I stumbled across a review today for Metallica’s new album, Death Magnetic, which apparently hits the streets this Friday (since when did albums come out on any day other than Tuesdays?). The advance word is that this is a return to old school thrash metal Metallica, the kind unseen since 1988’s …And Justice For All.
If that’s true, then Metallica has finally made the album I’ve been wanting from them since I was fourteen, back when …And Justice stormed the world and my adolescence. Of course, I’m now in my thirties and haven’t bought a new heavy metal record since, what, Metallica’s eponymous black album in 1991? And while I won’t rush out to pick up the new record on the release date like I did seventeen years ago, it did seem like a worthwhile reason to throw in …And Justice for its first full spin in close to a decade.
There’s a clear dividing line amongst Metallica fans. There are those who came on board with or after the explosion of the Black Album, and there are those who were made fans by or before …And Justice For All. I fall into the latter. And for those of us whose march into puberty was scored by the first four Metallica albums (and let’s not forget the Garage Days… EP), there have been several decades of relative disappointment. We realize that it isn’t fair to begrudge a band their opportunity for growth, but dammit, Metallica wasn’t supposed to grow.
What they were supposed to do was keep pumping out albums like …And Justice For All, which in hindsight wasn’t a sustainable trajectory. It was the high water mark of not just Metallica, but metal period. Powerful, epic, and relentless, …And Justice took the phenomenal (and in some ways superior) Master of Puppets and made it darker, tighter, and angrier. Album covers be damned, this is the black album, a tone the opening “Blackened” sets early. The assault continues through the winding ten-minute title track, past the breakthrough hit “One”, all the way to “Dyer’s Eve”, the traditional blazing fast Metallica album closer. It’s heavy metal at its most grim, painting a paranoid portrait of government institutions and cold war politics. It’s an album not just trying to scare you, but actually scared itself — it sounds like insanity backed into a corner.
Musically, the blueprint Metallica had been working on since Ride the Lightning reached its zenith, with guitars chugging through endless riffs and countless stop/start time changes, intertwined with Kirk Hammett’s technically-impressive solo work. It was the first time they had the luxury of having a real budget to record on, and what results is guitars that ring louder and drums that pound harder than previous efforts. James Hetfield’s vocals may have sounded better on Puppets, but here his deeper growl fits the mood and the songs just fine.
And what it wrought was a generation of fans not unlike myself; teenage boys that, upon hearing it once, immediately had no use for the glam rock of the time. This album rendered entire swaths of my music collection obsolete. How was I supposed to go back to old Bon Jovi records after this? Instead we worked backwards, catching on to the other great albums of the genre that led to …And Justice For All. It would take us several years to realize that there wasn’t going to be another album like it — in perfecting speed metal, …And Justice also sounded its death knell.