It’s difficult to talk about Death Magnetic, which turns 10 today, without talking about St. Anger. So let’s start there.
St. Anger, released in June 2003, was the album that almost killed Metallica. The short version, for those who haven’t seen the documentary Some Kind Of Monster: the band was supposed to start the writing and eventual recording of a new album in January 2001. Right before they entered the former military barracks they’d rented and converted to a studio — take a beat and just imagine how much money something like that costs — bassist Jason Newsted quit. They went to work anyway, with producer Bob Rock playing bass. In July 2001, James Hetfield went to rehab for alcoholism, among other things. When he came back to the band, in April 2002, he was only permitted to work from noon to four PM. Ultimately, the band and their performance coach, Phil Towle, moved to a new studio and recorded St. Anger between May 2002 and April 2003. It was in stores two months later.
The album they released, after more than two years of off-and-on work, could have been recorded in a week. Hetfield’s vocals are cracked and raw — half of them sound like guide tracks to be replaced later. The songs are too long, stretching past the eight-minute mark at times thanks to extra choruses, pointless bridges, false endings, and final sprints that feel like attempts to atone for everything that came before.
I hated St. Anger in 2003. I wrote a scorching review that was picked up by at least 10 alt-weeklies across the country and probably earned me a permanent spot on Lars Ulrich’s enemies list. But when I revisited it in 2008, in anticipation of Death Magnetic, it made more sense to me. It even sounded kind of…good. The trick to appreciating St. Anger, I have decided, is to understand that it’s not about you. They didn’t make that album to fuck with people, and they didn’t make it by accident. They made it because it was the album they wanted/needed/had to make, and it sounds that way, right down to Lars’ drums, because that’s how they wanted it to sound. If you don’t like it, that’s your business, but they weren’t thinking about you when they made it.
Hetfield owned up to all of this in an interview with Guitar World when Death Magnetic came out. He said, “I wasn’t a big fan of not having any solos on the album. Being a singer, there are very few songs I listen to just for the solos, but the solo is the voice for a little while. And not having that element on St. Anger was somewhat — I don’t want to say ‘boring’ — but it made the album pretty one-dimensional. Either the singing was on or the riff was on. Or that snare sound was on…We tore Metallica down to a bare-bones skeleton, and it was not unlike what I went through in my personal life. During that period I was breaking down and rebuilding. St. Anger is exactly what it had to be and needed to be. With our new album, we’re back into our earlier mode, where the songs are more of a ride. It’s a lot more fluid.”
So if St. Anger was the album Metallica had to make to bring James Hetfield back to life, Death Magnetic was the album they had to make to bring their music back to life. Sure, they were still selling out stadiums across the planet, but after three curveball records in a row (Load, Reload, and St. Anger), it was time to re-establish the brand. The first step was to cut some lingering ties to the past. After four albums and almost 20 years, Metallica ended their creative partnership with Bob Rock and brought in Rick Rubin.
That decision could have gone many different ways. It could have portended a return to the arty experimentation of the Load/Reload era, or it could have meant an album of radio-friendly rock songs. After all, Rubin had made his rock and metal bones working with Slayer, Danzig, and the Cult in the ’80s, but in the years immediately prior to Death Magnetic, he’d been producing for groups like the Dixie Chicks, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Linkin Park. But Hetfield told Guitar World, “One of the reasons we wanted Rick Rubin to work with us is because we liked the sound of his production on the Slipknot and System Of A Down albums.”
The only audible link between Toxicity and Death Magnetic, though, is the way the drums are mixed. The trash-can snare of St. Anger is gone. Lars Ulrich’s drums sound, instead, like buckets full of wood chips; they’re loose but solid, seeming to rattle back into place after each hit. What’s really odd, to my ear, is that he doesn’t seem to be driving the music the way a drummer normally does. The guitar riffs are the primary engine of the album. Hetfield and Kirk Hammett are speeding ahead (or digging deep, on the slower songs); then-still-relatively-new bassist Robert Trujillo is throbbing below; and Ulrich is pounding away in back. But the songs never seem dependent on his unique rhythms, at least not on the record.
That’s particularly notable because these are long, complicated songs. There are ten tracks on Death Magnetic, and only three of them are less than seven minutes long; the shortest is 5:01. The instrumental “Suicide And Redemption” is 9:58, the longest song they’ve ever put on an album. And yet it always feels like Hetfield and Hammett are the ones leading the others through these winding riff-mazes.
Rubin’s real achievement is making this music sound organic and alive. It could easily have been Pro Tools-ed into oblivion, but it has the feel of four guys blasting through the songs in a room. There’s air in the mix, and the performances have real flow. The ultra-crisp thrash of Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and …And Justice For All (their first comeback album, on which they reasserted themselves in the wake of Cliff Burton’s death) is no more. Instead, they’re combining their love and mastery of thrash with the boogie and melodic hard rock sides of themselves that they discovered on Metallica, Load and Reload.
The album makes its intentions clear from the start. It literally begins with the sound of a heartbeat, a creature coming to life. The guitars enter slowly, playing a doomy intro that could have come off the Black Album. Then Ulrich pounds the kit like a gavel, calling the room to order, and the song proper — “That Was Just Your Life” — begins at about the 90-second mark, with a frantic, galloping riff that only slows down for a staccato, shouted pre-chorus, before speeding away again. The second and third tracks, “The End Of The Line” and “Broken, Beat & Scarred” (the one with the awful, caveman-like “what don’t kill you make you more strong” refrain), are less berserk but just as heavy; they’re a kind of groove metal, shifting back and forth between anthemic chants and relentlessly chugging forward motion. Eventually, though, the band can’t stop themselves from charging full speed ahead.
There are a couple of slow songs on Death Magnetic. “The Day That Never Comes” is one; “The Unforgiven III” is the other. “Day” feels like a cousin to “Hero Of The Day,” from Load, for its first half at least. At the exact halfway mark, it goes from morose to enraged, and at about five minutes in (out of eight) it goes double-time. Hetfield and Hammett launch into epic Iron Maiden/Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar harmonies, test out about six different unison riffs, and Hammett shreds the fuck out of his solo. (Death Magnetic is jammed with epic solos; it’s like he saved all the ones cut from St. Anger, and wrote a bunch of new ones to go with them.)
I can offer an educated guess as to what “The Unforgiven III” sounds like, but I can’t say for sure, because I’ve never listened to it. I know it’s the longest of the three, at 7:47, and that’s all I need to know.
The album’s final stretch — “The Judas Kiss,” “Suicide And Redemption,” and “My Apocalypse” — is where shit gets really old-school. “The Judas Kiss” is one of only two tracks to actually pass the eight-minute mark, and most of that is taken up with head-crushing riffage and martial drum barrages, though there’s a moment where Hetfield shouts “Judas lives, recite this vow/I’ve become your new god now” and you can totally picture him imagining an arena full of people shouting it along with him. (They’ve actually only played the song about 30 times since the album came out.)
“Suicide And Redemption” revives a trick the band pulled on their classic ’80s albums: Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and …And Justice For All all featured a lengthy instrumental as either the final or next-to-last track. (I wish they’d done it again on Hardwired…To Self-Destruct; “Murder One” could have been amazing with no lyrics and two extra minutes of guitar solos.) Anyway, “Suicide…” travels through several moods, getting almost beautiful in the middle, it gives everybody a turn in the spotlight, and somehow feels like them jamming in a room. It’s absolutely not a track you want to skip.
Death Magnetic ends with its shortest track, the jackhammering, almost D-beat “My Apocalypse.” Blazingly fast and totally free of catch-your-breath moments, it’s a sustained explosion that ends with an almost Motörhead-esque wash of cymbals and noisily ringing guitars.
So while it’s not perfect (“The Unforgiven III”), Death Magnetic was and is a really, really good album, and it did exactly what it was supposed to do. The critical reception boiled down to “Fuck yeah — Metallica are back!” There were complaints, but they were about the brick-walled sound of the record, which admittedly can be a little hard on the ear. (They sneakily fixed it, though — the version of the album available on iTunes and through Amazon MP3 has been subtly tweaked to make it less harsh.) But ultimately, Death Magnetic earned them so much goodwill that they were able to spend seven years on the road before recording a follow-up.
Even though I’d been a Metallica fan since the ’80s, I had never seen them live. I finally made it to one — actually, two — of their concerts in January and November 2009. They played in the round, and it was there, in Newark’s Prudential Center and later at Madison Square Garden, that I came to understand Lars’s role in the band in a completely different way. While he wasn’t driving the songs on Death Magnetic, in a live context his loose, almost punk rock drumming was maybe the most important element. Slamming away with the other three wandering around him, he forced the band to let the reins slip a little bit, and as a result, there was a chaotic energy bleeding through even their most complicated music. And there was a lot of complicated music being played, too: at the January show, they played six tracks from Death Magnetic and two from …And Justice For All, and in November the ratio was five and three, including the instrumental “To Live Is To Die.” Still, it always felt like it could go off the rails at any moment, which is exactly what you want from live music.
I’ve listened to 9/10 of Death Magnetic hundreds of times over the last 10 years. In fact, it might be my go-to Metallica album. I love their ’80s classics, but I’ve been listening to them since middle school and have them more or less memorized. When it appeared in 2008, it had been 20 years since I’d loved one of their records. So Death Magnetic, flaws and all, sank its hooks deep into me and has never really let go. And honestly, I think it’s their most important post-Black Album release. It combined the strength and power displayed in their initial rise to metal godhood with the ability to craft memorable melodies they’d learned under Bob Rock’s stewardship, and pushed aside the deliberate and alienating (if personally therapeutic) ugliness of St. Anger — an album they haven’t played anything from live since 2009. They brought themselves back from the brink, inaugurating a mature and confident phase that’s continued on Hardwired…To Self-Destruct and will likely last until they hang it up for good.