Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Metallica, Death Magnetic, and the Glory Days of Heavy Metal

by Reg Seeton

After checking out Metallica's newly released Death Magnetic, I've had it up to my eyeballs with the twenty year schoolyard shouting match fans have had over old Metallica and new Metallica. Thankfully, with the release of Death Magnetic, Metallica has finally put an end to the debate once and for all. Death Magnetic is not only an album that sees the band return to their Metal and Trash roots as much as they possibly could over two decades removed from Kill 'Em All, but it's also a 10-song release that gives fans much more than what they bargained for, this one included. As I write this article, I'm listening to Death Magnetic in its entirety for the fourth time and can safely say it ranks as one of Metallica's best albums.

Initial Reaction to Death Magnetic:

After checking out Death Magnetic for the first time, I set my headphones on my desk and reflected on Metallica's return to form. From start to finish, Death Magnetic simply gets better with each song. The most surprising aspect of the album is that the first single, "The Day That Never Comes", is the weakest song on the roster yet it still kicks ass. There's not one Metallica fan who could convince me "Cyanide", "The End of the Line", "Broken, Beat & Scarred", or "My Apocalypse" aren't as aggressive, tight, and explosive as their early songs. Each song is completely in the "Battery" and "Four Horsemen" wheelhouses with roots in the Black album and heavy layers of Ride the Lightning. Listen to "My Apocalypse" a couple of times and you'll understand why a lot of naysayers are eating their words. To those who continue to whine about how Metallica has never been nearly as great their early days... Grow up already! The days of Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and And Justice for All are gone. They're never coming back, and I'll tell you why...

A Changing of the Guard:

Metallica's sound, songwriting, and style could never ever be the same as their early days because Heavy Metal and Trash died a sudden death with the emergence of Grunge. The dark, epic and melodic anthem aspects of metal (ie: Fade to Black, Sanitarium... even most of Iron Maiden's tunes) gave way to a more uneven and experimental alternative Seattle sound from bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. Don't the fans of Metallica's early years get it by now? Very few bands of the traditional Heavy Metal and Trash eras survived. Many once unstoppable Monsters of Rock of the glory days of Heavy Metal were kicked to the wayside somewhere in time (<-- Iron Maiden nod for those who care) around 1990, with several fading into obscurity and many never to be heard from again. Dio, Dokken, Sepultura, Exodus, Saxon, King Diamond, Napalm Death, Kings X, Merciful Fate... the list goes on and on into Venom, W.A.S.P. and more. They were all amazing, but the times changed. As a new era of hard and heavy riffs emerged in the '90s amd '00s, bands like Cannibal Corpse, Nine Inch Nails, White Zombie, Korn, Deftones, and Slipknot can hardly be called traditional Heavy Metal in the same light as he bigger bands of the '80s. Alternative, Industrial, and "Nu" Metal, sure.

The first concert I ever attended was back in the mid-80s at a 20,000 seat arena to see Iron Maiden on their Peace of Mind tour. Ten years later, after front man Bruce Dickinson left the band only to be replaced by Blaze Bayley, I bought tickets to Iron Maiden who were playing at a venue that held 2000 at max capacity. It was a stark reminder that Metal was dead and how far the mighty had fallen. Yet Metallica was still alive and kicking at one of the best live outdoor gigs I've ever seen when they played headliner to The Ramones and Soundgarden at Lollapalooza. Although the controversial decision to include Metallica on the tour marked the beginning of the end for the Alt-Indie flavored Lollapalooza, there they were in the thick of the hottest tour of the '90s.

Survival of the Fittest:

While most of the Metal bands from the glory days can be found in the "where are they now graveyard", bands like Slayer, Megadeath, Pantera, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden didn't have an easy time of staying relevant over the past twenty years. Although we said goodbye to Pantera's Dimebag Darrell a few years ago, they somehow found a way to survive throughout the '90s and into the '00s. Hell, even Lemmy and Motorhead survived. So too has Metallica, only they've survived as the top heavy metal band in the world in the past 20 years despite the many transformations they've undergone. Some changes were good and some were bad, but Metallica has been selling out the same stadiums and arenas as they were as openers in the glory days of Heavy Metal. It wasn't Dokken, Dio, Megadeath, Maiden or Sepultura headlining Lollapalooza at a time when Metal and Trash were dead, it was Metallica.

The fact that Metallica has been giving fans new music for the past two decades since the death of Heavy Metal, have also found a way to stay relevant in a vastly different music landscape, and are still releasing #1 selling albums with Death Magnetic is something fans should be thankful for. When you stop for a second and think about it after listening to Death Magnetic, it's truly amazing.

The Past Meets the Future:

The more I listen to songs like "Cyanide", "All Nightmare Long", and "The Unforgiven III", Death Magnetic should have been a follow up to the Black album. But at that time, Heavy Metal and Thrash were dead. So would Metallica have died, too? It's certainly highly possible since the evidence is there with other bands of the era. If anything, Metallica has never been predictable. Can you fault a band for trying to adapt to the many changes in music over the years? Although Metallica purists loath Load and Reload, even St. Anger, would a Master of Puppets sound have worked for the band from 1990 to 2008? Should James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich have been forced to write songs as if they were 18 years old when none of us are the same as we were in high school? As its original fan base grew up and entered adulthood, so did the members of Metallica.

Death Magnetic is as close as we're going to get to revisiting the past and Metallica's reign during the glory days of Heavy Metal and Trash. But how does Death Magnetic shape up now that metal-heads of all ages have had time to digest the goods? In simple terms, it's already my pick for album of the year.

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