Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Metallica 72 Seasons

Blackened Recordings
Blackened Recordings

Have you heard the news? Metallica are back, baby! The thrash legends are both shrewd and corny enough to choose the week of Easter to release an album they’re selling as a resurrection. 72 Seasons consciously and frequently reaches back into the band’s hallowed past for musical and lyrical references, doing everything it can to conjure up the fuzzy memories the core fanbase has with their earliest work. The album plays like an extended apology for Load, Reload, and St. Anger — and to a lesser extent, the Black Album. (Lulu doesn’t really figure into it.) Does that sound familiar at all?

It should, because 2008’s Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired…To Self-Destruct were sold the same way. In a 2008 interview with Guitar World, James Hetfield distanced himself from the band’s St. Anger-era decision to eschew guitar solos: “Not having that element on St. Anger was somewhat – I don’t want to say ‘boring’ – but it made the album pretty one-dimensional.” In that same interview, he talked up Death Magnetic this way: “I guess I would say that it’s a look backward – taking the essence of our earlier style and playing it with our current skills.” Again, Metallica are nothing if not shrewd, and the promise of an old-school album was a siren song to fans who had endured the Some Kind Of Monster version of the band. But having your frontman come right out and say your new album is “a look backward” is striking, nevertheless.

In 2016, Lars Ulrich said something even more revealing to the New York Times: “There was this strange thing for many years in our band. We were in such a hurry to move forward, and in such a hurry to move away from certain perceptions about us, that we kept chasing something that we didn’t really need to chase.” It was an acknowledgement that Metallica’s sometimes perplexing choices in the ’90s and early 2000s were externally motivated, but it was also an assurance to fans that Hardwired…To Self-Destruct would remind them of the stuff they loved. Ever the politician, Ulrich pledged to follow his muse while simultaneously promising that his muse was going exactly where people wanted it to go.

Critics didn’t exactly buy these promises hook, line, and sinker; the albums were commercial juggernauts, but they mostly got begrudging nods of approval from the rock cognoscenti. But more deference was paid to Metallica than would typically be bestowed on an aging thrash giant trying to recapture their glory days. That brings us to 72 Seasons, the third straight Metallica album to look to the past for a way into the future. It seems to be working. Rolling Stone has already called the album “some of the deepest, hardest-hitting music of their career,” while Classic Rock celebrated its “relentless intent to be better, louder, and sharper than anyone else.” I listen to a whole lot of heavy metal. I’m not so sure.

72 Seasons’ lead single, “Lux Æterna,” directly quotes “Motorbreath,” a fan favorite from the band’s 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All. But it doesn’t sound like “Motorbreath,” because James Hetfield was 17 when he wrote “Motorbreath.” Now pushing 60, his “full speed or nothing” mantra sounds a little desperate. For one, Metallica stopped going full-speed-or-nothing on Ride The Lightning, one year after Kill ‘Em All. The acoustic intro of “Fight Fire With Fire” or the anguished, dirge-like power ballad “Fade To Black” would be welcome wrinkles in 72 Seasons’ relentless 77-minute assault. In its self-conscious single-mindedness, the album can feel numbing.

For a lot of 72 Seasons, Metallica sound like middle-aged alumni at a homecoming weekend tailgate, eager to prove that they can still hang with the young bucks. For stretches, they pull it off. The opening title track is a blistering mini-epic, led by the frenetic down-picking of Hetfield’s immortal right hand and Robert Trujillo’s rumbling bass. (To his credit, Trujillo delivers the best – or at least the most audible – bass performance on a Metallica album since Cliff Burton died.) “Shadows Follow” comes next, and it scowls and stomps like an …And Justice For All deep cut. So far, so good. “Screaming Suicide” is the album’s first nod to a more recent Metallica song: Death Magnetic highlight “Cyanide,” which also rhymed “suicide” with “cyanide.” It’s here that the snake begins to eat its own tail. Being influenced by your own 15-year-old album, which was itself influenced by your own 35-year-old albums, feels like evidence of an incurious band, a closed loop. Metallica don’t strike me as voracious listeners. 72 Seasons proves that.

It’s also strange that Metallica apparently see nothing worth revisiting in their ’90s work. The Black Album is probably the most popular metal album of all time, but I don’t hear a lot of it in 72 Seasons. The streamlined arrangements, melodic hooks, and sensitive-bro balladry that made Metallica the biggest band in the world have all been ignored in favor of dense, bricklike heaviness. The same goes for the Load/Reload era’s alt-rock punchiness. I never thought I’d wish that a Metallica album had a “Fuel” or an “Ain’t My Bitch” on it, but here we are. Hetfield and Ulrich are shameless about their self-influence. That would go down a lot easier if they seemed more interested in synthesizing what they’ve learned in their four decades as a band.

Instead, 72 Seasons feels repetitive. There are good songs (“You Must Burn!”, “Chasing Light”) and bad ones (“If Darkness Had A Son,” “Room Of Mirrors”), but they all seem to have the same raison d’être: to prove that Metallica have still got it. By operating out of a reflexive need to assure us that they belong, they fail to push their music forward. Even “Inamorata,” the album’s towering, 11-minute closer and the longest song Metallica have ever written, feels stuck in the mud. On Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All, songs would creep toward the 10-minute mark because they were so overflowing with ideas that they couldn’t help it. “Inamorata” flogs the same handful of riffs and vocal lines (“Misery/ She needs me/ Oh, but I need her more”) for almost its entire duration, finally erupting into a solo section that can’t quite redeem it. (For his part, Kirk Hammett sounds very good throughout 72 Seasons. I’m glad Metallica are allowed to have guitar solos again.)

The most enlightening thing about 72 Seasons is the lyrics. Hetfield returned to rehab in 2019, and his freshly renewed sobriety is a raw nerve that he presses on throughout the album. The grip of addiction has fueled some of Metallica’s most memorable and harrowing lyrics, from “Master Of Puppets” to “Sad But True.” On 72 Seasons, Hetfield mostly dispenses with metaphor for a blunter approach. Take the sharp pangs of the first verse of “Chasing Light”: “Down and out as darkness falls/ So much more than he can take/ Shakes the cage in deep withdrawals/ Come on, give the boy a break/ Or he will break.” On “Too Far Gone?”, Hetfield invokes the one-day-at-a-time mantra of 12-step programs: “Am I too far gone to save?/ Can we make it through the day?” On an album that tends to reveal too little of its creators, Hetfield admirably lays himself bare.

The lyrics aren’t enough to unreservedly recommend 72 Seasons. It’s a little better than Hardwired, a little worse than Death Magnetic, and approximately a trillion miles short of the ’80s albums it so desperately wants to be. The Stranger Things-fueled viral revival of “Master Of Puppets” proved that prime Metallica can still transcend generation and genre. It’s understandable why the band would want to continue trying to recapture that power, but they’ve long since aged out of their ability to pull it off, and their insistence on going back to that well has hamstrung their creative growth. 72 Seasons certainly offers some of the surface pleasure of ’80s Metallica. But in a world where Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and …And Justice For All exist, is that good enough?

72 Seasons is out 4/14 on Blackened Recordings.

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