Friday, September 12, 2008

Album Review: Death Magnetic

In the five years, three months, and one week since the release of Metallica's last studio album St. Anger in 2003, fans of the longtime metal band have had a sour taste in their mouth and an angry pit in their stomach after hearing what the band had to offer. A new sound, a new bass player, a sober lead singer, and band members with families all have contributed to the Metallica we see today. The metal scene isn't what it once was, but Death Magnetic takes true American heavy metal fans to a place they remember from their youth.

As I stood outside my local record shop this morning waiting for the doors to open and the neon sign to be lit, I found myself surrounded by quite a strange crowd. There were the usual, teenage angst-filled kids with their long hair, piercings, and black jeans. There were the college burnouts, still hungover from last night's "Thursday starts the weekend" party at school. There were guys like me, late twenty-somethings with crew cuts and cargo shorts and polo shirts. There were also the guys who were there from the very beginning: though more advanced it years, you could tell these guys had banged there heads for the tours during the '80's...they looked wrinkled, leather-faced, and the grey had found its way into their once proud manes.

Something about music brings folks together, and that was the only reason the group of us found ourselves in the same location.

I got home, shut the blinds, turned off my phone, and put in the hopes for some semblance of the band I fell in love with during the 90's had peaked, and it was time to dig in...

I can't say enough about the packaging...I'm sure much time was spent in designing the layout, and the truly unique approach they took this time. Along with the cover, each page in the booklet has the shape of a coffin missing from the middle...and it's tapered, adding depth. Along the edges of the hole is a high definition image of dirt, suggesting we are looking down into a grave. Each page then uses this coffin "hole" in its it the mouth of an old man, a large section of what could be interpreted as the Twin Towers, a section of a mother's womb, or the iris of an eye. As the listener pages through and makes his way to the end of the booklet, he realizes now that he is no longer looking down into a grave, but has turned around and is looking out of a a bright white light, on the page with aptly-placed lyrics for the song "The Judas Kiss".

Now, on to the music....

It's all back. The double kick drum. The shredding solos. The dual harmonic guitars. The speed metal.

And that's just the first song.

Death Magnetic smacks of music from time gone by. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett brings back elements of his solos from albums like Justice and Ride the Lightning, combining knowledge of complex classical arpeggios with the speed of early 80's thrash metal. On tracks "The Day That Never Comes" and "Unforgiven III", Hammett shows us what he is known for: knock-down, in your face solos with the speed of a '68 Shelby GT500. His agility on the fretboard once again shows itself during the well written, albeit abbreviated solos on the album. Unfortunately, gone are the days of 45-75 seconds solos on studio albums, when Hammett claims to have written solos to "show off". The downside to Hammett's genius on the guitar is that it is short-lived. With the exception of a select few tracks on the album, his solos have devolved into a short 10 or 15 second excursion that merely follows the established structure of a rock song...verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, chorus. As shown in the band's 1992 video documentary "A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica", writing solos is a difficult task for Hammett and it shows loud and clear in this offering. Most of his work seems as a thrown together hodge-podge of lost triplets, confusing guitar effects, and over used sustained peak notes. With little grammy-worthy material to work with as far as songs go, Hammett does his best. Don't expect a Guitar World "Solo of the Year" Award this time around, however.

On his first studio album with Metallica since replacing Jason Newsted in early 2003, bassist Robert Trujillo shows his experience with the instrument. Well-guided riffs and deep, driving bass lines add to Death Magnetic's forceful approach. Given free reign on "Cyanide", the rarely-seen Metallica feature of a solo bass line adds to the song's appeal, giving it a more robust sound and an added element that carries it as the second single from the album. Not since "For Whom the Bell Tolls" has the band featured the bass in such a prominent role.

Drummer Lars Ulrich gives us nothing special on this album. His signature clever fills that graced the Metallica albums of the 80's have long since left his catalog of writing material. Rather, he decides to return to the element that gave the band it's speed metal label in its early days: the double kick drum. From the outset, Ulrich compliments the power-chord, palm-muted guitar lines with a double kick that gives the an impression of a machine gun, as I saw during their January 2000 concert in Minneapolis for the opening of their song "One"...breif 2-second blasts of double kick drum accompanied by flashing strobe lights...leading into the song about the terrible effects of war. Once a staple of his repertoire, Ulrich again adds this element in an attempt by the band to urge the listener to see past it's segmented, choppy presentation for the majority of the album's material and perhaps speed up the pace for an album that lacks continuity, filled with songs exceeding 7 or 8 minutes in length.

Lead singer James Hetfield ties it all together, and in the end, grabs this album a decent review. Though we shouldn't expect anything like Metallica's golden days, Hetfield can still sing like a champ, and hasn't gone the road of "drop-an-octave" singing due to his age. He can still sing the full range, and he shows it on Death Magnetic. Although the band attempts to force a few too many syllables into some lines, the lyrical composition is solid. A consistent, underlieing theme of death certainly keeps the album tied together, although it is done by lyrics only and not by the music. Hetfield plays with actual singing too, and not just metal singing. To top it all off, on numerous occasions we get the signature James Hetfield "enter-a-word-here followed by a strong ah!".

Don't go into this album expecting too much, and you won't be disappointed. Don't go into this album expecting Master of Puppets, and you won't be disappointed. As a stand-alone effort, I give the album a solid 7/10. As a Metallica album, however, it recieves a low 5/10. Track of the album has to be "The Day That Never Comes". Not only for it's building power, the anticipation, and the best lyrics of any song on the album, but because all parts run together smoothly, forming a great song. Easily the best solo on the album as well. Give the music video a quick watch on youtube as well, you won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

Motherscratcher said...

Best review of this album I've read so far.