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In the Eighties, thrash metal wasn't a scene, it was an arms race: riffs kept speeding up, drum kits got bigger. But with 1991's Black Album, Metallica opted for unilateral disarmament, slowing their tempos, shortening their songs and smelting their chugging guitars and piston-powered drums into armor-plated pop hooks. After that, the band rushed from one reinvention to another, starting with the Southern-rock infusion of 1996's Load and culminating in the muddled, bizarrely produced group-therapy session of 2003's St. Anger. No longer: Death Magnetic is the musical equivalent of Russia's invasion of Georgia — a sudden act of aggression from a sleeping giant.
Just as U2 re-embraced their essential U2-ness post-Pop, this album is Metallica becoming Metallica again — specifically, the epic, speed-obsessed version from the band's template-setting trilogy of mid-Eighties albums: Master of Puppets, Ride the Lightning and, especially, the progged-out ...And Justice for All. That much is clear from the 90-second mark of Death Magnetic's first track, "That Was Just Your Life," where the band unleashes a barrage of James Hetfield's dutta-duh-duhnt riffing and Lars Ulrich's octuple-time double-bass-and-snare smashing. That long-vanished sound, as essential to Metallica as variations on the "Start Me Up" riff are to the Stones, is all over the album —you wonder how these fortysomething dudes are going to handle playing it live night after night. (Enter chiropractor.)
Death Magnetic marks the group's split with producer Bob Rock, who helmed every Metallica album from 1991 to 2004 and pushed them toward concision and immediacy — until St. Anger, when he seemed to throw up his hands altogether. (As the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster demonstrates, Rock deserved credit for getting any music at all out of a band determined to self-destruct.) New producer Rick Rubin shoves Metallica in the opposite direction: Half of Death Magnetic's tracks are over seven minutes long, with song structures that are not so much "verse/chorus/verse" as "long intro/heavy jam/verse/even heavier jam/chorus/bridge/wild solo/outro."
This feels like the right move for an era where Guitar Hero is the new rock radio. (Appropriately, the full album will be downloadable for GH play.) And it's not as if Top 40 stations were going to slip in Metallica between Chris Brown and the Jonas Brothers, anyway. These songs rarely feel too long: At their best, they combine the melodic smarts of Metallica's mature work with the fully armed-and-operational battle power of their early days. "The End of the Line" is a freight-train rocker with a ricocheting riff and lyrics about a doomed, drug-addicted star. It builds to a frantic guitar duel between Kirk Hammett and Hetfield, a wah-wah-crazed solo and, finally, a bridge that feels like an entirely new song. And the spectacular "All Nightmare Long" — a thematic sequel of sorts to "Enter Sandman" — combines relentless Master of Puppets guitars with a Black Album-worthy chorus.
St. Anger was a misguided attempt to recapture the band's mojo by sounding "raw" — but Death Magnetic manages to sound huge, polished and tough. The musicianship feels thrillingly live throughout, and nimble new bassist Robert Trujillo helps, even though he's mostly heard as a distant, ominous rumble. (Has there ever been a more bass-averse band in rock?)
There's supposed to be a lyrical theme here — something about death — but it's hard to discern. After expanding his lyrical palette on previous albums, Hetfield is now so determined to re-metallize that he pushes toward self-parody: "Venom of a life insane/Bites into your fragile vein," he barks on "The Judas Kiss." The "One"-style half-ballad, half-thrasher "The Day That Never Comes" appears to be yet another tale from Hetfield's rough childhood, complete with the awful pun "son shine."
But if you ignore the lyrics, Death Magnetic sounds more like it's about coming back to life. Everything comes together on the fan-favorite-to-be "Broken, Beat and Scarred," which manages to channel the full force of Metallica behind a positive message: "What don't kill ya make ya more strong," Hetfield sings, with enough power to make the cliché feel fresh. The aphorism he paraphrases happens to come from Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols, which is subtitled How to Philosophize With a Hammer. Metallica's philosophizing may get shaky — but long may that hammer strike.