I had so much to say about the unexpected awesomeness that is Death Magnetic that I had to break my ravings into two parts. Oh,

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Yes, the new Metallica really is good, Pt. II

I had so much to say about the unexpected awesomeness that is Death Magnetic that I had to break my ravings into two parts. Oh, scratch that; it's gonna have to be three parts, bear with me. Part 1 can be found over here.

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Cliff Burton, 1962-1986, R.I.P.

Sadly, the biggest drag about being a Metallica superfan after the release of Master of Puppets in 1986, was that the brutal beauty of that album would soon be overshadowed by the tragic tour bus accident that claimed the life of bassist Cliff Burton. The instantly recognizable rumble of his low end was one of the band's most powerful hallmarks and his classical training pushed the band's other members to pursue more complex and thoughtful arrangements. His passing crushed the spirits of his bandmates and atrophied the muscles that had been carrying them to top of their creative game.

The band did move on, but Burton's death was an albatross, and replacement bassist Jason Newsted was pretty much fucked from the get-go (note to future replacement bassists: wearing your own band's concert shirts on stage will not help you fit in; you will just look somewhat dorky and possibly desperate). His endless hazing by Lars, James and Kirk was well-documented, and though the covers album, The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited, served a grief-purging function for the surviving members (and gave fans some resplendently raw renditions of classic punk and thrash numbers, most notably Holocaust's "In the Small Hours"), it didn't seem to yield the bonding-with-the-new-bassist results that were purportedly its goal.

1988's ...And Justice For All wasn't a terrible album, but it was undeniably a disappointing one, primarily because of Bob Rock's thin, surgically sterile production and Burton's audible absence. While his bass was a prominent and dynamic component of previous Metallica recordings, Newsted practically disappeared into the mix, while the guitars managed the unfortunate feat of sounding both treble-y and blunted. Lars Ulrich's dryly clipped, obviously punched-in and patched-together drum tracks didn't help much in the credibility department either. For many fans, the proverbial writing was on the wall, particularly when the band made a video for the single "One", a promotional vehicle they once vehemently swore they'd never embrace. I wasn't ready to give up, and neither was the band: they toured for nearly 24 months straight, and I saw them twice on that tour. Never overtly flashy, but also not particularly concerned with visual subtlety, the band's stage show climaxed with the Lady of Justic statue (depicted on the album's cover) cracking and crumbling apart, demonstrating the Justice's core theme of governmental and spiritual corruption (thusly demonstrated around 8:43 into this video clip):

For years after, I had a hard time enjoying Justice, simply because it was the beginning of the end in my eyes, but in retrospect, the album has a lot to offer. "Harvester of Sorrow" was one seriously heavy jam, and "To Live Is To Die" represented both Burton's final writing credit and a somber tribute to the man: the almost entirely instrumental number was built upon riffs he had been working with just prior to his death while on the Master of Puppets tour.

Then came the so-called Black album (delineated as such because though it was eponymously titled, the mostly monochromatic artwork made it difficult to tell what the hell exactly you were supposed to call it). It was a clean, comfortable and easy-on-the-ears hard rock album with plenty of catchy hooks, sing-along-anthems, and a structurally sound pop skeleton. It was also heartbreakingly bland and ball-less if you were a fan of Metallica's thrash roots and curmudgeonly edge. As I mentioned before, I cried the first time I heard "Enter Sandman", the album's first single. In retrospect, that's pretty hilarious (and somewhat humiliating) to recall, but it still sorta stings on some level. Metallica before the Black album weren't just my favorite band; their recordings sounded like what quality heavy metal should be in my heart of hearts. Those first three records (and to a lesser degree, Justice) were pure; the Black album felt like poison. Industrial-strength saccharine, to be specific. It's really no wonder that I went on to discover punk rock around that time. I felt betrayed.

While a sizable legion of fans shared my sentiments exactly, it really didn't matter in terms of commercial success: the Black album went on to sell 22 million copies and continues to be the best-selling recording of their career. Hopefully Death Magnetic will change that unfortunate statistic.

(Part III coming soon...insert argumentative superfan comments below....)

 
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