Metallica’s Death Magnetic

Dark imagery.  Snarling vocals.  Jackhammer guitar riffs.  Pounding drumlines.
All these expected ingredients for a Metallica studio album remain intact on Death Magnetic, their ninth such release.  The foursome blaze through ten entertaining songs in just under 75 minutes, continuing a near 20-year tradition (established with 1991’s Metallica) of pushing the time constraints of a single compact disc (at least 70 minutes) to its absolute limit.  Curiously, it doesn’t feel overstuffed or stretched out despite the fact that the shortest song clocks in at 5 minutes.  Like The Ramones at their finest, Metallica never allows you a chance to even consider being bored.  These epic, frequently frenetic anthems repeatedly hold your attention.
Singer/lyricist James Hetfield’s recovery from alcoholism, as documented in the revealing 2004 documentary, Some Kind Of Monster (worth checking out on DVD, if you haven’t seen it), appears to have inspired a good deal of the words to these songs.  In the opener, That Was Just Your Life, with a rapid-fire growl he sings, "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".  In the second verse, he specifies the endless pain he felt from his addiction:  "Like a wound that keeps on bleeding to remind me not to think/Like a raging river drowning when I only need a drink/Like a poison that I swallow but I want the world to die/Like a prison that I didn’t know I was in". 
A very personal song loaded with vulnerability and wisdom (it sounds like a warning to fellow addicts about the fatal consequences of staying the course of their disease, something Hetfield thankfully avoided), and it’s not the only one on this very fine album.
Cyanide, which begins the second set of tracks, continues the theme of unbearable pain exacerbated by seemingly unbreakable patterns of self-destruction and negative thought patterns.  In this one, death is a welcome visitor:  "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" goes the chorus.  The End Of The Line, which follows That Was Just Your Life, notes the simple, insatiable nature of addiction ("Need…More and More") and delves deeper into the feelings and self-perception of a full-blown addict who happens to be famous ("Tainted misery", "Chemical affinity", "Catatonic overload", "Snuff reality", "Incinerate celebrity", "Karma amputee").  In The Unforgiven III (its chorus sounding a bit too much like the verse music for Stone Temple Pilots’ Creep, which I didn’t mind), Hetfield alternates the perspective of his narrative from third person to first as he goes from fearing his feelings to mourning lost relationships ("They’ve all gone away") to posing pointed, unanswered questions to himself regarding his inability to find closure for his mistakes ("…how can I blame you, when it’s me I can’t forgive?").  Dr. Drew Pinsky’s patients on Celebrity Rehab will find much of this lyrical terrain uncomfortably and emotionally accurate if they have the courage to dive in.  (If they haven’t already heard this record, that is.)  It can only help them further cope with their illnesses.  It appears to have helped Hetfield immensely.
Despite the presence of mortality all through the album, Death Magnetic also offers moments of hope and determination through the eyes of indomitable spirits.  The Day That Never Comes, the moving first single and first Top 40 hit for the band in over a decade, tells a sad story of the emotional fallout from a son being routinely abused by his father.  As the situation refuses to improve, conveyed nicely in the chorus, the son’s anger ("God I’ll make them pay") gives way to quick, mature refusal ("Take it back one day", "I’ll splatter colour on this gray").  By the end, he vows to free himself from his domestic "prison" and "suffer this no longer".  "The son will shine/This, I swear", Hetfield bellows before the band bulldoze their way through the last three minutes of the song in a gripping instrumental finale.
The second single, Broken, Beat & Scarred, with simple, powerful lyrics, epitomizes the proud stubbornness of the downtrodden ("Show your scars").  Making full, effective use of a repeated cliche ("What don’t kill ya make ya more strong"), it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if military personnel play it to boost morale before going into battle.  It has an infectious never-give-up quality about it.
Also terrific is All Nightmare Long, yet another song warning others of the dangerous fruitlessness of hiding through addiction.  (I can easily imagine Hetfield singing "Luck…runs…out" with a devilish grin on his face.)  In this case, the metaphor of the crazed murderer ("Hunt you down without mercy/Hunt you down all nightmare long") reflects the unstoppable cravings of the tormented addict.  The Judas Kiss, which sounds, lyrically, like a metal sequel of sorts to Sympathy For The Devil ("Followed you from dawn of time/Whispered thoughts into your mind/Watched your towers hit the ground/Lured your children never found/Helped their kings abuse their crown"), is one big, depraved temptation to give in to all of one’s bad habits.  ("Bow down/Surrender unto me/Submit infectiously/Sanctify your demons/Into abyss")  The message is clear:  you can recover from addiction and live a normal life but the urges and irrational thoughts never leave you.  Chilling.
The album ends with a near 10-minute instrumental (Suicide & Redemption) and a final fit of intensity (My Apocalypse).  The former is one of the only times, albeit briefly, you can clearly hear how solid a bassist Robert Trujillo is.  Because of how ridiculously loud the album sounds throughout, most of his contributions are sadly buried in the mix.  Here’s hoping on the next album that he not only gets a solo showcase, like the late Cliff Burton received on a couple of the band’s 80s LPs, but also a louder presence overall.  That said, Suicide & Redemption is a nice reprieve from the heavy lyrical themes of mortality (title aside), although it falls far short of the standard set by the inspired S&M version of The Call Of Ktulu.  My Apocalypse is a punky throwback to the band’s early sound when Hetfield wasn’t interested in being sensitive and drummer Lars Ulrich preferred to hammer his drum kit into submission.  It’s a strong finish to a strong album.
At this point, Metallica really have nothing left to achieve (except maybe a number one hit).  They’ve moved tens of millions of albums internationally, they’ve won Grammys, they’re Rock And Roll Hall Of Famers, they’re a fantastic live act, they’ve accumulated a ton of radio and video hits, and they were right about Napster.  But this is still a hungry band and a fearless one, too.  Opening a song like The Unforgiven III with a repeated piano line and a soft orchestral arrangement instead of a bludgeoning guitar lick is clearly not a typical metal intro.  Offering remarkably vulnerable lyrics beneath a blistering sheen of distortion on a number of tracks is not an easy, creative decision, either.  It is, however, to be commended.  This is a foursome unafraid to walk through the tunnels of despair, horror and unspeakable pain in order to reach the lightness of hope and the freedom of reconciliation on the other side.
Its overloud mastering aside, Death Magnetic is one of Metallica’s best albums.  This 2008 release is highly recommended.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, April 3, 2009
10:23 p.m.
Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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