AOTY 2023
Metallica - Death Magnetic
Apr 12, 2023 (updated Apr 13, 2023)
85
Metallica Re-Dive #9: A (Loud) Return to Form

So fun fact, uh... actually I got nothing this time. I also remember Death Magnetic being one of the first Metallica albums I listened to, although the exact order escapes me, as well as one that I got a fair amount of mileage on, especially compared to the band's other post 80s albums. Coming back to it though, it definitely has some issues that I didn't notice as much (or not at all) back when I used to listen to it regularly.

First things first, a bit of context. Their previous album St. Anger needs no introduction at this point, it represented a terrible period for the band both personally and musically (even though I think it did have some bangers) and also marked the end of the band's long standing collaboration with producer Bob Rock which had been ongoing since the Black Album in 1991. Their attempt at "returning to the roots" had gone hilariously awry, so with Death Magnetic Metallica was seeking to reprise a more classic thrash sound like the one they had perfected in the 80s, and they enlisted none other than Rick Rubin to produce the album. The results were... good, I would say, but also mixed for several reasons.
The most notorious problem with Death Magnetic has to do with Rick Rubin himself: the extreme compression and loud mastering that the album was put through caused very noticeable distortion that plagues every track at least to some extent, with two of the worst cases being That Was Just Your Life and My Apocalypse. I was aware of this even when first listening to the album over 4 years ago, but relistening to it nowadays with good headphones and a much better idea of what "good sounding" means really made me conscious of just how baffling the problem is. And it's a shame too because if not for the obnoxious clipping I would love the shit out of the sound of this album, the guitar tone is absolutely monstrous and is easily one of my favorites in the Metallica discography, the drums sound great (I love the snare) and Robert's bass tone is amazing and distinct both while clean and while distorted. I've heard snippets of the 2015 iTunes remastered version of the album which fixed the mastering issues and it sounds absolutely fantastic, even the bass is much more noticeable in the mix. But alas, the shitty distorted version is the original one and as such that's the one I listened to and the one I must review.
The other main problem with Death Magnetic is that Metallica tried to go back to their 80s long and complex songwriting style but, quite plainly, they couldn't execute it as well. No songs on Death Magnetic aside from the closing track dip below 6 minutes, but some of them feel even longer than they are either because they don't seem to have a coherent theme or the songwriting just isn't there. The End of the Line and My Apocalypse are a good example of these issues, they feel more like semi-random assortments of riffs or song ideas stitched together, some of them great, some of them forgettable or just plain questionable, and the end result feels disjointed. I hesitate to call the whole album "padded", because legitimately most of it isn't, but then you listen to Broken, Beat & Scarred and somehow the second shortest song on the album feels longer than the almost 10 minute long instrumental and you start asking yourself questions. Oh and one last thing needs to be mentioned, if Load and Reload weren't proof enough that Kirk Hammett lost his edge after the 80s, this album certainly is (the solo on The End of the Line is genuinely hilarious for how bad it is).
Despite these problems though, Death Magnetic does also have its assortment of genuine highlights that represent some of Metallica's best material since the Black Album and show that the band really was seriously attempting to rekindle the old flame. The blistering fast That Was Just Your Life is chock full of great riffs and opens the album very well, the #4 ballad The Day That Never Comes (yet another return to classic conventions) builds up amazingly a la Sanitarium and The Unforgiven III is a cool variation on the Unforgiven concept which even features an orchestral arrangement by Michael Kamen; and look, they got a Lovecraft reference (All Nightmare Long) and an instrumental (Suicide & Redemption) in too!

Overall, I am more mixed on Death Magnetic than I thought I would be going back to it. I definitely didn't notice some of its most glaring problems back when I used to listen to it regularly, but it certainly still has its fair share of merits and I can't deny that I have a bit of a soft spot for it.
Please release the non shit sounding version on Spotify too though. Please.

Highlights: The Day That Never Comes, That Was Just Your Life, Suicide & Redemption, All Nightmare Long, The Unforgiven III

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