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Metallica pretty much defined heavy metal with 1986's 'Master Of Puppets' and their self-titled 1991 album. Then they went a bit commercial in the nineties and suffered amid controversy over file-sharing this decade, and it seemed for a time like the glory days might be over. And now? With an average age of 45 and families to boot, you'd expect America's greatest metal export to be taking it steady a little. Not so, as Gigwise discovered at a very special preview of their ninth studio album...
'Death Magnetic' descends upon the thrash metal world on September 12th as one of the most seamless and ferocious Metallica albums to date. It's kind of a wonder that they can still hack it, but after 2003's 'St Anger' suggested that Metallica was tailing in the headlights of younger bands that cited them as a major influence, 'Death Magnetic' demonstrates a band back to reclaim their proverbial metal crown.
It's a headlong, balls-out, instrument-led eighty minutes long, something that newcomers might find pretty exhausting. A thudding heartbeat percussion introduction, overlaid with a haunting guitar-riff, lasts just seconds before Hammett smashes through without a smidgen of subtlety with leaden chords that set the tone for the rest of the album. 'Death Magnetic' is unmistakably a Metallica album, soaked in Hammett's guitar flourishes and Ulrich's propulsive percussion as it is, but it's one that shows a marked progression, especially musically. Several tracks hit the eight minute mark, but there isn't a structual component in any that lasts longer than ninety seconds or so before Ulrich switches tempo or Hammett slides effortlessly into another electric vein. The preoccupation here is in the transparent musical dexterity and thrash metal mastery that Metallica have managed to achieve.
There are middle-eastern overtones in the twisting guitar-solo opening of 'All Nightmare Long', while 'Cyanide' features a much cleaner, distortion-free 'bouncing' bass, evidence of Robert Trujillo's contribution in his first recorded album performance. What is most striking is the departure from vocal-led writing as on 'Load' and 'Reload', a hangover from 'St Anger', perhaps, and a welcome one at that. Nearly every track oscillates between distorted power chords of ferocious, if not generic, weightiness, into guitar solos that are both plaintive and beguiling, with vocals and lyrics very much the afterthought.
Notable exceptions to the above are evident in the lead single 'The Day That Never Comes'. A divergence from high-octane, heavier tracks that are vicious and lyrically empowering, this Metallica-ballad attempts political commentary with its dolorous anti-war vocal. Meanwhile, 'The Unforgiven III' features a full length orchestra and piano prelude, and is undoubtedly an album highlight.
Hetfield is back to singing about death and devilry, with themes of suicide, betrayal and torture, that sometimes seem slightly overdone, especially by a band aged in their mid-forties. There are moments, too, when co-ordination slightly slips and the overall effect is a little too contrived, perhaps most evident in 'The Judas Kiss'.
Nonetheless, Metallica have exceeded themselves in producing an album that is indelibly stamped with their eponymous sound, whilst allowing for breathing space that demonstrates musical deftness and innovation on a par with their best work. Each varying component of each track is as brief as it is carefully inserted into the wider cacophonous whole, so that choppy tempos, changes in sound and structure, and transitional keys dissolve seamlessly into the magnetic propulsion of their genre-dominating prowess.