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Death mesmeric

Death Magnetic

It’s been quite a while since the new Metallica album, Death Magnetic, came out so it’s about time I write something about it (actually, I’ve been working on this review for about four or five months).

Metallica – greatest band in the universe, in case you didn’t know – went through a lot of trouble at the beginning of the millennium: Jason Newstead, replacement for Cliff Burton who died in a tour bus crash in 1986, was driven to leave the band after years of getting the short end of the stick from the rest of band, and their singer and rhythm guitarist, James Hetfield, went off the rails, spending his time in a cabin in the forest, hunting and subsisting on a diet of vodka.

Hetfield eventually went into rehab – as did lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett – and the band brought in a therapist, Phil Towle, to try and help them move on to healthier places. So they recorded St. Anger without a bassplayer (their producer since the ‘Black Album’, Bob Rock, took up bass duties for the recording) and the album was released to disappointing levels of indifference and disgust. Just before its release they took on Rob Trujillo as their new bassist.

Some time into the songwriting for the 2003 album they ditched all but two of the songs and refocussed on making a record about anger. The sound raw and brutal – grungy, even. Many people slated the sound of Lars Ulrich’s drums, which had a certain hollow, metallic feel to them. There wasn’t a single guitar solo on the album.

I liked St. Anger a lot – I thought its superficial lack of polish was a masterstroke of song- and album-craft. Some of the tracks had more visceral impact than many of Metallica’s best previous songs (‘The Unnamed Feeling’ comes to mind) – and there were a handful of stonking riffs on there (like the one right at the very end of ‘Invisible Kid’). The album was too long – but so were their previous two albums (and arguably the two before that, as well).

I had hoped that now that everything in the band seemed to be on an even keel the wait for a new original record would be somewhat shorter than the five years between ReLoad and St Anger … but no. After what seems like about two years or more of reading bits of news about a forthcoming recording, the news of its release began to acquire specificity. The Rick Rubin-produced album was originally suppposed to be out in February 2008, but then this was briefly pushed back to April, I think, then to September. All we had to listen to were two songs played live in 2006: ‘The New Song’ aka ‘Death is Not the End’ and ‘The Other New Song’ aka ‘Vulturous’.

But finally the album was finished, a release date released, a name chosen, and a song previewed on Metallica.com, ‘The Day that Never Comes’. And this preview song was actually rather disappointing – it seemed like a step backwards in terms of songwriting and production. On their MySpace page the band released a live version of another new song, ‘Cyanide’, and this was much better. The next preview song was ‘My Apocalypse’, and again it wasn’t exactly their best material. In the following weeks more songs were previewed, these ones better, until finally, just before the album’s release, the whole record was put up on Metallica.com. And two of these last previewed tracks turned out to be the best on the album.

The first track on Death Magnetic is ‘That Was Just Your Life’. This opens in ominously gentle style as per some of the greatest Metallica tracks. A heartbeat fades in and then there’s a clean guitar riff evocative of the opening of ‘Enter Sandman’, but a little more eerie. After some portentous power chordage, the tempo leaps upward and the main riff begins – a simple but effective thing. The verses are a rapid-fire monotone barking of images of frustration:

Like a siren in my head that always threatens to repeat.
Like a blind man that is strapped into the speeding driver’s seat.
Like a face –
That learns to speak –
When all it knew was how to bite.
Like a misery that keeps me focused though I’ve gone astray.
Like an endless nightmare that I must awaken from each day.
Like conviction –
A premonition –
Not worthy of so I deny.

The verses are lengthy, as are both the prechorus and chorus. Which introduces one of the main differences between this album and its predecessor, St. Anger – The lyrics are far more detailed, intense, extensive. Which is nice. After the second chorus there’s the strongest riff in the song, which is reprised towards the end with a great little variation very reminiscent of the riff just before the final verse of ‘Harvester of Sorrow’. A pretty damned good start to the album.

Number two on the record is ‘The End of the Line’, and this begins with a familiar riff – one cannibalised from ‘The New Song’. The track is a little slower than the previous one, but still fast-paced, and is a critique of celebrity life and living fast and dying young.

Hooked into this deceiver –
Need more and more.
Into the endless fever –
Need more and more.
New consequence machine –
You burn through all your gasoline.
Asylum overtime –
Never mind,
You’ve reached the end of the line.

The best riff here is the one under the first part of the chorus – again, a simple but effective two-note rhythmic tune made progressively more intense by rising harmonies. This riff reccurs just before the interlude, where its second repetition is palm-muted and is given an unusual harmony (a second interval, I think). The interlude itself is soft and melodic and rises to a crescendo and lyrcally segues into the renewed fury of the chorus.

‘Broken, Beat & Scarred’ is, in terms of lyrics at least, one of the simpler songs on the record. The opening verse is:

You rise,
You fall,
You’re down and you rise again –
What don’t kill you, make you more strong

which is then repeated. Then it’s repeated in a simpler version:

Rise, fall, down, rise again –
What don’t kill you, make you more strong

but here the first line is done with an almost un-Metallica-ish harmony. It’s not quite pop but that one line wouldn’t be out of place amid the punk-rock stylings of a Blink 182 or a Green Day. The verse riff (for the first half, anyway) debuts just before the first verse and is an intricate palm-muted tune with a fascinating rhythm; for the verse itself the riff drops down an octave. The guitar is pretty standard, as are much of the riffs of the whole interlude section. The riff that concludes the song is stronger and much more effectively used.

Track 4 is ‘The Day that Never Comes’ and was the first song on the record to officially see the light of day, being the first single. In many ways it’s a rip-off of Metallica’s classic anti-war anthem, ‘One’ (also the fourth track on its album, … And Justice for All). It starts off softly, with ethereal yet steely arpeggios, which is then accompanied by a somewhat plasticky lead melody. After a few bars the music changes to a more natural-sounding clean guitar and rhythm section, which then becomes the first verse.

The lyrics are about abuse and the hopelessness of the one being abused. The chorus is a heavier affair (just like ‘One’ – and I think the use of that particular word in the chorus here isn’t a coincidence), with a rather leaden riff overlaid with plasticky lead guitar harmonies. It goes thusly:

Waiting for the one.
The day that never comes.
When you stand up and feel the warmth.
But the sunshine never comes.

The song ups the intensity for the whole latter half. After a bridge the tempo rises and there’s a machine gun riff followed by a winding lead guitar part (again, more memories of ‘One’). The rest of the song is marked by heavy but unmoving riffs and more old-fashioned Kirk Hammett lead guitar.

‘The Day that Never Comes’ is very retro and the weakest track on the album (I would say ‘by far’, but I don’t like the final song much either). When I first started listening to it – when it was the only track from the album available – my initial excitement quickly faded to an unwilling disappointment. I’m so happy that in fact it turned out to be a weak link in a strong chain.

‘All Nightmare Long’ starts with a swift-moving but soft clean riff, similar to that at the beginning of ‘Harvester of Sorrow’, but less doom-laden. This is soon joined by a few thunderous power chords, and then the song launches into a trademark Metallica heavily palm-muted riff that goes exactly like this: d-d-de de de de de de de de de de de de de de de, d-d-de de de de de de de de de de de de de de de…. This riff evolves into something more complex; a two-beat hiatus allows James Hetfield to bark somthing unintelligible (it may simply be ‘One, two!’); there’s another riff: a combination of power chords and rapid palm-muted chugging; all this culminates in more rapid palm-muted chugging, but more delicate (it’s reminiscent of the verse riff from two songs earlier, ‘Broken, Beat and Scarred’), and this then becomes the first verse. The verse ends rather wonderfully – like so:

Still life – incarnation.
Still life – infamy.
Hallucination, heresy!
Still you run, what’s to come, what’s to be?

The second chorus gives way to a heavily wah-wahed lick (a Kirk Hammett specialty) that’s pretty good. This leads into a short guitar solo, and after more riffage there’s a longer guitar solo. When this ends there is the second of the two riffs cannibalised from the earlier work-in-progress, ‘The New Song’ – and this riff wouldn’t have been out of place on Master of Puppets or … And Justice for All. The final riff is very similar to that at the end of ‘My World’ (St. Anger).

All in all, four of the first five songs (‘The Day that Never Comes’ being the odd one out) are all pretty similar in feel, length, tempo, theme (well, all the songs are supposed to be about death), quality and enjoyability. I’m not entirely sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing…. Well, I enjoy these four songs, so it must be a good thing. On to the second half of the album.

A live version of the sixth track, ‘Cyanide’, was another early slice of Death to be served up, and it was my favourite of the three early tracks. The album version still disappoints me a little, as it’s somewhat slower than the live version and I keep thinking that it ought to be faster. It’s more concise than many of the other songs on the disc (and third shortest), and isn’t brimming over with dozens of different riffs. The riffs themselves have a slightly different feel to those of the other medium-fast tracks on the album – they’re simpler, and there’s a slightly Middle Eastern vibe to the bridge. ‘Cyanide’ is more similar the ‘Black Album’ material than any other track on Death Magnetic.

One of the things I like about ‘Cyanide’ is how the rhythm guitar mimics – imprecisely – the vocal line of the chorus; in between phrases there’s a pleasing chug chug chug on the low E. The chorus goes:

Suicide –
I’ve already died,
You’re just the funeral I’ve been waiting for.
Cyanide –
Living dead inside –
Break this empty shell forever more.

Number seven on the track listing is the album’s epiphany. ‘The Unforgiven III’ begins with a piano. A piano! On a Metallica song! The gently cascading melody is soon joined by strings and brass instruments. The whole effect is fantastically soft and melancholic. The song halts for a moment, then opens a new section with a clean guitar playing a quietly urgent part, with the other instruments coming in in the background – this is the backing to the chorus.

The verse changes tone, with a distorted guitar riff that is at once elegant and furious – as are the lyrics:

How could know this new dawn’s light would change his life forever?
Set sail to sea but pulled off course by the light of golden treasure.
Was he the one
Causing pain
With his careless dreaming?
Been afraid –
Always afraid –
Of the things he’s feeling.

After a pre-chorus in the same vein, but with a heavily wah-wahed lead guitar lick added into the mix, the song takes a breath for the chorus. The words are desperately sad:

How can I be lost, when I’ve got nowhere to go?
Search for seas of gold; how come it’s got so cold?
How can I be lost? In remembrance I relive.
And how can I blame you, when it’s me I can’t forgive?

The bridge is another quiet, urgent section, building to a crescendo, while the lyrics demand

Forgive me.
Forgive me not.

The guitar solo plays over the verse riff, a thing of blistering fire, its grainy, distorted sound achieved by more wah-wah use. Once this fire dies down the track recapitulates the first two lines of the first verse, but in reverse order and over the much softer chorus music. The song ends almost on the last word of the chorus, the final, ringing chord fading into a hiss that could be that of an old speaker, or the sea.

‘The Judas Kiss’ is possibly the best of the fast-paced songs on the album. It begins with a series of riffs – the first slow, then building in intensity; another riff very similar to the main riff from ‘Eye of the Beholder’. The verse riff moves swiftly and has a certain slippery feel to it.

The verse lyrics focus on being down and out, at the nadir of existence:

When the storm has blacked your sky,
Intuition crucify,
When the ego strips your reign,
Assassinates the living flame.

So what now?
Where go I?
When you think it’s all said and done.

The chorus contains the answer to these questions, and for me is perhaps the most pleasurable moment on the entire album:

Bow down,
Sell your soul to me,
I will set you free,
Pacify your demons.
Bow down,
Surrender unto me,
Submit infectiously,
Sanctify your demons
Into abyss,
You don’t exist,
Cannot resist
The Judas kiss.

The interlude following the second chorus takes one of the earlier riffs and expands on it, makes it a little more complex. Then there’s a half-speed slightly ominous section, and then the guitar solo. About halfway through which is this venomous couplet:

Judas lives, recite this vow –
I’ve become your new god now!

The guitar solo concludes with some interesting licks (and more wah-wah) and leads into the bridge – another slow, ominous section, full of tribal-esque drum rhythms. It builds in intensity and rage and segues neatly into the final chorus. As you can tell, I like this song, so I’m going to quote the bridge lyrics in full:

Followed you from dawn of time.
Whispered thoughts into your mind.
Watched your towers hit ground,
Lured your children, never found,
Helped your kings abuse their crown.
In the heart of feeble man,
Plant the seeds of my own plan,
The strong and powerful will fall,
Find a piece of me in all.
Inside you all so bow down,
Sell your soul to me …

Track 9 is another revelation – the first intrumental on a Metallica album since ‘To Live is to Die’ from 1989’s … And Justice for All. ‘Suicide & Redemption’ is very much in the vein of all three of Metallica’s previous instrumentals (‘The Call of Ktulu’ and ‘Orion’ being the other two): mid-paced, dark and epic. However, it’s easily the best of the quartet. And, at a few seconds shy of ten minutes, it’s the longest track on any original Metallica studio album (the original version of ‘The Outlaw Torn’ is longer, but it had to be cut down for Load).

It begins with the bassline and stabbing power chords. The guitar part builds in stages to become the main riff – the first beat and a half of which feels like a pause, with the note bent up and down, then the rest of the bar consisting of a palm-muted mechanical up-and-down tune. This riff alternates with another much heavier one reminiscent of the heavy down-sliding riff from ‘To Live is to Die’. The next go around, the main riff has a simple, repetitive, echo-laden lead guitar lick over it.

After a variation on the heavier riff, the piece moves into a quiet interlude. First there’s a delicate clean rhythm guitar part, which is joined by a soft melody on the lead guitar. The clean guitar is replaced by more heavy riffery, and the lead part, now harmonised, becomes stronger, more melancholic, somehow evoking nostalgia. The opening of the song is reprised in another bass-heavy section which then leads into the guitar solo. This solo – another expert bit of Kirk Hammett tune-weaving and shredding – is markedly different depending on whether you’re listening to the album version or the Guitar Hero version. The riff that follows this is a simple but intense up-and-down affair that repeats in different registers, building in intensity, before leading back into the main riff. The piece ends with a version of the heavy riff that has overtones of the ending of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’.

Finally, track 10, ‘My Apocalypse’, the other song that was previewed along with ‘The Day that Never Comes’, is a traditional high-speed conclusion to a Metallica album (although quite a few of the band’s CDs also end with turgid epics). It’s also fairly weak, and expresses the need for violence in rather juvenile terms:

Crushing metal, ripping skin,
Tossing body, mannequins,
Spilling blood, bleeding gas.
Mangled flesh, snapping spine,
Dripping bloody Valentine,
Shattered face, spitting glass.
Split apart,
Split apart,
Split apart,
Spit –
Spit it out!

And at five minutes long it’s the shortest song on the disc by about a minute and a half. I can’t help thinking that ‘The Other New Song’, aka ‘Vulturous’, would have been a much better choice, but somehow, for some reason, it didn’t pass muster for the new album.

One random note about pronuciation on the album. I can’t remember many instances of specifically American English pronunciations on Metallica songs (maybe only a long A in ‘nadir’ from ‘The Shortest Straw’), but there are a couple of examples in one song that stood out for me. In ‘The Judas Kiss’ there’s ‘patronize’ with a long A, and ‘tourniquet’ in the non-French style. Finally, there’s also the unusual correct pronunciation of ‘deity’ in ‘The End of the Line’ – videlicet, ‘DEE-i-ti’.

Despite the amount of enjoyment I’ve got from the album so far, there are a couple of problems with it. The best riff on the album, for me, is the main tune in the instrumental – the one that begins with the bent up and down note. But this is by no means among Metallica’s strongest riffs – and it’s this ability to create amazing riffs that helps make Metallica the greatest band in the universe. A Metallica album without a couple of stonkers like the much-played-in-guitar-shops theme from ‘Enter Sandman’ or the thunderous riff from ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (which a magazine once described as sounding like Godzilla stomping through your hometown), is a little disappointing. This isn’t to say the tunes on Death Magnetic are bad – but by and large there’s nothing special about them.

Another major sticking point is the sound quality. I’d noticed this on the early preview tracks and had assumed they’d been compressed for web broadcast. But it turns out the whole album had been sonically amputated – supposedly to increase the volume (or so I’ve read). Compression strips out the very high and very low frequencies – usually the difference is negligible, but this album release has a distinctly plasticky sound quality. The solution, it turns out, is to download the Guitar Hero version, which sounds like it should do, with crunchy guitar sounds, crisp hi-hats and meaty bass. There are a couple of content differences in the Guitar Hero version, mainly to ‘Suicide & Redemption’, which has a slightly different guitar solo, and loses its fade in and fade out. There’s also an extra refrain after the first chorus of ‘The End of the Line’.

So there we have it: ten large slices of death – Death Magnetic. Four months or more after its release I was still listening to it regularly (although not so much in 2009), so my response is certainly very positive. There are five or six solid, enjoyable metal songs, two or three sub-par tracks (‘Cyanide’ is the one I can’t make my mind up about), and two out and out masterpieces: ‘The Unforgiven III’ and ‘Suicide & Redemption’; the third in the ‘Unforgiven’ trilogy is one of Metallica’s best ever songs. In short, the album is pretty damn good – though it could have been even better.

Track Listing (CD version)

1 – That Was Just Your Life (7:08)
2 – The End of the Line (7:52)
3 – Broken, Beat & Scarred (6:25)
4 – The Day That Never Comes (7:56)
5 – All Nightmare Long (7:58)
6 – Cyanide (6:39)
7 – The Unforgiven III (7:46)
8 – The Judas Kiss (8:00)
9 – Suicide & Redemption (9:57)
10 – My Apocalypse (5:01)

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