Right out of the gate, I have to stress to you that if there ever was a Metallica fan at any time, I am that individual. I saw them open for Ozzy back when Burton was still alive. That should be enough background info on me for you to trust what I am about to put down here.
Next detail is this album cover. This is by far the stupidest album cover I have ever seen from these guys. It is stupid. It would be half-cool if this were a concept album, but that isn't what is going on here. Metallica doesn't have a message. The message that they are pushing with this stupid album cover art is...I have no idea.
Rick Rubin produced this. Rick Rubin knows how to produce good stuff.
Metallica used to be angry. The movie SOME KIND OF MONSTER explored their pitfalls with success and how weak and milquetoast they have become over the years. Personally, I dropped out by the time AND JUSTICE FOR ALL dropped. Why? They had promised me in multiple metal magazines like HIT PARADER that they would never film a rock video. But it was apparent that they were on the path to more and more cash. The street level wasn't enough for them. They needed to get pretty and commercialized. In my mind, they became a write off. I went elsewhere for my metal. I have always come back for a listen though. I have touched bases with one or two songs on each of their albums that they have dropped over the years. I have heard the weakness and the over-production for years. I have learned to hate Bob Rock. But the truth of the matter is that they are no longer angry.
SOME KIND OF MONSTER was a revelation to myself and everyone else how far Metallica has fallen from their original metal posturing. But what I saw in that film was a hunger to bring it all back. The ST. ANGER album was forgivable in the sense that they were becoming. They were arriving in the direction that seemed to be the promise of visitation to their roots. I listened to FRANTIC for about a week before I parked it.
And now DEATH MAGNETIC is here. It has all of the strength and hope of an earlier album, but then it is missing something too. It is strong. There are crunches and levels of speed that I am sure these guys really had to work at to bring to the table. There is a groovy instrumental called SUICIDE and REDEMPTION that is supposed to remind us of the glory days of ORION or CALL OF KTHULU, but it is missing somewhere.
The problem with this band this time around is a big one. It is the center of the Metallica universe. It is what seems to have been the problem for quite some time. It is also a problem because it is actually a person. That person is James Hetfield.
James Hetfield doesn't have it anymore. His voice seems to be all treble and no bass. He barks out his lyrics in THAT WAS JUST YOUR LIFE fast and welded together. Every syllable links to the next, and there is no way to really understand what he is saying. This is similar to the delivery on RIDE THE LIGHTNING'S FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE. However, Hetfield isn't delivering as strong. His voice has wimped in some way. Perhaps it was all of those singing lessons he took in order to make pop-crap like ENTER SANDMAN, but whatever the case is, the man sings like his throat hasn't quite figured out that he is a castrati yet.
James Hetfield has lost his balls. It isn't just in his delivery, it is also in his songwriting skills.
Metallica misses most heinously with their lack of anger. Granted, they haven't just stepped back and wimped completely out like HELMET did, but they are well on their way. The guitars are heavy, and delivered like the speed metal chugga chugga you remember. The lyrics are a little more thought out than they have been, but they are still choking on cornball like the line, "Love is a four letter word" from THE DAY THAT NEVER COMES. These are some musicians on the career track. They have nothing to say.
ALL NIGHTMARE LONG has a solid crunch to it. It starts off faking you out and making you think that it is going to be some sort of ballad, and then hits the double-bass pace. It is frenetic and it really sounds like it is going to deliver. Then Hetfield opens his mouth and the song is completely discounted. "Luck...runs...out." Hetfield is seriously the worst thing that happens again and again and again. This is unfortunate, because Hetfield is going nowhere.
MY APOCALYPSE is the only song with Hetfield singing on it that I am actually going to load onto my MP3 player. I am also going to load up SUICIDE AND REDEMPTION, but the rest of this album just isn't there.
BROKEN BEAT AND SCARRED starts with a little bit of funky guitar work. But the hook that they are swinging with was done better by Living Colour with CULT OF PERSONALITY. I have to hand it to Metallica on the time changes though. They change up like none other. These are some accomplished musicians. But is it enough to make them relevant? I say no.
THE UNFORGIVEN III is painful. It starts with strings and a piano riff. I suppose this is to make anyone who bought into Metallica's foray into classical with that S&M trash feel like they are a part of the show. This isn't up to the standards of the original UNFORGIVEN which was more like the howl of a person who realizes that all is completely lost. This isn't up to the standards of the UNFORGIVEN II which was amusing because Mary Ann Faithful came in with some seriously croned out "la-la-las" at the end. This is a song that should have been saved for a b-sides and other forgettable trash album.
THE JUDAS KISS is amusing, but it bogs down in its own complexity. Perhaps after twelve listens to this, I will find something memorable about it, but as I listen to it for the 5th time while typing this, it seems, "stock." I say "stock" because that is how Metallica referred to their music that wasn't cutting it in SOME KIND OF MONSTER. This is a stock piece of music. So bland is this piece of metal that it is hard to find where to nod your head in standard music appreciation. It is all over the place and it needs a re-write.
Lars is on the job on this album, crashing away randomly as he always has. He has also straightened out his little snare-drum issue he had on the last album and simply dug himself in as a guy who knows how to pound the skins. Lars delivers.
Kirk Hammet brings signature riff after signature riff to the table. I have always liked Kirk Hammet. Yes, he is a hired gun, but he puts in work. When it is time to put in work, this guy is making sounds with his guitar that simply don't sound possible. He knows how to bring the speed and he knows how to slow it down and bring a strong crunch.
Robert Trujillo is there. I love this guy. He brings the bass when they let him. It seems that he has been tuned out though. He is prominent in THE DAY THAT NEVER COMES. It is too bad that Hetfield is too busy ruining this song with his heartfelt, ball-less singing. Trujillo is the best thing that has happened to Metallica in decades, and they are sitting on him, and holding him down. Trujillo has a moment at the beginning of ALL NIGHTMARE LONG as well, but then he gets mixed out once the American Metal Pedal gets stomped. The only song that Trujillo gets to hold it all the way down in is the limp-wristed UNFORGIVEN III. In all honesty, I got onto this album to hear Trujillo bring it the way I know he can. All I can say is that Metallica have a leash on this guy and they are choking him out. It is too bad, because Robert Trujillo could really do something for these guys and they aren't letting him.
Rick Rubin produced this. Rick Rubin knows how to produce good stuff. If Rick Rubin hadn't produced it, this album would safely be defined as "sucky." I truly believe that it is Rubin's work on the boards that has made the bulk of this album above banal.
Am I a victim of high expectations? I don't think so. Metallica has been sprinkling sugar on their crap and calling it good metal for years. I was hoping for a step away from their radio-friendly trash that they have been doing. But I should have qualified that hope with the fact that it shouldn't be a mere two clicks above mediocre either.