The End of the Line

So I bought Metallica’s latest album, Death Magnetic, today. I wasn’t going to. Requested to write about it for FACT, I had been coincidentally passed a memory stick containing the album while at work yesterday. Sadly it was a bit-rate of 192kb/s and my headphones exposed the mp3 files for the sham the format is. Deciding that such poor quality audio was no position from which to evaluate an album, and suddenly possessed with that nostalgic fervour that dominated my album buying as a teen, I resolved to buy the thing on day of release. That was apparently today, though I have no idea why the band decided to transgress the usual release day of Monday.

I was faced with two dilemmas upon finding the joint lowest price of the CD was ~£10 (OK, so HMV was a penny cheaper than Zavvi, but who cares. My love of independents lacked sufficient hold for me to spend £2 more at Crash – that’s a lunch to me – and Jumbo didn’t seem to have it): I was far from comfortable spending a tenner on a CD in this day and age (especially when its destiny was to be ripped as lossless files and stuck in an airless vault*), and I was due to order the double vinyl edition from the USA on pay day.** I didn’t want to buy it twice.

My journalistic integrity won through, and I bought the CD, though I was burdened by that sinking feeling of a pre-emptive buyers remorse. Before this, though, I had experienced the first three songs, on the way to work. First item noticed was the fact that, as ever, the songs are long. Not long in the sense of proper epics; your Godspeeds or Neuroses. No, just long enough that ten or twelve of them will fill a CD. Lord knows those CDs need filling.

Despite the length, those three songs didn’t feel seven minutes and over. I wasn’t paying massive amounts of attention, admittedly, but the songs generally seemed to happen for a while and then stop. Yes, the music is heavier than the Load/ReLoad era (written 1995; released 1996-7), and both better-produced and more thoughtfully composed than the messy, confused St. Anger (2003). This would appear to be enough to satiate the allegedly hardcore fans. One wonders how hardcore they are, though, if they greet change with derision and a return to business as usual as though it is the second coming.

I for one prefer favourites willing to fail spectacularly to the safe hands. This is why my allegiance in the late 1990s fell with Metallica rather than the NOSELLOUT Slayer. Sure, the ‘Tallica boys ended up with massively hit-and-miss albums, balancing country ballads and blues rock boredom with some majestic pieces (‘Bleeding Me’ and ‘The Outlaw Torn’ are utter successes on every level), but I’d rather that than the meat and potatoes Slayer have seen fit to serve up for over a decade. The one time Slayer were truly exciting in ‘recent’ memory was their song on the Spawn soundtrack, for which they sent riffs and vocal lines to Alec Empire for reconstruction. The resulting jungle metal mess was and is fantastic. When asked around that time whether that was an avenue the band would like to follow, guitarist Kerry King replied in no uncertain terms that no, it was not.

With that in mind, it is quite sad that Metallica have made such a concession to demand (with no less than the God of Safe & Successful, Rick Rubin, at the helm), following such former-great bands as Pantera (Reinventing the Steel, 2000) and Neurosis (Given to the Rising, 2007). I hate it when bands insist on regressing to those impossibly tantalising ‘good old days’; youthful hunger invariably long-satiated, such albums are exercises in uninspired somnambulism, satisfying only to the balding weight-gainers who would rather the last fifteen years would not have happened. It’s sad, especially when the bands in question had actually been making efforts to evolve naturally.

That is not to say either Given to the Rising or Death Magnetic are bad albums – they aren’t*** – but it’s sad on a philosophical level, like they’ve given up without actually retiring. No more wondering how future albums will sound, no more hoping that next record might top your existing favourite (however slight the hope, it nevertheless existed). Just an efficient assembly line, whether the parts are pieced together by Rubin or Albini. God, how ruthless is it. Rubin and his flattening out of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, getting a wizened Johnny Cash to do shit covers of Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden songs, Albini making everybody’s guitars and drums sound alike.

One of the new Metallica songs I heard put me in mind of ‘Vicarious’, by the suddenly under-rated Tool, in the way that both bounce on similarly propulsive rhythm. It reminded me so much, in fact, that I turned off Death Magnetic to play 10,000 Days, an album I am guilty of under-rating. Amusingly, Tool get a bad rap for not changing enough from album to album. I know they only do an album every half-decade, but each record really is different from the last. And ‘Right in Two’ is clearly one of the greatest rock songs of the decade.

But that will have to wait til I do the 2006 countdown… some time after the 2005 one is completed. Erk. To tide you over, I will have a proper few listens to this new Metallica record; will my opinion change, or is everyone other than me really wrong? Find out here. And in FACT.

* Not really.
** This was my preferred option because the only UK vinyl release appears to be the prohibitively expensive five disc box set. Are British Metallica fans really considered less intelligent than their American counterparts? Or does the band simply cherish the decent sterling pound to such an extent they want as many of them as possible…
*** Reinventing the Steel was and is a piece of shit. Pantera deserved to go out on far higher a note.

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