Friday, November 21, 2008

"Death Magnetic", Metallica

  • Artist: Metallica
  • Album Title: Death Magnetic
  • Record Label: Warner Brothers
  • Release Date: 9/12/2008
  • Rating: 8.5
  • Bands Web Site:
  • Sound: Metal
  • Similar Artists: Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax

The old Metallica is back on Death Magnetic, their first album in five years. It's heavier and faster than anything from 90s(aka Hard Rock) Metallica. The complicated(or to the non-technical music fans among us, long) songs and Kirk Hammett face-melting guitar solos are back. It's everything fans and critics asked for; a cliche return to form. Which is fine, since we are a cliche loving culture. So much in fact, we'll lie to ourselves to make the cliche fit: the band's last album, 2003's St. Anger, was also(at least initially) hailed as a comeback album, with the band finally turning away from the bluesy-riffs and southern rock influences of the two semen albums, Load and Reload, to a rawer, realer sound. It took a few months to realize raw apparently meant a curious lack of guitar-fireworks(no solos!?!) and a curious abundance of cowbell(later revealed to be a very tinny-sounding snare drum). In short, it was Metallica's worst album. So of course, they won a Grammy for it1.

Anger sucking didn't matter though; all that mattered was nothing on Anger sounded like "Enter Sandman", "Fuel", or "Hero Of The Day". This was important because the consensus(at least among long-time fans and critics) was that Metallica needed to shun the "mainstream" metal sound of their nineties albums(the sound that made them the biggest band in the world). 

Why was it so important(to some people) that Metallica make music the way they did when Ronald Reagan was President? Because, if James, Kirk, Lars, and the bass player from Suicidal Tendencies make thrash metal again, it will mean a)fans can find them "authentic" because their songs will be too long, loud and fast for the general public and b) they can be forgiven or Napster. Ever since the band famously sued Napster, they've had a huge image problem. Which I think is hilarious, since in retrospect, Metallica was completely right.


Some people will never forgive Metallica for suing Napster2, and by some people, I mean college students. I have no research or data to back this up, but this is undeniably true: no one is more self-entitled than white college students. In it's heyday, Napster took up 40% of the bandwidth of University of Southern California. That's almost half of a university's traffic, used to download "Enter Sandman" and the theme from Ducktales, and the student body saw no problem with that.

Metallica, however, saw people downloading their entire discography(at the time, about two decades worth of work) for free, and freaked. Now, I agree suing your fanbase is a public relations disaster, but Metallica didn't do that. They sued Napster. Sure, they got some Napster users banned3, but they didn't sue them.

The prevailing argument at the time was Metallica were ungrateful, spoiled, greedy rock stars after more money from the same fans that made them rich. Which is, of course, completely ridiculous. Not the spoiled part, and maybe not even the greedy part -- I'm not rich(yet), but I imagine money can be addicting -- but the "same fans" part. Anyone downloading Master Of Puppets from their dorm room in 2000 sure as hell didn't buy it 1986(unless you were a way more metal eight-year old than I was). I'll bet most of these people bought the Black album, Load and that's probably it(maybe a Godsmack record too, but you can hardly blame Lars Ulrich for that). Sorry quad-dwellers of the early twenty-first century, I can't buy into the notion that buying an album or two means you "deserve" the rest of the bands catalog for free.

Ulrich, seeking to get the band's point of view out, did a skit with Marlon Wayans(who else to better sway public opinion?) at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. Wayans played a Napster-using college student, telling the un-hip Ulrich that he was just "sharing" Metallica's "I Disappear"4. Ulrich agrees to this definition of sharing, and has Metallica's road crew make off with all of Wayan's belongings, leaving him almost nude in an empty room. I thought it a crude, but effective, argument.

Later in the show, the creator of Napster, Shawn Fanning, appeared wearing a Metallica t-shirt and said, "I borrowed this shirt from a friend. Maybe, if I like it, I'll buy one of my own." Which would have been a perfect analogy for Napster, if Fanning had developed the ability to clone t-shirts.

The only real people who had a right to be pissed off were old-school, die-hard, and otherwise hyphenated Metallica fans. The Napster debacle showed them what they had long suspected, or already believed, since 1991: Metallica were no longer just like them. Metallica's appeal in the eighties was that they were "real" metal, not a bunch of posers like Ratt, Motely Crue, or Poison. They didn't parade around with strippers, sing about rock star indulgences, or wear make-up; they sang about dark, evil things and looked just like the fans(ugly)5

"We're just four fans who got together and started playing," frontman James Hetfield famously said on Behind The Music. "This could be you!"

That sentiment was a lot more believable before the band cut their hair and tracks for Tom Cruise movies. Before, there was no real separation between the band and the fans;in the cold light of Napster, the seperation was all too apparent. But it wasn't Metallica's fault. All of them were rich now, and all of them(save Jason Newstead) had burgeoning families. Metallica committed the cardinal sin of "authentic" rock acts by not pretending they didn't care about their bank accounts. Money mattered, and that infuriated people.

Of course, Metallica wasn't putting out songs about chartered yachts, private jets and model wives(all of which they possess). St. Anger may have been the closest thing we'll ever see to an emo-tallica album, but it's not like there were rants about kids, broken hearts or celebrity-angst. Mostly it was about alcoholism, something any metal fan should be able to get behind.

The band was still rich, though, and popular. To the underground, "true" fans -- and the bandwagoners tagging along for the Napster backlash -- that was sin enough. To please these people, a band should struggle in eternal poverty, turning down any chance to get rich doing what they love. Which, to me, sounds like a pretty shitty deal. I understand, though; a band that was "theirs" was now the worlds. It's as if your best friend won the lottery: now you can't hang out with him without noticing all of his stuff is a lot nicer than yours, shallow people cling to him all the time, and lots of women aspire to fuck him. And then, while cruising in his sports car getting blown by a supermodel, he starts complaining about money. You probably won't relate to him as much anymore, and I get that.

College students, however, had no such excuse. They just wanted a lot of music for free. Which sounds a bit...what's the word?



There was a new album I was supposed to talk about, wasn't there? Funny how things turn out.

I'll admit, I was very hesitant to listen to Death Magnetic. All of my preceding apologizing aside, I haven't been captivated by a Metallica album since 1991(just because I think they were right, doesn't mean I loved the music). I only have singles off of Load, Unload, and St. Anger; every earlier album I own in full. I wanted Magnetic to remind me of the band I worshiped in high school, instead of making me realize I'm approaching 30 and the rock gods of my youth are mere mortals. That's some heavy shit to put on a record.

The early buzz got my hopes up, though, and then the early positive reviews persuaded me to finally give the album a spin, and while I can never love a band with the pure adulation I had for Metallica when I was fourteen, for ten fast, furious, glorious songs I was a head-banging, metal-head teenager again.

Metallica; nuff said.


1It would have been so easy to make a Jethro Tull joke there...or here. Restraint is what keeps me from being a complete hack.

2Why Dr. Dre, who also sued Napster, escapes criticism is beyond me.

3When this happened, I was working for an Internet start-up. All of us had Napster, which we mostly used to annoy one another by downloading excruciatingly bad songs(I think "I Wanna Sex You Up" by Color Me Badd won when it prompted Steve to tear out Mike's speaker cords). Everyone but me downloaded Metallica songs, and everyone but me condemned the band for suing Napster. I was the only one banned.

4One of the same co-workers who laughed at me for getting banned grudgingly admitted Metallica's performance at the 200 MVAs was really good(he was a fan up until the Black album). I considered this a small affirmation of my pro-Metallica stance.

5And yet each one has a gorgeous wife; that's the power of rock.