After 8 long years (well 5 years technically if you count ‘Beyond Magnetic’ and ‘Lulu’… ok 2 if you’re including ‘Lords of Summer’) comes new music from Metallica in the form of their 10th studio album. Hype was huge. Anticipation was stratospheric. Does it live up to expectations?
And so it is finally here. After 8 years of waiting with a couple of new bits of music here and there. The new full-length Metallica album is finally in our grubby little hands. Would it be any good? Would it be ‘Death Magnetic’ Part II? Would there be any bass? Would Lars leave his China alone for the LOVE OF GOD. Would this Metallica fan of 28 years get that fizzy feeling in his tummy again? (SPOILER ALERT: Oh but yes).
I enjoyed ‘Death Magnetic. To a point. There’s some killer riffs on that album, the production was decent (but too dry). The band seemed more interested in writing songs that twisted and turned and not 4 riffs repeated (à la St Anger) But… but.. it felt a bit forced. Much was said at the time of the ‘vibe’ producer Rick Rubin was creating; that of Metallica going back to their roots and remembering what they were like, what they were listening to when they record 1986’s ‘Master Of Puppets’; a garage band. The only problem is, that they aren’t those people anymore. All of the stuff that has happened, the money, the fame, the gigs etc has changed them. Not to mention the near crumbling of the band. What resulted was good but sounded, to my ears, forced and stale. Like they were trying to combine to complexity of ‘And Justice For All’ with ‘Kill Em All’. Something about it felt awkward. Thank the Lord Crybaby-Wah that this album features none of that.
‘Hardwired‘ was the first single (and last song written for the album) was casually dropped into a live radio broadcast and was a jaw-dropping moment for the fans. Totally unexpected and totally in keeping with how Metallica do things. Feeling that they were lacking a proper album opener, Hetfield and Ulrich knocked this out on a week. It’s a short, tasty thrasher that features a dumb, yet smile-inducing, chorus. Hearing it for the first time was exciting ‘cos it was new Metallica but also a bit apprehensive as it has shades of Death Magnetic closer ‘My Apocalypse’. Still, reservations aside it was great to hear a new tune. We move on to ‘Atlas Rise‘, single number three, album track number two. This is an interesting one. Maiden homages aside, this one has a good up-tempo feel to it so a step down in gears from ‘Hardwired’ but a driving beat. This allayed many fears for me. This is the kind of style of song I wanted from Metallica, something that felt right, more groove, less forced thrash. Hetfield’s delivery of “All your bear/All you carry” is forceful and full. My only criticism is the drum pattern Lars chooses in the chorus – it feels a bit disjointed. I’d have preferred he keep a straight beat although that’s not something he is renowned for these days though! ‘Now That We’re Dead‘ mines a nice groove that begins the album trend of generating comparisons to the ‘Load‘ album. At this point in the album, I’m feeling pretty good about Metallica in 2016. Gone are the twisty-turny time changes and riffs (although those do appear on this album) and what is developing is much more chug and rhythm orientated. And hells yes for the chorus! Great melody and great delivery.
Second single ‘Moth Into Flame‘ is the standout track on the album. That verse riff is just irresistible. Whenever this tune pops up on my phone, I just can’t stop my right hand from moving (air guitaring you filthy swines). The chorus, again, packing some melody and it sounded great sung live by an audience, when I saw the band recently. Continuing the theme of Cthulu, ‘Dream No More‘ brings the crushing weight and heaviness necessary. I’ll often be wandering around work muttering to myself, “You. Turn. To. Stone”. And that little inhale of air before the solo is brilliant. It’s a crushing song and a little more straightforward than what follows in the form of ‘Halo On Fire‘ (my second favourite track). There’s something vulnerable about Hetfield’s vocal delivery in the verses and musically, it’s a nice change of pace. Very much in the vein of Fade To Back (in terms of vibe than sound) it’s a real journey of a song and the ending of “Hello darkness / Say goodbye” is spine-tingling. And an excellent way to round out disc 1.
Disc 2 begins with a bit if crash, bang, wallop in the form of ‘Confusion‘ a song that deals with PTSD but also, I think, absence in a general sense. Again (and believe me, I’m tired of saying the same thing), a wonderful grooved rhythm gives way to a straightforward hung chord verse that allows Hetfield’s vocals to drive the melody forward. There’s a cool bit of dynamics around the 4 minute mark when Robert Trujillo’s bass drops out of the mix. It does leave things sounded a bit thin which really reinforces just how much in the mix he actually is. There’s a decent solo by Kirk Hammett too (more on that subject later). Not content with an Iron Maiden ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ pastiche in ‘Atlas Rise’, Metallica also tack a post-Bruce-and-Adrian-return Maiden intro onto the start of ‘ManUNkind‘ (TERRIBLE song title too). There’s something a but odd about this song on the drums. There seems to be some effect on the snare and tie that in with the fact that Ulrich insists on following the guitar line gives this a disjointed feel for me. There’s a 50/50 chance of skipping when it comes up on shuffle. ‘Here Comes Revenge‘ serves up a nice slice of chunky metal and features some very nice dynamics in the verse that juxtapose the heavy riff to great effect.
Maiden intro #2 of the album for ‘Am I Savage?‘ (another not so great song title). A somewhat plodding song that has a nice ruff that compels you to move you head in time with its beat. For some reason whenever this song comes on, all I can see is the gurning face of former bassist Jason Newsted. The main riff just has the vibe that I could have well imagined him stomping around a stage too. There are two REALLY awesome things in this one song – the feel and playing on then bridge: that staccato, palm muted plucked string section is out of left field and a nice deviation from what you’d expect Metallica to do next. The other thing? That riff. DAT RIFF. You know which one I mean. The one at 4m10s. Jesus wept. That has to be the heaviest thing Metallica have ever put to tape. It’s face meltingly, skull crushingly, teeth rattlingly, other terrible hyperbole-ly statementy thing here…. heavy. I mean… just… god damn. I must say I was concerned when I heard the rumour (which was false) that ‘Murder One’ was going to be a song made up of Motorhead lyrics (a la Megadeth’s ‘Victory’). But actually what we get is a bouncy tribute to Lemmy with a chorus that manages to convey both respect and a a sense of sadness. And just in case you thought it was all getting a bit too mid-tempo, the album closes out with ‘Spit Out The Bone‘ which is 7 minutes of pummeling your face and kicking your nuts at the same time. It’s ferocious, aggressive and ballsy. And unlike its counterpart on Death Magnetic ‘My Apocalypse’ it’s flows naturally and feels much more organic.
So was it worth the 8 year wait between albums? Of course it bloody was! I’ve made liberal use of the word “groove” in my review, to the point where it becomes a cliche. But that really IS what this album embodies. Even the faster up-tempo songs have a groove and swing to them. Back in 2014, Metallica released the excellent tribute to Ronnie Dio in the form of ‘Ronnie Rising‘. Discussing the song with friends at the time, I remember saying that this is the style of music Metallica need to focus on making – stuff in that classic rock vein, where there are riffs and melody and tunes! And that’s what this album is; a cross between The Black Album and Load with a dash of Master of Puppets thrown in. Created in much the same cut-and-paste style that the previous two albums were, HTSD feels much more organic, less forced, more natural flowing. It’s almost as if the band decided that the mindset for this album wasn’t going to be “let’s pretend we’re 26 again” but “what makes a good Metallica song”. The answer – riffs and melody. James Hetfield IS the MVP of this album. A couple of silly lyrics and titles aside, his performance is just stellar. We get harmonies, emphatic delivery… he sounds alive and on fire. It’s also great to hear Trujillo’s bass loud and clear in the mix. Greg Fidelman has done a great job of making the band sound good on record again. Is it Bob Rock levels of good? No, of course not. I do miss that ‘Sad But True’ snare crack but it’s a damn sight better than Death Magnetic.
I have a few criticisms too. The biggest (and most vocal) one is Kirk Hammett’s performance on the album. It’s terrible. With the odd exception (‘Moth Into Flame’, ‘Confusion’) he’s turned in the laziest, basic and boring solos of his career. I mean, seriously, this is the guy that wrote the solo in ‘The Unforgiven’ and ‘Master Of Puppets’…. ‘One’…. ‘The Outlaw Torn’ and somehow he’s been allowed to turn in the most disappointing crap. Take the solo in ‘Murder One’ for example. How in god’s name did that EVER get put on the album? It’s totally out of time!!! Horribly so. There is not inspiration or dynamics to his soloing – it’s (for the most part) boring, pedestrian 12/14 fret blues bullshit. Example: my brother and I were discussing the album earlier this week and I picked up a guitar to demonstrate what I meant. I’m a pretty basic guitar player but I managed to play at least 8 bars of one of Kirk’s solos completely off the cuff by simply regurgitating a blues riff. The problem is that Lars Ulrich “directs” Kirk’s solos, which in itself is fine, he’s always done that, but the difference this time is that no one is pushing Kirk to actually WRITE a solo. To construct something, to make the solo a journey. He turns up, wanks any old crap out of his guitar and then swans back off to Hawaii. It’s just SO disappointing. A buddy of mine countered with “but they do fit the song”. But they could fit so much BETTER if he had put in the effort and the time. Kirk says losing his phone with his riffs on there meant that he had just the one job: lead guitarist. Well do it properly then Kirk!!! Anyway. Rant over. Sorry.
So how does this stack up for me in the ranking of the Metallica studio output? Well, I have to say…. it’s right up there with Load at the #1 spot. I’ve let time pass for the album to properly sink in (hence why this review is being published now). I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just the excitement of finally having ANY sort of new Metallica music tinting my feelings. To allow the hyperbole and hoopla to die down…. and I’m still spinning this album (or parts of it) every day. I still catch myself humming parts of the songs. I’m still texting random thoughts on the album to my friends. Will I feel this way in 6 months? A year? Time will tell. But, for now. I love this album. It’s a triumph.
Now bring on the world tour.
You can listen to (and watch) the entire album on YouTube by clicking the image below: