This is a review of 2008's Death Magnetic by Metallica. The review was actually a large undertaking and I'm proud of my work. It's pretty unusual for Story a Week, but I did promise that I would have all sorts of writing. This should be no exception.
I've wanted to write a review of Metallica's Death Magnetic for a very long time. But the thing is, I have to go all the way with this review. I have to call every shot, make a point about every nook and cranny, and give the most honest opinion I can possibly give. This has to be it. This project has been a huge undertaking and it's finally here.
Let's start with me. First off, I am a huge fan of Metallica. Their first four albums are easily some of the best in heavy metal history. Kill 'em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and ...And Justice for All were simply revolutionary for their time and still stand today. During the 90's and early 2000's, they strayed from greatness, but nevertheless were pretty much always solid. That's my opinion on the band. I love them, but not everything they've made. Even great artists like Michelangelo made crap at some point. We don't remember him for his screw-ups though, we remember him for his magnum opuses, such as David or the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.
Second off, I am a meticulous music listener. I am, generally speaking, more interested in the composition of a song rather than the pleasing nature of the sounds. Pop songs can make good sound, but I hate pop. I hate pop music because the composition itself is inherently unsophisticated and made to be easy to digest. I like my music to be complicated and for it to be necessary to devote time to be fully appreciated. And that's what I do. I like to sit down and listen to the same song more than once in order to fully digest it. I take apart each and every piece in order to appreciate all of them.
Thirdly, I've detected certain things in music that I appreciate more than others. I've already mentioned that complexity of composition is a big one for me, but there are other things that draw me to music. Another biggy is that I look for skill in the musicians themselves. If a musician puts out a work that took a lot of technical skill to pull off, then I find an easy appreciation for it. The third most important thing I look for is depth, both in the emotion of the music and in the lyrics. That's another reason I'm turned off by pop music; most of it is corny love music with no real depth.
Reading this review, you'll probably gain a lot more insight about me and my musical tastes than if I just told you. I felt what I wrote above is necessary for clarification's sake. But now that that's out of the way, let's get back to Metallica.
Five years after the release of the abomination called St. Anger, Metallica finally release a record. Death Magnetic hit stores in September of 2008 and instantly topped the charts. Chart-topping is almost irrelevant for Metallica though; they're so huge of a band that they can release just about anything and have it sell. In other words, unlike with some smaller bands, sales are not at all a component in observing Death Magnetic's quality. St. Anger was horrible and it still made number one.
The hype around Death Magnetic was huge, and Metallica had quite the challenge ahead of them. It was clear that Metallica's dabble in hard rock was wearing thin and that they wanted to return to making thrash metal, which is what made them famous in the first place. St. Anger actually tried to return Metallica to their garage-band roots with a raw sound, but it ultimately came up short. There were a lot of original ideas in St. Anger, just not good ones. The fans were calling for this return to thrash metal as well. It doesn't take much to notice that pretty much everyone prefers Metallica's old stuff over their new stuff at concerts. Even the band themselves prefer playing their older material.
So, this lays out the first challenge Death Magnetic: it needs to be like the old material.
The problem with this is that it's 2008 and the eighties are long gone. While releasing a Master of Puppets sequel would be awesome, it simply wouldn't be something marketable to a more mainstream audience. Now, I'm not big on caring about sales, but the producers behind the album are. I'm just laying out the objectives and needs for the record. Anyway, Death Magnetic would have to be like old-school thrash, but at the same time, it would have to be modern. And this raised the question, could 1980's thrash be adapted for modern styles and recording techniques?
That's the second challenge: it needs to be like the old stuff, but it has to be modern.
The next problem is that Metallica's audiences are two-fold. On one hand is the larger, more mainstream crowd which would much prefer simpler, lighter music. On the other hand is the more hardcore crowd, who want something heavier, more complex, and older-sounding. The more mainstream crowd tends to be much more casual and not quite so vocal, meanwhile the hardcore crowd will make their voices heard. A new album would have to somehow please both audiences. If one is favored, the other is alienated.
And now we have a third challenge: it needs to be like the old stuff, it must be modern, and it has to a strike a balance between hardcore thrash and mainstream metal.
Metallica is old. Each member is in their mid-forties and many, including the publications which govern popular opinion, see them as just four old men trying to relive their glory days. The solution couldn't be to simply try to be young again. St. Anger was just that and it failed. It became clear that the answer would be to acknowledge their age and work with it. Metallica is old, but Metallica is classic. The answer clearly became to admit to being forty and live with it.
So, there's a fourth challenge: it must sound like the old stuff, it must be modern, it needs to strike a balance between the hardcore and the mainstream, and it has to be relevant despite the aging musicians.
These four challenges are far from easy to overcome, especially considering the situation Metallica faced. Failure was much more possible thanks to the inclusion of two people: Rick Rubin and Robert Trujillo. Now, I'm not bashing either of them, so let's explore what I mean.
Rick Rubin is the producer on Death Magnetic. It's not unusual for bands to use multiple producers over the years, but Metallica's case is a special one. For nearly fifteen years, Metallica had been using producer Bob Rock. Metallica, Load, ReLoad, Garage inc., and St. Anger were all his projects. Introducing a new element and replacing an established one is always risky.
Robert Trujillo was recruited into Metallica just after the recording of St. Anger as the new bassist. Trujillo had previously worked with a smattering of other bands, including Ozzy Osbourne and Suicidal Tendencies. There was a lot of doubt around Trujillo. Sure, he could play Metallica's material, but how much could he contribute to an album?
The bassist has always been important to Metallica. Each and every member will tell you that the best musician and songwriter for Metallica during their first three albums was Cliff Burton, the bassist. When Cliff passed away in 1986, Jason Newsted from Flotsam & Jetsam replaced him. While Newsted's writing abilities were never prevalent in the subsequent albums, his live stage presence became essential to Metallica's image. Of course Robert Trujillo would face a lot of doubt; he had to fill in some massive shoes.
With all of these pressures, challenges, and obstacles in the way, there was a lot of doubt that Metallica could put out a satisfying record. While many were hopeful, many more were skeptical. Surely they couldn't put out something as bad as St. Anger... or could they? Could it be worse? Or, by smattering chance, could it be the greatest album Metallica has ever released?
It is none of these. Instead, Death Magnetic satisfies each and every one of the challenges mentioned above with flying colors. Death Magnetic is a solid record with relevant, powerful, heavy, and surprisingly complex songs. The structures and general style match Master of Puppets much closer than Load. In short, Death Magnetic is an extremely good record, but it's not quite on par with the golden age of Metallica. The devil, however, is in the details. Let's go over the songs:
The very first thing on Death Magnetic is a heartbeat. Thump-thump, thump-thump. The guitar creeps in slowly with an eery plucking and new, heavier parts are added to build it up. It's all slow and it's all intro here. The atmosphere is being built and Metallica takes their time in doing it. This intro lasts a good minute-and-a-half before the main riff of the first track finally kicks in. This track is “That Was Just Your Life.”
This main riff is fast and bears a taste that recalls ...And Justice For All's “Blackened.” The most important thing to note here is that any who doubted Death Magnetic's metal cred are silenced here. This isn't another hard rock cop-out like Load, no, this is pure fricking thrash metal. The guitars are going fast and loud; even drummer Lars Ulrich's drumming is solid. It's gonna take more than this to impress though.
Fortunately, the song shifts into a bridge that keeps promising that more is coming. It's still fast, it's still loud, and it's still impressive. The chorus comes along finally and doesn't fail to dazzle, but then James Hetfield stops singing and the guitars take center stage. You can hear both Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield playing their hearts, but you know they're building up to something. And suddenly, Kirk Hammett starts shredding a monumental solo which reflects the stuff that got Metallica where they are.
The solo here is much bigger news than it seems. In St. Anger, there are no guitar solos whatsoever. That's not necessarily a bad thing, not every record needs to have a solo on every song, but bands like Metallica do. A lot of people buy metal records just because they love hearing a skilled guitarist work the frets at mach five. Just having solos signals a return to goodness for Metallica.
Following this is a somewhat slower version of the verses, but it soon changes into a gorgeous instrumental break, which is my favorite part of the song. It has a simple sound to it, but all the parts are working here to give it a hidden complexity. It's a great warm-down from the work-out solo section from before.
Finally, it all finishes with the chorus coming back and then a swift outro. What a ride. “That Was Just Your Life” is one of my favorites from Death Magnetic. It's fast, heavy, and fairly complex. There are multiple distinct melodies and it has a good sound to it. Lyrically, “Life” is lacking. It's not particularly about anything specific except death in a whole bunch of different manners of speaking. It all fits and it's not particularly bad, just not particularly noteworthy or deep. It's pure metal pulp.
The second track, “The End of the Line,” opens with a bang; a very heavy bang. It's pure Metallica and it's pure thrash. After the heavy intro, “Line” accelerates with some fairly catchy and fast riffage from the guitarist. If you're paying attention, you can hear some excellent bass work from Trujillo. “The End of the Line” is catchy, but doesn't produce anything particularly impressive until the solo comes about. The instrumental break down is riotous and chaotic in the best of ways.
But it all stops, symbolic of the end of the line. The guitar plays quietly in the background as James Hetfield sings out a somber bit about the slave becoming the master. It's a good break from the loudness and leads right into the chorus coming back full swing. This sort of thing is not terribly uncommon, but it is difficult to make it work. Metallica does it and they do it beautifully. It ends with ringing guitars and leaves you breathless. All in all, it was all build up for those last moments.
“The End of the Line” is about drugs. Welcome to heavy metal. Drugs is a cliché topic in metal culture and Metallica has hit on it before. “The End of the Line” seems engineered to remind us all of Metallica's classic song, “Master of Puppets.” The lyrics are basically about the same thing and they've got quite a few gaping similarities. It isn't that huge of an issue, as “The End of the Line” manages to stand well on its own. It's a great second track.
The third track is “Broken, Beat & Scarred.” It builds to a crescendo of metal manliness that I might use to work out to. That could be construed as an insult; it's not. It definitely gets you going. It's also pretty clear that Metallica wrote this one for the fans. This song was designed to be played live and to get the audience in on it. It's fairly repetitive, the lyrics are simple and easy to master, and it's overall not a bad song.
To discuss the lyrics a bit, it's about being a tough guy. Just saying some of the words can get you pumped. If I were to pick a similarity for this song, I would say that I get a vibe from ReLoad's “Fuel.” It simply seems to serve the same purpose of really getting you pumped. “Broken, Beat & Scarred” doesn't fail to get the adrenaline going and it doesn't slow down for a second. It's gripping, but, in the end, it outstays its welcome. It goes on for too long with James singing some frankly stupid lyrics. Case in point, “What don't kill ya make ya more strong.”
And, most notable, “They cut and rape me.” Okay, James, you were just singing about how tough you are, but now you're being raped? It's like it's trying to be heavy but it just comes across as trying too hard and it contradicts the “message,” if it can even be called that. Now would actually be a good time to note that a lot of lyrics on the entire album seemed forced. It's like they're trying way too hard to be heavy again. There was a time when James Hetfield wrote really beautiful lyrics that had great meaning. Check out “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” “Fade to Black,” “Master of Puppets,” “One,” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” And those are just to name a few.
But Death Magnetic? Nuh-uh. Metallica's past music dealt with heavy handed themes with intelligence. It's like these songs deal with these sames themes, just stupidly.
The fourth track is a nice break from the heaviness of the others. “The Day That Never Comes” is another Metallica ballad that echoes “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” “Fade to Black,” and, most closely, “One.” It starts off with a slow bit, which is literally ripped off of a Joe Satriani bit. I'm not terribly offended by this, but come on.
It doesn't particularly speed up, but things do a change a bit as the drums and the second guitar kicks in. Right away you know a more downbeat song is here. It immediately feels down-on-your-luck and reflective. Listening to this for the first time, it's easy to worry that the first three songs are exceptions and that this is Metallica going right back to the Load days. Well, yes, there is a bit of that in here, but hear it out.
James starts singing and there are some of the better lyrics on the album. They aren't particularly clear, but they're spoken with conviction. Like a couple of the songs from the 90's era, it's pretty clear that James has some of himself in here. Ultimately, the song is about a father-son relationship and it does get awfully cheesy at points (“The 'son' shine never comes.”) It's respectable though and very personal. The problem is that the lyrics are vague. Even James Hetfield himself admitted to them being vague, but tried to cover it up as being something of beauty.
I refute that. Ambiguity can be an effective tool in communicating a message. For instance, moral ambiguity is a popular tool used by writers to have a reader think. Or being vague on certain details can build suspense. The problem with Metallica using vague lyrics is that they ultimately become pointless since the message itself is shrouded. Vagueness is a tool, but it should be used sparingly. I'm a believer that an artistic work should ultimately have a point. It can be about a certain message or a certain theme, but this point has to be there. Ambiguity or vagueness can be used to reach this point, but leaving a work completely ambiguous leaves the point shrouded so deeply that it's gone.
The choruses pick up a bit more anger. It's got a repressed sound that seems to want to boom, but doesn't. That isn't a bad thing. It communicates a feeling of hidden emotions that are stuffed away and need to come out. There's a desperation that is totally beautiful.
The verses and chorus are repeated and then everything really kicks off. The entire second half of “The Day That Never Comes” is an instrumental madhouse of solos and melodies. It's complex and skillfully done. The fray gives a good reminder of “One,” which “Day” seems to really love reminding us of. “One” was about war, “Day's” music video is about war. “One” had a balled structure, so does “Day.” Earlier we had a “Master of Puppets” reminder, now we have a “One” reminder. We're starting to hit some of that old-men-trying-too-hard stuff here.
Fortunately, the song itself is a great one. It doesn't need “One” to be good. In fact, it actually is a good enough ballad to stand among Metallica's others, although it's probably the weakest. That doesn't mean it isn't a great thrill ride. It starts out slow and then ambushes you. Awesome.
Next up is “All Nightmare Long,” which is a horror-centric beast of a song. It starts out with an intro that has an evil flamenco vibe to it before finally building up into some fast horror bits. It's got a scary vibe and it's speedy and strong. Also noteworthy is that it's fairly complex.
In true metal fashion, it takes almost two minutes before the lyrics kick in. They're obviously about a man being hunted by some (again) ambiguous enemy. While these certainly aren't deep, they certainly are effective. Unlike “Day,” “Nightmare” has a pretty clear point to it. It's angry, it's scary, and it's heavy.
The typical instrumental section breaks out again with some insanely strong, frantic melodies, and a very fitting guitar solo. This song will not let up. It picks up, getting more and more frantic and crazy. It's even getting heavier and faster. Seven minutes through and it still hasn't climaxed. It breaks down just a little with James singing a quick bit... and then all goes quiet. Is it over?
No. Boom. The vocals come back to signal and all-guns blazing climax from the entire band. Everything's going and everything's pounding at full strength. “All Nightmare Long” is one of the best on Death Magnetic and it's one I believe will stand the test of time. It's great to watch live and it meshes with the 80's stuff incredibly well. It also recalls some of Metallica's older, more progressive material. I got a bit of a “Damage, inc.” vibe from the overall aggression, but I also felt a bit of “Creeping Death,” but the biggest likeness is probably “Enter Sandman.” What interests me most though is that it doesn't have a direct parallel. If modified a little bit, I could honestly see “All Nightmare Long” on an older Metallica record.
Fortunately, it is modified to fit modern standards and includes some innovation, such as the flamenco elements I mentioned before in the intro. “All Nightmare Long” is a great, original song. It's arguably the best on the entire record.
Moving on, is “Cyanide,” which is one of the simpler, shorter tracks on Death Magnetic. It's aggressive, heavy, but uses higher notes. The first part that will impress you is the bass work that comes just after the intro. A simple tune played on the guitar soon overshadows it and the song begins. The lyrical topic is quite clear: suicide. It's also another song the screams to be played live. There are so many parts that are clearly designed for audience participation.
Everything's very simple on “Cyanide.” The composition isn't designed to impress, but the song works and it's a joy to listen to even with the rather dark theme. It's also probably the song that I've heard most on the radio. “Cyanide” is pretty clearly aimed at the mainstream, but it's not without its charm. It has a similar slowdown to “The End of the Line” and it works just as well.
Next up we have one of my favorites on Death Magnetic, but also one I have the biggest gripe about. Anyway, this song is called “The Unforgiven III.”
Yeah, another one.
No, seriously. It's “The Unforgiven III.”
And curiously, it didn't have to be. The music is emotional, powerful, moving, and solid enough to stand on its own without having to reference the old days. I'll get back to that later.
It opens up with a piano and orchestral introduction that lasts an entire minute. It's a risky, but appreciated step away from the ferocity and distortion of the previous six songs. “The Unforgiven III” is a chance to slow down and catch your breath. The guitars kick in soon to give us a nice, moody transition before a heavier verse begins. It's reminiscent of the original “The Unforgiven” in the way that the verses are heavier than the choruses.
Curiously, “The Unforgiven III” is actually a treat vocally and maybe even lyrically. This is James Hetfield's best, most emotional vocal performance on Death Magnetic. It isn't the most impressive vocal performance ever, but it's a great fit for James Hetfield, who seems to give it his all. The lyrics are actually a story of someone lost on the seas of life struggling to forgive himself for something or another. There's clearly something personal that Hetfield is referring to here, but we aren't sure what. Perhaps it has to do with mistakes he made during his career? Or maybe it's something related to his alcoholism? Who knows. Either way, these lyrics are ambiguous in something of a good way. It's easy for a listener to relate to Hetfield's pain. I would prefer the actual theme to be a bit clearer though. I do have to comment that I'd take “The Unforgiven III's” lyrics over most other music out there.
But anyway, the song slows to a crawl after the second chorus. The guitar and the orchestra come back right before James returns to repeat, “Forgive me/forgive me not” over and over for a bit. It's actually not bad because he's building up. Sure, it's a little on the cheesy side, but it's also executed well enough. The build up is soon released with an explosive and highly emotional solo from Kirk Hammett. This is the solo that I like best on the entire album. You can really feel some emotion here. There's resolve, but also pain. It's brilliant.
The song finishes strong with another iteration of the chorus.
Before, I mentioned that I was upset with it being called “The Unforgiven III.” I feel like they just called it that because they wanted to make a cheap nod to the old stuff. It's as if they feel the need to use the old material as a crutch but there's really no reason to. It's a form of cowardice that I actually feel hurt the lyrics. They had to put the idea of forgiveness into it somehow to justify the title of the song. When in reality, if they had made this just to stand on its own, I'm betting that the lyrics could have come out as something stronger and something deeper.
Basically, with “The Unforgiven III,” the older material referenced actually weighs it down. It could have been that good of a song.
The eighth track is “The Judas Kiss,” a heavier affair, but also one that's not quite as fast as the others. Don't get me wrong though, I'm not really criticizing it just yet. The introduction is nice and dark, which is perfect to the lyrical theme: betrayal.
Of all the tracks, I would say that “The Judas Kiss” is the darkest. Its religious overtones and general vibe remind me of “Leper Messiah” from Master of Puppets. If you want a head-banging, anger-inducing, feast of darkness, then this is your song. Even the solo, which is certainly impressive, even for Kirk Hammett, is a dark little bit. James Hetfield clearly has fun singing this one. He evil-laughs at a few parts and there's a slowdown like “The End of the Line” and “Cyanide.”
The lyrics are ultimately about betrayal with metaphoric applications of demons and Judas. It is a Satanic song? Nah, I wouldn't say so. Is it an angry song with some dark overtones? Yeah, definitely. The lyrics are mostly well-written, except I do have a few gripes. A couple of lines are completely stupid. “Venom of a life insane/Bites into your fragile vein.” Sorry James, but that's ridiculous.
“The Judas Kiss” is an evil blast. The guitar work is great, but not really as impressive as other bits on the album. This song isn't a standout on Death Magnetic, but it's overall a great track.
Next up is a surprise and a real treat: “Suicide and Redemption.” On the first listen, I kept thinking, “Well, where's the singing?” I wondered for the whole ten minutes because “Suicide and Redemption” is an instrumental. It had been almost twenty years since Metallica put out an instrumental track and Metallica's instrumentals had always been monumental. “The Call of Ktulu,” “To Live is to Die,” and “Orion” are simply amazing tracks. Having an instrumental here is a great way to do a throwback to the old days. But is it done right?
Yes. Yes, it is.
While it isn't as good as the previously mentioned instrumentals, it's still a darn good bit. Both James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett perform admirably with dueling guitar solos and some pretty sick melodies. While it isn't quite as impressive or unique as instrumentals past, it certainly is a good track.
The star in “Suicide and Redemption,” however, is the bass. This is Robert Trujillo's chance to shine and boy does he ever. The only issue is the production makes the bass hard to hear, but the playing is, nonetheless, pretty insane. His sound is a great addition to Metallica and “Suicide and Redemption” proves it.
Finally, “My Apocalypse” finishes things out. It doesn't waste time in making itself known. Ka-boom and it's off, literally. “My Apocalypse” is a track that ditches all BS in favor of delivering one of the fastest, and easily the most aggressive track on the whole album. It's loud, it's heavy, and it's very, very 1980's. That's a good thing.
If any of these tracks is a throwback to the old days, it's this one. It has a slight “Master of Puppets” feel to it, but it's mostly completely an original piece. The guitar, drum, and bass work is all fast and aggressive. The guitar solo is strong, the song is fun... It's a great way to finish the album.
But I have a few complaints. For one, it never really seems to go anywhere. There isn't much of a buildup or anything. The heaviness is good and it's aggressive, but “That Was Just Your Life,” “The End of the Line,” and “All Nightmare Long” were heavy and they each went somewhere. They had a certain progressive element that “My Apocalypse” is missing and it seems to me that it would be better if it had it. “Apocalypse” does change it up a bit with a slightly lighter bit in the middle, but it pretty much keeps up the whole way.
The other complaint that I have is, again, the lyrics. The whole thing is stupid. I mean, it's got some of the stupidest lyrics known to man. Sure, it isn't as bad as “I Whip My Hair Back and Forth,” but come on, people. Here, let's look at a few choice parts:
Crawl out of this skin
Reach in, pull that pin
Fear thy name extermination
Desecrate inhale the fire
So we cross that line
Into the grips
Suffer unto my apocalypse!
Pulling closer still
Fear thy name annihilation
Desolate inhale the fire
So we cross that line
Into the grips
Suffer unto my apocalypse!
My apocalypse Go!
Crushing metal, Ripping Skin
Tossing body mannequin
Spilling Blood, Bleeding Gas
Mangle flesh, Snapping spine
Dripping bloody valentine
Shatter face, spitting glass
Spit it out!
What makes me drift a litter bit closer
Dead man takes the steering wheel
What makes me know it's time to cross over
Words you repeat until I feel
See through the skin the bones they all rattle
Future and past they disagree
Flesh falls away the bones they all shatter
I start to see the end in me
See the end in me
See the end in me
Climb out of this skin
Reach in, pull that pin
All wounds unto my eyes
And life itself, denied
Fear thy name as hell awakens
Destiny, Inhale the Fire
But we've cross that line
Into the grips
Suffer unto my apocalypse!
Tyrants awaken my apocalypse!
Demon awaken my apocalypse!
Heaven awaken my apocalypse!
Suffer forever my apocalypse!”
Oh, no, wait, that's the whole thing. Whoops!
It's almost as if they took out a dictionary and a thesaurus and decided to look up the darkest, most “metal” words they could find and made them into lyrics. I mean, sure, there does seem to be a bit of a story in here. A lot of the lyrics seem to imply a car crash or maybe a war or something, but nevertheless, it's just too much. It's almost self-parody. I actually laughed at a few of these lines when I read them for this review. They really are terrible.
Overall, “My Apocalypse” is my least favorite on Death Magnetic. It's not a horrible song, not even a bad song, but it's certainly not great.
Well, that's it for the tracks. Just after going through that review, To rank the songs, I'd go in this order:
1. “That Was Just Your Life”
2. “The Unforgiven III”
3. “All Nightmare Long”
5. “The End of the Line”
6. “The Day That Never Comes”
7. “Suicide and Redemption”
8. “The Judas Kiss”
9. “Broken, Beat & Scarred”
10. “My Apocalypse”
Understand that some of these songs are very close. I had to force myself to rank a couple of these. The first three, for instance, are very close. Four through eight were also really tough to rank. The last two, however, were pretty easy. I'm not saying that they're bad. They aren't St. Anger tracks. They just don't stack up to the others, in my humble opinion.
Okay, so the biggest theme you'll notice in the review so far has been that the music is great, but the lyrics are pretty dumb. That's my second biggest gripe. The next complaint, in my opinion, is even bigger. The production on Death Magnetic is completely ruined, almost to the point of ruining the entire album. The songs themselves are great, but the production is... wow.
I'm not referring to the mixing, mastering, or equalizing. Those are all done fantastically. Death Magnetic is mixed very well. What's the problem then? The volume. Death Magnetic is recorded at ludicrous volumes. It's recorded so loud that it completely kills the dynamic range on the entire record. The bass becomes almost inaudible and the drums are totaled. A lot of albums these days are recorded way too loudly, but the average listener wouldn't know. In fact, most headsets couldn't even really detect the difference other than a general volume decrease.
But Death Magnetic? There's noticeable distortion even on my crappy laptop speakers. It's totally flat and totally terrible. Sure, I'd take this over St. Anger's horrors any day, but we can't let St. Anger be an excuse for this kind of garbage.
You might be asking yourself why they would do this. Well, I have answer for you: money. You see, to the untrained ear, louder is better. When a track is louder, it stands out more. Say you've put your iPod on shuffle or you're listening to the radio. The track that you're going to notice is the track that's loudest. In the music business, this is called the “loudness war.” Death Magnetic takes this to entirely new extremes and it's really unfortunate.
I've had the chance of hearing a mix of Death Magnetic without the bad production. It sounds miles better, but my review is based entirely on the commercial product in stores. I can't just ignore that the final product is this terribly produced. It really is.
I understand the logic of wanting your song louder, but this just seems like a dumb, last minute decision. According to a few sources, the band isn't responsible for this. They were on tour when the final mixing was taking place. So, apparently, somebody just said, “Alright, screw it, just make it really loud. No, louder. Louder.” And then they released it. They had this beautiful work of art on the table and then someone spilled coffee on the edge. Sure, it's not that huge of a deal, but the work is always going to be stained.
So, in summary, the musicianship is excellent on Death Magnetic. While Metallica have come back, I would say that they're a bit like a runner who got his leg chopped off. During the Kill 'em All through ...And Justice for All period, they were a championship runner who won lots of Olympic gold medals and performed amazingly. Then, they got their leg chopped off. They simplified their sound and went to a place where we really don't want to see them. During this time, they resorted to other things, but the whole time we just wanted the runner back. Well, with Death Magnetic, Metallica is running again, but they're running on a prosthetic leg. We're glad to see them back on the track, but they're never going to be the same again. Still, it's great to see them back and their performance is actually much better than expected.
Will they get back to making Master of Puppets-quality material? I doubt it. However, Death Magnetic isn't a bad place to be. It's not the best possible, but it's great nevertheless. Metallica is back where they should be. They've changed, we've changed, but we're all back at the party. It's kind of like being at a class reunion after twenty years. Everyone's different, but Metallica's back to playing their old games. And for that, we love them.
To give Death Magnetic an overall score, I would give it a solid eight out of ten. The production and the lyrics are both awful, but every other element works well to produce a solid record. There are no bad songs on Death Magnetic, just songs that aren't as good as the rest. A seven is too low, because Death Magnetic is much more than average record, but there's definitely room for improvement.
If, however, the next album can fix the few issues on Death Magnetic, we could be looking at a masterpiece. I really doubt it'll happen, but Metallica really surprised us with this one. Can we hope for another surprise? Yes. Should we expect it? No. What should we do? Just appreciate the goodness we've already got.