Death Magnetic is the Metallica long-time fans remembered and loved.
After nearly two decades of finding themselves disappearing further and further into the post-grunge/hard rock weeds, Metallica returned to their thrash roots with 2008’s Death Magnetic. Having exercised any remaining demons with St. Anger and its corresponding documentary, Some Kind of Monster, the band took its time with their follow-up release. With new bassist Robert Trujillo officially on board and the navel-gazing of the first half of the decade behind them, the Metallica of 2008 were the closest they’d been in years to the band pre-Metallica. By jettisoning the cathartic introspection of St. Anger in favor of more traditionally metal material and bringing back Kirk Hammett’s trademark lightning-fast guitar solos and intricate instrumental interplay, the band here sounded better and more confident than they had in years.
At a bruising 10 tracks over 75 minutes, Death Magnetic managed to fuse the sprawling trash of mid-‘80s Metallica with the benefit of the intervening advancement in technology allowing for a greater amount of music on a single disc. With every track racing past the five-minute mark, there’s plenty of room for the band to stretch out. Yet unlike on previous outings where the more extended passages felt perfunctory and plodding, here they retain their runaway train ferocity throughout. From the opening bars of “That Was Just Your Life,” it’s clear that this is not the same band who rose to MTV and hard rock prominence in the wake of a more accessible form of heavy metal. Rather, this is the band who—along with Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax—brought the underground to the mainstream with their furious brand of punk-infused metal.
Freed from the restraints placed upon him on St. Anger, Hammett unleashes blistering solo after solo, a blur of anger and aggression coupled with his unique melodicism. It’s a return to form, the likes of which originally established the band as one of the heaviest, fastest and hardest metal acts around. With Trujillo having taken over for the long-departed Jason Newsted—who in turn had replaced Cliff Burton following the latter’s death in a bus crash in 1986—the band seems infused with new life and energy. Coming to the group with no baggage, Trujillo’s presence helps reignite the band’s passion for the music that made them the jaded rock stars they eventually became.
Add to the mix Slayer producer and all-around aging rock star kingmaker Rick Rubin and the Metallica of 2008 suddenly sound a lot like the Metallica of 1986. With James Hetfield’s throaty bark once again employed to growl out classic metal tropes, the lyrical sensitivity and introspection of St. Anger is fully abandoned in favor of an all-out return to form. Lars Ulrich, too, sounds revitalized after a decade spent playing the villain. Here he just sits back and plays the hell out of his drums, something that always suited him better than the legal morass in which he found himself over the Napster debacle.
So not only does Death Magnetic represent a solid return to form stylistically, it also shows the band returning with a strong batch of original material. “The End of the Line” features the stop-start unison-line approach long since abandoned by the band, the tempo built around a pummeling, driving riff-based progression. When Hetfield’s voice enters, it once more possesses the snarling aggression featured prominently pre-Metallica. It’s not for nothing that Death Magnetic features a stark white cover reminiscent of 1988’s high-water mark …And Justice For All. Arriving 20 years later, Death Magnetic picks up where Justice left off, wiping away the conflicted memories of the intervening decades.
The band hasn’t fully abandoned their artier pretensions, however, as both “The Day That Never Comes” and “The Unforgiven III” take a softer, more melodic approach to the band’s sound. The latter in particular begins with a plaintive piano and chamber orchestra section that eventually leads into the album’s lone ballad. Built around a droning guitar and sizzling cymbals, it is minor key metal balladry at its finest, showing the band capable of showing its sensitive side along with unleashing its heavier, more testosterone-driven tendencies.
The newly 10-minute instrumental “Suicide & Redemption,” while perhaps a bit overlong, serves as a victory lap of sorts, the band having gone through the flames and come out the other side largely intact. More than anything, Death Magnetic serves as a reminder as to why Metallica had once been heralded as one of the best bands in the world. Regardless of whether or not that title still applied, they were back to doing what they did best. Where their career path will take them from here is anyone’s guess, but with Death Magnetic they proved they still have what it takes to rock out with the best. Faster, louder and more intense, Death Magnetic is the Metallica long-time fans remembered and loved.