If you haven’t been able to get my attention for the last couple of days it’s because I have the new Metallica album, Death Magnetic, on repeat on my iPod. That I have listened to nothing else since last Friday should not be an indication one way or the other about my opinion of the album. It is a new Metallica album, therefore I will listen to it until I know it inside and out. These guys and me, we go way back.
I probably first heard of Metallica somewhere in the seventh grade. Somebody in my junior high school had a denim jacket with one of their album covers spray-painted on it. I associated the band, and all heavy metal, with the burnouts who snuck out during lunch and smoked behind the gym. All I knew about heavy metal music was that it was noise. I don’t know why I thought that; I suspect I heard a parent or other authority figure say so and it just stuck. I had no evidence to present against the accusation; I had, in fact, never actually heard real heavy metal before. I listened to whatever was on the radio.
One afternoon when I was fourteen I was kicking back in my bedroom, reading a book and listening to the radio. By then my musical tastes had refined only slightly. Instead of getting my music solely from the radio, I also got input from MTV, so I had moved on to Def Leppard and Motley Crue. I knew that some sources called these guys “metal,” but I could tell they weren’t “heavy” metal. For all the guitars and distortion and power chords, these guys were still just pop acts.
This commercial came on the radio. Metallica had a concert coming up, somewhere nearby. A collage of snippets from their songs played underneath the voiceover. I had to put my book down and listen. I didn’t know what I was hearing, but it sure as hell wasn’t just noise. I could feel something in it that those other bands, the hair bands, were hinting at but could never reach. After thirty seconds the commercial was over, but I knew I needed to hear more. That week I tuned in to the Headbangers’ Ball, and I saw the video for “One.” The next day I rode my bike to the record store and picked up . . . And Justice for All and Master of Puppets on cassette. I had to get Justice because that had “One” on it, but I grabbed Puppets as well because that was the title I’d heard the burnouts talk about. I had a paper route, and so I grabbed my cheap knockoff Walkman, popped in my new copy of Puppets, and headed out. The first track on that album, “Battery,” made me dizzy. And it just got better from there.
It was a strange time to become a Metallica fan because since that point the quality of the band’s output has steadily declined. I never had the opportunity to anticipate a new Metallica album and then have my expectations exceeded. The so-called Black Album, while excellent, was watered down compared to the fury of Justice. Load and Reload have a few decent cuts on each album that are balanced by some genuine crap. And while they all have some great material, you can’t really count Live Shit, S&M or Garage, Inc. as albums.
The film Some Kind of Monster documented the difficult process of writing and recording St. Anger, the end result being a film far more interesting than the album it was about. On St. Anger Metallica attempted to create this raw, urgent sound but ended up sounding like their board op wasn’t paying attention. At the time of its release I was enthusiastic about the new sound because I could see what it was trying to do, but in the end, in spite of about three decent cuts, the album proved to be almost unlistenable. You have to understand, though, that these albums were really only disappointing compared to other Metallica albums. When you listen to, say, Kill ‘Em All or Ride the Lightning, you realize they’ve set the bar pretty damn high.
So I was nervous about the new album. I wanted it to be good, of course, but each album they’ve released since I first discovered the band has been distinctly less amazing than the one before it. The steady, almost 20-year-long downward trajectory did not bode well for whatever might follow up the mess that was St. Anger. But it was Metallica, so of course I was gonna buy the thing and listen to it at least a couple of times before I passed judgment.
First, I was very curious to see how new bass player Rob Trujillo fit in. Metallica’s sound has never relied much on the bass (it is almost completely absent from the mixes of Justice and St. Anger), but Trujillo is such a dynamic, exciting player that he just had to bring something new and interesting to the table. What he brought was not at all what I expected. He’s there all right, but very much in the background. There’s a moment or two where bass takes center stage, but those moments are fleeting and serve only to set up the main groove. At no point does Trujillo cut loose the way he did back in the day when he worked with Suicidal Tendencies and the Infectious Grooves.
The other big question was the guitar solos. One of the most memorable segments in Some Kind of Monster involves producer Bob Rock arguing with lead guitarist Kirk Hammett about the relevance of the solo. Watching it, one cannot help but think of the “retro/nowtro” conversation from This Is Spinal Tap. Kirk lost that argument and his role on St. Anger was reduced to mirroring James Hetfield’s riffs. But Hallelujah, the band has seen the error of its ways. The whole structure of their songs have been rearranged to highlight the solos, making this, for all intents and purposes, Kirk’s album. It has some of his best solo work since Justice.
The overall sound on Death Magnetic is amazing. Before Justice came out Metallica released a stop-gap EP of covers called Garage Days Revisited, which, according to the liner notes, was “not-very-produced” by the band. As the title suggests, the EP sounds like four dudes bangin’ out some tunes in their garage and having the time of their lives doing it. With the help of veteran thrash producer Rick Rubin, Death Magnetic sounds like no expense was spared in an attempt to recreate that vibe, and for the most part it succeeds. There are moments when I wish they could have kept the drums a little more under control. It isn’t the sloppy sound of St. Anger, but occasionally the kick drum sounds like a mallet hitting a watermelon. It’s still a huge improvement over the hellish ringing from the snare throughout St. Anger. And most of all, Death Magnetic really does sound like four guys plugging in and lettin’ it rip. You hear a little of everything that has come before on this album, but all the old pieces fit together to create something new and awesome.
So, not only did they halt the downward spiral, Metallica skyrocketed back up with their best material since the ’80s. And they’re coming to town in January. The shows are probably all sold out already, but a guy can dream.
But really, if you need me it’s gonna be while. These headphones aren’t coming off any time soon.