First and foremost, a confession. After the incident surrounding the burgeoning society of file-swapping, I swore off Metallica for two solid years. Didn't wear my Ride the Lightning t-shirt, didn't re-buy my ruined copy of Master of Puppets, didn't listen to a single note of music. It's not that I'm opposed to artists making money off their work (I want to be able to do that myself one day, so I completely sympathize), it's just that I'm opposed to people who behave like dicks on general principle. I didn't much like how they just put their fingers in their ears and screamed the chorus part of "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" in the face of this creature that was going to herald a revolution in commerce and communication online. If Metallica was going to say, "Fuck the future," well, then, fuck Metallica.
Enough time passed between the Napster Controversy and the release of St. Anger that my irritation had cooled, and I was prepared to give James, Lars, Kirk and... Bob Rock another chance. That was, put simply, stupid. I should've known that the man who had done everything in his power to kill Metallica (Rock, who produced the Black album, Load, ReLoad, Garage, Inc.) wouldn't do anything to save them from themselves, and, lo and behold, I was proven right. For some reason, one of the pioneers of thrash decided that they should release a nu metal album. It didn't work (not one single guitar solo in over an hour of music - probably the easiest money Kirk Hammett ever made), and I didn't care.
My relationship with the band, rocky already, hit rock bottom when I saw a video of them performing, post-St. Anger, at... I don't know, some festival in Europe. They were playing "Master of Puppets," and it was probably the most phoned-in performance of any song I've ever seen (except for dear Mr. Hammett, who always looks like he's giving his all). I was about ready to swear off the band completely at that point, including following through on my long-threatened destruction of my copies of their albums. It was as though Metallica's long, slow descent into crummy was done to attack me personally (at least that's how I saw it), and I was prepared to finally respond in kind.
The only thing that could've saved us was, in fact, the very thing that saved us (well, not so much a "thing" as a "person"): Rick Rubin. The man who made me pretend to care about Linkin Park again, the man who altered my relationship with Slipknot from casual to committed (it's since lapsed - I haven't even had a chance, or a desire, to listen to their new album, but it's not Rubin's fault) was the only man that could reawaken my long-slumbering affection for Metallica. When it was announced that he would be producing the as-yet-untitled new Metallica album, I was able to hold out a shred of hope that things might turn around for the band, and as a result, for my connection to the band.
Let's backtrack a smidge. Metallica had virtually nothing to do with my desire to learn to play the guitar, they were never my favorite of the heavy metal bands with which I became obsessed in high school (and through high school, and into college, and through college, and up until now, if we're being honest), and they've not influenced any of the work that I do in any meaningful way. So, why has the decline and fall of Metallica (with a resurrection yet to come? Read on) remained lodged thoroughly enough in my mind that it's occupied me, off and on, for years? They were, very much, my gateway into the world of fast guitars, faster drumming, and vocals more screamed than sung; they were my... first, if you will. Your first time always has a special place in your heart, you know. They showed me what pure rock fury was really capable of accomplishing; James, Kirk, Cliff and Lars taught me what you could do if you were courageous enough to play around with what was "expected" of music (maybe they did have some sort of impact on my work...).
So, we're here now, with Death Magnetic (this may produce some bad karma for me, but it's better to be honest than to shade the truth - I have not paid anyone for the priviledge of listening to the new Metallica album, and I never will. As a permanent "fuck you" to the band, I refuse to ever again pay for one of their records, even the ones that I may not own that came out before the disaster occurred), what Metallica did when Rick Rubin told them to write the parts of Master of Puppets that were never written. I've listened to it enough that I can finally articulate an opinion on it.
Let's start with the good: it's ambitious as hell. Not a track on the record is under 5 minutes in length (just like, well, Master of Puppets). "Suicide & Redemption" is nearly 10 minutes long. It doesn't sound to me like they've lost a step, technically; if anything, age has probably honed their chops well enough that they're as good now as they've ever been. The fury's still present in the music (that is, it doesn't sound like they're going through the motions); heavy metal trades on "emotionality" (as RDJ might say) quite heavily, and the music drips with exactly that (solos! Actual, honest-to-God guitar solos! Sometimes more than one per song!).
However, even with all that, it's still pretty bland. I couldn't pick out a song that I liked (though I could certainly name one I disliked - "The Unforgiven III," because the last thing that the already-pushing-into-cartoonish heavy metal genre really needs is sequels to songs), or even portions of songs that stick in my head. As Matt Dillon said in Singles, it's beer and lifestyle music, like well-designed bottles of bleach. It doesn't mean anything to me, and while I wish the fact that it clearly means something to them was enough to pull me in, it's not.
While I say ambition is something to be encouraged, most of the tracks on Death Magnetic may well be too ambitious for their own good. "The Judas Kiss," for instance, is too fucking long by at least one verse and most of a guitar solo. The opening track, "That Was Just Your Life," also slogs on well past the point that it's worn out its welcome. The instrumental track, "Suicide & Redemption," is placed so late in the album that my attention had wandered so thoroughly that I didn't even notice it was the instrumental track until it was nearly finished on my first listen. Sadly, "My Apocalypse" is actually probably the tightest song on the album...
A lot's been made about the mixing on the record, about how it sucks ass, and it does. Sure, the production value's a lot higher than it was on, say, ...And Justice For All, but the flatness of the mix and the inexcusable clipping make for an obnoxious listening experience (and they can't even use the "recorded on inferior equipment" excuse these days).
I think the best way to sum this all up is to go back to a previous point, about how Rubin told Metallica to make the unwritten second half of Master of Puppets. While looking back to past triumphs and attempting to derive meaning and inspiration from them is obviously a useful exercise, I think it was pretty pointless in 2008. Master of Puppets came out in 1986, 22 years ago. Metallica's not the same band it was 22 years ago, and the guys in the band aren't the same guys they were 22 years ago. It's tough enough to recapture magic night after night to perform in front of a crowd, but to do it in a studio... I'll put this another way: let's say Kurt Cobain had lived to see today, that Nirvana was, in some form or another, still a viable entity. Let's say Cobain felt the need to refresh himself as an artist, and did what most mainstream artists do these days; he got himself a record producer that would force him to work outside his comfort zone (for the sake of argument, let's say that producer was Rick Rubin). What if Rubin told him to write the second half of Nevermind? Could Cobain honestly put himself in the same frame of mind that he was in 17, 18 years ago?
When faced with a challenge like that, the only thing, I think, you could reasonably do is enact some sort of meditation on the prior work, fashion some sort of a reaction to what you'd produced two decades ago. I don't think Death Magnetic is that at all (and "Unforgiven III" is nothing close to a response to its predecessors - its only significance is the fact that it shares a name with two prior Metallica songs. It lacks even the rudimentary self-awareness of the second song: "or are you unforgiven too?"), and were you to judge it solely on those merits, it would fail miserably.
Maybe this is a harbinger of good things to come from Metallica. If they've got themselves in the right playing mindset, all that needs to happen is for them to be in the correct writing state. Heavy metal's always been obsessed with death and destruction; the fact that these middle-aged guys put out an album that touches on all the usual metal bases is nothing significant. If there's a next time, and there's a progression from the base they laid down here, they need to push outside their comfort zone while simultaneously drawing on it (given that they've been doing this for decades); something that uses Metallica's past to point them toward the future. Reliving your glory days doesn't help you move forward, and that may very well be my strongest objection to this record.