I have a personal and rather embarrassing standard for Metallica. It hinges on one question: Does the song lend itself to the daydream in which I stand on a stage, 32nd-note riffs sparking from my guitar, and snarl vocals that proceed to both impress and frighten the crowd, which—incidentally—is composed in equal parts of people I would like to impress and people for whom I have a great hatred.
The majority of Death Magnetic, when held up to this ridiculous yet reliable standard, succeeds admirably.
The band’s 10th studio album, produced by Rick Rubin, was hailed as a return to Metallica’s speed metal days long before it was released in September. And it is. Gone are the bluesy, wandering melody lines that populated the Load albums, as well as the pop-song structures of the Black Album that seemed content with a single riff. Mostly.
Because while Death Magnetic brings back galloping riffs and sonic fury, there are moments when shades of Metallica’s more recent, sludgy past pop up. And they’re not all bad.
Vicious tempos and start-stop precision made Metallica famous way back in the days of tight jeans and mullets. The 2008 Metallica reaches back for both (tempo and precision, not tight jeans and mullets). But they combine them with some of the more “Mama They Tried to Break Me” moments of the ’90s. It works on songs like “The Day That Never Comes” and “Cyanide.”
Instead of relying on those alt-metal years, Metallica uses them to do something they haven’t done for the last decade: write songs with multiple movements and complex arrangements. Or, put another way, songs that make you want to drive fast and punch concrete.
But for all the celebration of Metallica’s return to its first-four-albums form, there is an aspect that didn’t come back. Lyrically, it may be time for fans to learn to live without the Master of Puppets-era James Hetfield.
The lyrics for Death Magnetic came solely from Hetfield, and thank whatever deity for that, given the low points from the group’s previous album, St. Anger. Clearly, though, Death Magnetic still exists in that nebulous, post-recovery mode of self-evaluation.
Hetfield was clearly at his best when writing in a persona—songs like “Disposable Heroes,” “One” and “Creeping Death.” But those are nearly 20 years in the past. The songs we’ve got now aren’t bad if one can forgive the occasional poetic inversion for the sake of rhyme, the more-than-occasional metal cliché and the phrase “forever more.”
There are bright moments, of course, songs like “The End of the Line,” where Hetfield is back to barking lyrics and sounding like the same lead man whose staccato shouts on “Creeping Death” hit like spears.
If the early Hetfield of Master of Puppets was metal’s Hemingway, sparse and violent in nature and subject, then the post-recovery, pushing-50 Hetfield is someone different, more personal, drawn to assaying an interior world. It’s just good to hear him do it at this tempo again.