Metallica
Death Magnetic
Warner Bros.
3.5 out of 5 Stars

If Metallica had released an album between …And Justice for All and Metallica, it probably would have sounded like Death Magnetic. Who would have guessed that after 15 years of avoiding their thrash-metal roots — the genre they pioneered — they would someday return to them? It’s not an accident either — the album mirrors the formula the band followed in their golden age: ten or fewer tracks, a ballad in the fourth slot and an instrumental as the second to last number.

The production is integral to this calculated stylistic move. They’ve recreated their beloved 1980s sound; the guitars are razor-sharp, the drums hit hard but don’t overwhelm the mix and the bass (never the focus of a Metallica album) is nearly nonexistent. In addition to that, frontman James Hetfield has ditched the grating vocal histrionics of recent efforts and reclaims his old ’80s growl. These details all combine to make the album feel like a meticulously constructed apology to old fans. But while it boasts many strong recordings, it can’t quite make up for the past decade and a half of lukewarm missteps.

The album opener “That Was Just Your Life” is predictably one of the best cuts. It opens with a clean guitar line nearly plagiarized from their old hit “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” then blasts ahead with staccato palm-muted 16th notes alternating with slower melodic runs. Later the song’s bridge further develops the main riff with the kind of triumphant guitar harmonizing the band popularized in the mid-’80s. After reprising the chorus, the riff explodes into a more complex movement that builds upon the original melody with further embellishments, recalling some of the band’s finer neo-classical passages from albums like Master of Puppets.

“Broken, Beat & Scarred” is a hard-driving song that delivers one of Metallica’s best grooves since “Harvester of Sorrow.” The verse riff is propelled by triplets and blasting bottom-end chords, set against Hetfield’s passionate vocal performance. He sounds relevant for the first time in years. Chugging ahead, the primal bridge gives way to the amped-up conclusion; Hetfield’s cries of “we die hard!” are answered by power-chord barks.

“Cyanide,” a straight-forward song about suicide, is another album highlight. While the lyrics are trite in typical Metallica fashion (“Cyanide, living dead inside / Break this empty shell forevermore”), the song has some of most immediately rewarding vocal and instrumental themes on Death Magnetic. The chorus’s riff weaves around Hetfield’s vocals masterfully, bringing to mind thrash-metal masterpieces like Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction.”

The stand-out songs all have something in common: They share air-tight structures that cultivate themes which are continuously met with satisfying and surprising pay-offs. While most of the songs are varied enough to maintain interest throughout, many aren’t memorable. In particular, the instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” falls flat, overstaying its welcome and meandering into aimless wank.

Death Magnetic’s dedication to resurrecting the “old Metallica” is impressive. While the album fails to totally redeem the terrible old nu-metal pastiches of the band’s recent past, it suggests future masterpieces may lie ahead — if the band ever gets around to them.

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