion”.
The album closes with another single, My Apocalypse, whose lyrics mentions the title of the album. Nominated for the Grammy Awards, this is the closest song which reminds us the Thrash Metal Gods Metallica were in the Early 80’s, producing insanely fast yet rhythmic songs like “Four Horsemen”. Although it gets a bit tiring after a while (probably more due to production issues than song structure), it is still an effective closer of the album- much better than the instrumental would have been.
How good is the album overall? For sure, in every aspect- Death Magnetic represents a huge improvement over St. Anger and also over Load and ReLoad. There are no instant classic songs here, but the songs are generally in line with the traditional Metallica stuff and the album flows together pretty neatly overall, with production being a lesser issue than St. Anger. That being said, the album still feels too loud in places, with unnecessary distortion and clipping, dampening the listening experience. A remaster would be a nice idea. This album does not hold a candle to the “Classic Four” of Metallica and is around the level of their commercialized self-titled effort in 1991, although missing huge hits like “Enter Sandman”. But still, “Death Magnetic” is closest the guys have gotten to “…And Justice For All” in all these years and represents a step in the right direction after a largely disastrous 1990’s and St. Anger.