Metallica: Almost Like Old Times

By Michael Deeds
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 12, 2008

The litmus test for Metallica's supposed return to form is simple and immediate: Does it make you speed-pick crunchy air guitar riffs? Or want to cruise the 4x4 down dirt roads with the critter-blastin' spotlight on and speakers cranked? Punch yourself in the skull for fun?

The answer is yes -- at least during much of "Death Magnetic," the influential heavy metal band's 10th (if you count 1998's covers CD "Garage Inc.") studio album. Navigate past the CD art that only Beavis & Butt-head could love (it's icky-reminiscent of 1996's "Load"), and you'll discover that, shockingly, Metallica really is back.

You have to want it, though. Produced by old-musician defibrillator Rick Rubin, "Death Magnetic" tries hard, sometimes conspicuously so, to remind us why we revered Metallica two decades ago. And to make us forget how long we've reviled them for frequenting a barber, dissing Napster and hiring that pansy therapist. Mostly, fans begrudge them for selfishly sucking eggs for the past 17 or 20 years, depending whom you're guzzling beer with in the garage while arguing albums.

"Death Magnetic" explodes with tools from the band's classic shed. You hear 1986's "Master of Puppets" and 1988's ". . . And Justice for All" in the ferocity of "The End of the Line," "That Was Just Your Life" and "All Nightmare Long." Album closer "My Apocalypse" is injected with shards of thrash competitor Slayer's melodic threat.

Singer-guitarist James Hetfield is still the original karate vocalist, adding "Yah!" to the end of words as if he's chopping concrete blocks with his hands. Unfortunately, he also reverts to the dreaded sensitive style -- not often, but first single "The Day That Never Comes" is a prime example. Mostly, Hetfield feels familiar, snarling silly lines such as "The slave becomes the master!" (of puppets?) or rhyming recycled Metallica vocabulary such as "con-tra-dic-tion!" and "prem-o-ni-tion!"

Like aging athletes, Metallica's members have lost muscle mass. The guitars' punch isn't as crushing as their '80s sledgehammer tone. But the jam passages are nicely self-indulgent during these mostly seven- to eight-minute songs. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett's shrapnel-spitting solos are satisfying. Lars Ulrich is quicker with his tongue offstage than his sticks in-studio, but he drives the tempo aggressively -- even if his drum sound isn't as powerful anymore. Bassist Robert Trujillo, playing on his first Metallica album, is notably audible. Sometimes.

Metalheads will cringe at the title "The Unforgiven III," let alone the hideous piano and strings. Skip forward two tracks and headbang furiously to the bludgeoning, 10-minute instrumental "Suicide and Redemption." You won't even remember where you are.

"Death Magnetic" isn't quite awesome by Metallica standards. But it's a pretty awesome try for a bunch of rich, spoiled babies in their 40s. It's easily the best Metallica disc since "The Black Album" (or, if you mistakenly think that CD was trash, ". . . And Justice for All"). Metallica tried to atone here, and you sort of have to toss them a cold one and flash the devil horns. If not, you obviously don't understand the brotherhood of metal in the first place.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"That Was Just Your Life," "The End of the Line," "Suicide and Redemption"

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