When exactly did Metallica stop being a metal band for metal fans and become one of the hugest groups ever to stalk the planet? Was it in 1991, when ‘Enter Sandman’ built upon ‘One’’s groundwork and turned the biggest heavy band in the world into a radio/MTV-palatable proposition? Or in 2004, when the world saw the relationship between its creative fulcrum disintegrate in Some Kind Of Monster as drummer Lars Ulrich screamed “Fuuuuuuck!” in James Hetfield’s face while he was still fresh out of rehab? No, it was in 1986 when they wrote ‘Master Of Puppets’ – it just took the world two decades to catch up.
And now, after the misfiring ‘St Anger’, hopes have never been higher. Rob Trujillo is no longer a hired gun(indeed, his bass groove gives the album a pleasingly headbang-consistent rhythm), Rick Rubin’s behind the desk and their recent festival shows have seen an invigorated band with a rekindled love for their own music. And it shows: ‘That Was Just Your Life’ and the phenomenal ‘All Nightmare Long’ are ecstatic explosions of frenzied riffs and insane tempo changes that feel like they’re back in the practice room and daring themselves to push the boundaries of a genre they defined all those years ago.
Hetfield’s bark of “We hunt you down without mercy” on the latter and Kirk Hammett’s acidic solos on ‘The End Of The Line’ and ‘My Apocalypse’ burn with a young band’s hunger, not that of four guys with a combined age of 177, while ‘Suicide & Redemption’ shows their boyish enthusiasm for simply making people rock out. And ‘The Unforgiven III’ – the nearest thing to a ballad here, but still hewn from granite slabs with an orchestral intro that would’ve been suicide in the hands of a lesser producer – is the future soundtrack to a million raised lighters. ‘Broken, Beat & Scarred’, conversely, rumbles like a slumbering leviathan, full of nervous energy that threatens to boil over at any second.
It’s not perfect: ‘The Judas Kiss’ is knee-deep in sludge and could fit snugly on ‘Load’, while parts of ‘The Day That Never Comes’ and ‘Cyanide’ feel, to use Ulrich’s favourite term, slightly “stock”. But with 10 tracks lasting over 75 minutes it’s clear Metallica felt they had a point to prove. And prove it they have: ‘Death Magnetic’ is invigorating, dynamic and truly exciting. Not only does it banish the memory of ‘St Anger’ but it’s easily their best work in 17 years.