By Anthony Kuzminski
When you emerge from your mother’s womb there is one brutal truth and reality we all are guaranteed to face; death. Despite this, very little time is spent discussing it. It’s an alien world because beyond death, no one knows what exists, which is where true horror resides because it’s the great unknown. The tackling of such an ominous and bleak topic is audacious by any standards but when it’s Metallica the stakes are immediately raised. Death Magnetic, their ninth studio album and their first in five-years, is the sonic triumph and inspired revival we have been waiting for. They have not been this fiery and ferocious since 1988’s …And Justice For All. Beneath the molten metal on Death Magnetic is something few reviewers have yet to pick up on; the severe, concentrated and meditative lyrics. There is a delicate and philosophical weight to the lyrics that show a newfound maturity that speaks volumes. If you only listen to the intrinsic music, then you’re only hearing part of the story. Death Magnetic’s ten songs are nothing short of snarling, storming and searing.
I’ve always been a Metallica supporter and find their latter day work to be more considerable than most people give them credit for. I believe there is a stellar album somewhere between Load and Re-Load and I found St. Anger to be a necessary exercise to the continuation of the band the same way a vital organ transplant would be to continue breathing. I still view the album as an essential piece of Metallica history because it birthed the brilliant and ultimately band saving Some Kind of Monster documentary film. Great artists must evolve and push the envelope in order to stay relevant. However, once that experimentation has taken place, it equally important to go back home and re-embrace your past. Enter producer Rick Rubin. If there is one thing Rubin knows how to do, it’s exhuming the artist’s inner psyche and bringing them back to ground zero. He reawakens that original hunger lost amidst the sold-out arenas and walls of platinum records. He’s infused new life into Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash, the Dixie Chicks and Tom Petty to name just a few. No living producer has a more eclectic resume than Rubin. Metallica, sensing they needed guidance, recruited Rubin and proceeded to spend two-years finding the right mix of songs to unleash and reclaim their spot atop the metal mountain which I am happy to report they have done so magnificently. They’ve always been an esteemed and proficient band but you can hear the decades of skill and camaraderie behind these songs. The icy isolation of St. Anger is long gone replaced with ten superbly unsubtle and sprawling compositions paired with raucous and ripping guitar riffs. On Death Magnetic, Rick Rubin has awoken the dormant beast.
Commencing the reawakening is an understated heartbeat on the album opener “That Was Just Your Life” providing a vital sign of things to come. The unpretentious plucking of strings ever so gently builds into a speed metal frenzy smorgasbord. Beneath the thrashing instruments are fierce lyrics that stand side by side with Hetfield’s best. Far too often we walk through life blindly and only truly open our eyes when it’s too late (“I blind my eyes, I hardly feel it passing me by, I open just in time to say goodbye”). This is why Metallica became the mightiest metal band of all time; they blend visceral words with a wall of deafening sound and all of Death Magnetic re-embraces this aggressive formula made famous on such immortal tracks as “Fade To Black”, “Master of Puppets” and “One”. The dangers of where your faith lies and belief in a higher power are tested on the prevailing and epic “The Judas Kiss”. The summoning lyrics can be interpreted numerous ways however, I feel it’s about turning to temptation when a loss of faith occurs. The mountains we must hurdle and obstacles we have to overcome can prove to be too demanding and many look for the easy way out. There’s an underlying message in the song; despite the temptations, we must prevail. When the curtains are turned back, we’re informed to “find a piece of me in all”; we’re reminded that the evil and corruption of our world lies within all of us. It’s a struggle to walk towards the light versus the darkness and falling prey to the devil on our shoulder can be all too easy. Amidst the maniacal metal six-finger wizardry, pounding rhythms, anger and aggression are moral tales lyrically weaved for us to decipher.
The minimalist rawness of “All Nightmare Long” confirms Metallica to be the master linguists of the vernacular of heavy metal on this moral tale of how our choices are always met with eventual consequences. “The End of the Line” punishes you with interlocking guitars that find middle ground between their epic early beginnings and their concise compositions of the 90’s featuring an otherworldly solo by Kirk Hammet, whose work on the entire record is brutally beautiful as he delivers one money shot after another. “The slave becomes the master” refers to the chaotic lives we lead where worlds are crushed by unforeseen people and events which leave us paralyzed. All of this leaves us questioning if our modern comforts help or hinder us as we become slaves to the commercialism of our society? “The Day That Never Comes” is a new classic where the narrator of the song chooses sanguinity and hope over pessimism. The song transitions from an aching and brooding composition to headbanging hysterics. As Hetfield howls “You rise, you fall, you’re down then you rise again” on “Broken, Beat & Scarred”, an ode to the eternal battle to resist barriers thrown in front of you, the slashing music sounds as if the narrator is being boiled alive amidst maniacal precision by the four band members. The incandescent lyric defines not just the voyage of Metallica over the last quarter century, but the evolution of our shared existence as well.
The band’s first instrumental in twenty-years is full of driving interplay which reigns supreme in the aptly titled “Suicide and Redemption”, the album’s penultimate track. The title says it all and it’s no mistake that “redemption” follows “suicide”. While there are no words, it allows to listener to process the previous sixty-minutes before the revelatory “My Apocalypse”. The deafening finale features the intensity of a band that only had a few Gold records to their name; Lars Ulrich’s speed-driven spastic drumming, Kirk Hammet’s mastery of metal solo’s and Robert Trujillo’s mean and lean bass thumps triumphantly, but the real sign that the metal masters have returned with a vengeance are the unyielding buzzing vocals by James Hetfield which reveal sides of the man I never knew existed.
The complicated track “Cyanide” finds the band continually changing musical gears as one hopes to find solace in death with piercing lyrics (“Living dead inside, Break this empty shell forevermore”). The narrator longs for death, but even though this is a song about wanting to end a miserable existence, it doesn’t mean they are endorsing suicide. Allow me a slight digression; I idiotically once thought I’d be better off dead than living in a world that didn’t love me back. I wasn’t suicidal, but felt my presence would be more felt if I passed on, that in some stupid and dysfunctional way, I would be thought of more fondly than when I was alive. I thought if I found eternal sleep- I would finally find peace. I was living an existence where I imprudently felt no one would miss me. I didn’t see the point of living when all it encompasses is pain and misery. “Cyanide” may be one mere story surrounded in gloom but ultimately Death Magnetic is an album about endurance and revolting. It’s no mistake “Cyanide” is followed immediately by “The Unforgiven III” with a consoling and unthinkable piano interlude opening on what is ultimately the album’s most melodic song and the flipside of “Cyanide”. “How can I be lost if I have nowhere to go?” Hetfield cries on this nearly eight-minute track with lyrics that harkens back to the band’s earlier days of writing about darkness, dissolution and the decline of the human soul. A broader theme of resurrection and redemption encompass the song which in its final act boils over into a walloping crescendo with a beguiling guitar solo by Kirk Hammet. This is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted song on the album with the band revealing an inner discord of their psyche. As Hetfield yelps “Why can’t I forgive me” right before yet another sinuous solo by Hammet, I was ready to tip over at the depth of the song. Life is about the here and now and not in the past. We hold the keys to our own cages. As much as we want to blame others for our lot in life, it’s only when we forgive ourselves for our past and move forward “How can I blame you when it’s me I can’t forgive”. This haunting track is like an ascension from purgatory into a brighter light. Addiction, bloody break ups and overwhelming obstacles make life challenging beyond words and while Metallica confronts these topics head on, it’s the desperate atmosphere that allows us to fully comprehend life and ultimately (and hopefully) open ourselves to the idea of redemption. To read it, hear it and feel it from one of the most formidable artists of our time isn’t just overwhelming, it’s spiritual reaffirming as well.
One of the few things that gave me joy during my darkest days was music. I would head down to the record store almost daily in search of something that would provide a glimmering light of hope. During these years I drowned in the music of Peter Gabriel, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Bon Jovi (specifically their brilliant and underrated These Days record). Metallica’s Death Magnetic is an album that would have proven to be a tonic to my tragedy. It’s as pensive as Gabriel’s best work, it’s freeing just like a Bon Jovi power chord, as lyrically unrelenting as Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, meditative like U2’s The Joshua Tree and ultimately full of the optimism and faith of thunderous roads and eternal optimism of Springsteen’s Born To Run. I wish I had Death Magnetic for that period of my life because it would have reaffirmed to me that I was not alone in my thoughts and feelings. If I had acknowledged this, I would have possibly crawled out of my depression sooner than I did. Ultimately, despite death and darkness, I would have been reminded that there is indeed a light at the end of the dark and winding tunnel.
Death Magnetic is about the struggle of life, where at every turn we are tempted and tortured. But beneath the darkness and metallic fury is a band that has truly unearthed their inner selves. The band we almost saw self destruct during Some Kind of Monster is turning the other cheek. While they buried thoughts, feelings and difficult emotions in the past, they have excavated them on . If you listen closely enough, they’re opening up a dialogue on these weighty subjects and hopefully, as a result, impart some sort of wisdom upon us. Everything that has come before now, including St. Anger has made Metallica into the band that could create Death Magnetic. Without those twists and turns, this album would not have been possible. With the aid of Rick Rubin, they took an intense look back on their past, embraced it and found ways to flourish and fly once again. Metallica’s wings are spread open to rule not just the metal landscape, but the entire music world once again as they proudly wear their scars as survivors of not just heavy metal but life as well.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
Song Previews of all 10 songs
Hetfield and Trujillo talk about writing Death Magnetic Part 1
Hetfield and Trujillo talk about writing Death Magnetic Part 2