Thursday, September 11, 2008

More Thoughts on Death Magnetic

I'm supposed to be "reviewing" Death Magnetic for Walmart this week (which should give you an idea of its pre-orders, as I'm only offered albums on the Billboard 200), but my copy isn't here yet and I just read through the various takes on Metal Sucks. I wouldn't say this post is a reaction...more of an "inspired by."

For the record, I like Death Magnetic. I do not love it; love is a word I reserve for albums I develop addictions to, that I have to listen to once a day when I first get them and return to on a regular basis afterwards. When I fall in love with an album, it's generally the first thing that catches my eye when I'm scanning through a list of mp3s or a stack of CDs and when I see it, I get that warm fuzzy feeling that's a physiological reaction built up from all of the other times I've listened to the album and enjoyed what I've heard. I love Empire, or Rust in Peace, or Master of Puppets, or (to use a more recent example) Slania. I like Death Magnetic.

Much of the disparagement directed towards Death Magnetic focuses on disappointment, even if the reviewer doesn't come out and say so explicitly. People who don't like the album are disappointed that after all of the hype about Death Magnetic being a return to the old form, it sounds like a mix of recycled riffs from the 80's album quartet, Hetfield's blown out voice, and some garbage lyrics. I'm pretty sure anyone who espouses that view is deluding themselves for a few reasons.

First, consistency is for Slayer, who, metal gods love 'em, haven't made an album that pushed their creative boundaries since South of Heaven. Christ Illusion was fine, but that band found their niche 20 years ago and they haven't felt the need to leave it since. Metallica was special because they never copped to that game: all four of the classic period albums are different in very obvious ways. Perhaps the expectation of a "return to form" really means a return to the time when the band wasn't afraid to create the brilliant experiments that redefined the outer reaches of thrash, with the emphasis on brilliant: every Metallica album has been an experiment, but (to put it charitably) not every experiment worked. Death Magnetic may not have the brilliance of the classic period, but it's a far cry better than S & M or St. Anger and the signs of life seem to be reemerging. When Megadeth put out The World Needs a Hero, Dave Mustaine supposedly (if Wikipedia is to be believed) quipped that the album was "the first major turn of a huge ship at sea, trying to right itself and get back on course." I see Death Magnetic as fitting into the same metaphor.

Second, give up on Hetfield's voice: it's never going to sound like it did on the first four albums. Blowing out his voice during the Black Album recording sessions has to have scared him into changes; taking singing lessons during the same time period probably emphasized new habits that gave him the sound he's had since Load. It may not be pretty and it certainly isn't as powerful, but I can't see Hetfield wanting to risk more damage just to recapture a favored singing style.

Third, it's a rare Metallica lyric that's particularly deep: most of their songs have meanings that are very easy to piece together, with the simple themes that made thrash great. The lyrics were and are a simple counterpoint to what's going in the music and when the music fails to satisfy, the lyrics fall from powerfully utilitarian to simplistic.

In sum: Death Magnetic won't stand up to the classic albums, but it's the best thing we've seen Metallica put together in a long time and represents a big step in the right direction.

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