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Metallica “Death Magnetic” Review

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Metallica Death Magnetic Review

As Death Magnetic slowly begins, an interesting similarity arises between the introduction of “That Was Just Your Life” and that of Slayer’s “South of Heaven,” the first song from the second of the band’s albums produced by Rick Rubin. Both songs build slowly before commencing with an album’s worth of commercial thrash — a slower thrash in the case of South of Heaven and a seasoned thrash in the case of Death Magnetic. Additionally, both songs come from albums with which Rubin’s influence was clearly intact. He was there helping elevate Slayer with Reign in Blood, and 20 years after South of Heaven his imprint is again evident as Metallica releases their ninth studio album, its first under Warner’s imprint (though Warner now owns Elektra, Metallica’s prior label), and its first in 17 years without producer and fill-in bassist Bob Rock.

Funny then that one of the main criticisms of Death Magnetic has been that it is self-plagiarizing, a term that could equally apply to a band like Slayer. The term hasn’t really been applied Slayer’s case though, primarily because the band has pretty much stuck with the same formula from the get-go. Likewise, no one’s criticizing AC/DC for sounding too much like AC/DC with their new release, are they? So just what makes the criticism valid in Metallica’s case? For starters, the band’s return to speed comes after over a decade of “soul-searching” and “experimentation” (code: a string of easily dismissible albums spread out over far too many years). This might be why Pitchfork‘s Cosmo Lee suggested that Death Magnetic is the musical equivalent of a mid-life crisis. It is after all an attempt by an aging band to return to their glory days by recapturing the sound and attitude that made them famous (exception: bassist Robert Trujillo, who has continued to prove his diversity and prowess since first kicking it with Suicidal Tendencies back in the late-80s). Even aesthetically the band has returned to its classic logo, one scarcely used since The Black Album. Fact is, Death Magnetic is an attempt at recreating Metallica – at that, the band has succeeded.

Rolling Stone‘s Brian Hiatt attempted to define the vibrancy of the new sound in his recent review, “‘What don’t kill ya make ya more strong,’ Hetfield sings, with enough power to make the clichè feel fresh.” While partially true (and a tad amusing), the description fails to capture the blinding truth that no matter what Metallica does at this point in time, it is going to be a little clichè. Had Metallica released another album’s worth of Load-sounding filler, that would have been called clichè. Had the band gone further back into a grittier sound reflective of Kill ‘Em All, that would have still been called clichè. At this point in time it isn’t the music, but the band itself that is the clichè.

Even so, after St. Anger the odds of getting a solid album from Metallica were on level with the odds of drawing blood from a stone. But on the record James Hetfield sounds like the cocky frontman he was during the band’s heyday, and both he and Kirk Hammett exchange solid riffs without a hint of “The Memory Remains” to be found. Maybe “The Unforgiven III” is a bit unnecessary, but at least it’s no “Unforgiven II.” And maybe the ten tracks on the album push the limits of human patience, all landing somewhere between five and ten minutes long, but they all ring true to what Metallica should be about: They’re loud, they’re heavy, they’re full of capable riffs and solos, and for the most part they’re really good.

If the band had disappeared after 1993 only to reappear now with this release it would probably be openly received and accepted without the disdain that accompanies Death Magnetic given the group’s history. Unfortunately we all know the details: Napster, Jason Newstead’s departure, rehab, psychiatry, and so on. But to continue the comparison, Slayer fans want to hear Slayer when the band sounds most like Slayer, and Metallica fans love hearing the band when it sounds most like Metallica. Death Magnetic sounds like Metallica. Death Magnetic also sounds like it was written and recorded by a band of aging celebrities in its forties who are trying to relive their Scarface. So what! In the end it’s an album stronger than what most anyone expected, and for all the group’s been through, far better sounding than it probably should be.