Metallica – Death Magnetic review

I remember listening to Metallica’s last album, St. Anger for the first time. I was working at an ISP and the Entertainment Editor received an advanced copy from the record company.

We sat and listened to it in stunned silence. This was really the new Metallica album? But it sounds like it was recorded in a shed. And instead of Lars drumming they’ve let a five year-old have a go with two wooden spoons and some pots and pans. And where is Kirk?

We all know how that ended. St. Anger was therapy for a band at war and bloody torture for those of us who heard it. The record was a failure in every sense – in terms of composition, performance and production.

The new album – Death Magnetic – features some similar problems. Somehow it seems to emerge from the other side as the band’s best effort since 1991’s Black Album.

Much has been said about Rick Rubin’s influence in the production of this record. But really if Rick was involved (and what I read of the way he works is that he’s very hands off and leaves everything up to his engineers) he did a really shitty job for Metallica.

The band is clearly as positive as they’ve been for years, with Hetfield returning to form as a riffmeister. It’s a shame then that the production and mastering of Death Magnetic is the worst I’ve heard for a long time.

One hopes that the problems the record suffers aren’t down to production and are more a mastering issue that can be solved by releasing the album again. Certainly Lars isn’t playing a broken snare again a la St. Anger.

The issue is digital distortion and compression. Someone has crunched the heck out of this record. In some songs the distortion at the top end – with each snare hit and the high guitars – is awfully prominent. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were hearing a low-bitrate mp3 or AM radio recording. It’s shocking stuff. Watch the YouTube clip of The Day That Never Comes above. Many of the louder sections distort. This isn’t just due to the low quality of YouTube videos, this is how the CD sounds, move the video to around 4.40 for a particularly clear example.

Thankfully these technical problems don’t overcome to the album to the extent that it destroys it. That’s due to the stronger compositions on offer compared to recent efforts by the band. The riffing is much more like Master of Puppets and And Justice For All era Metallica.

Particular highlights for me are All Nightmare Long, Cyanide and the wonderfully crunchy Suicide & Redemption. The latter being the first instrumental the band has put on an album for a long time.

James Hetfield sounds really on form on Death Magnetic, his guitar and vocals snarling almost to the extend we remember from classic Metallica. It’s a shame the rampant egomania of Lars Ulrich has his snare louder than the vocals (a real no no for any producer worth his salt) and the production issues take some of the dynamic impact away – but otherwise Hetfield has done fans proud here.

Less can be said for two other members of the band. Lars Ulrich’s drumming isn’t great on this record – mostly down to poor composition and a lack of power. The mix isn’t doing him any favours either. Kirk Hammett’s contribution is equally uninspiring, his solos features lots of notes but without a strong-willed producer cracking the whip they lack discipline and purpose.

I can’t really tell you how good Robert Trujillo’s bass is on this record because you can’t hear it a lot of the time. That’s thanks again to the very poor production. It brings back memories of And Justice For All where Jason Newstead’s bass was pulled to almost silence in the mix by Hetfield and Ulrich.

So then with all that criticism of poor performances by some members of the band and some major problems with the production and mastering it’s amazing that Death Magnetic is as good a record as it is. But the album really does rock quite convincingly. Sure there’s a lack of cohesion in the multi-riff songs that suggest that many have been put together on the computer with Pro Tools rather than actually performed, but no doubt the band will be able to perform them live.

One hopes that the technical issues with Death Magnetic will be addressed. I’ll be interested to hear if the vinyl versions sound good and it’s the CD mastering that is at fault. That would be much easily solvable than the horrendous distortion being introduced at the recording stage.

Metallica has a great rocking record here. The band should re-release it without the terrible job of mastering. Iron Maiden had the guts to release their most recent album A Matter of Life and Death unmastered and it benefited from it hugely.

Death Magnetic is a really good album. It’s a shame it’s buried by some terrible production decisions.

Update: Since I wrote the review a few days ago I’ve been reading a lot of online debate about what went wrong with the sound quality on the album.

1, Ted Jensen who mastered Death Magnetic replied to a fan email with the following…I’m certainly sympathetic to your reaction, I get to slam my head against that brick wall every day. In this case the mixes were already brick walled before they arrived at my place. Suffice it to say I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here. Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one, and we can only hope that some good will come from this in some form of backlash against volume above all else. Which implies the problem lies with the mixing process.
2, There’s plenty of evidence the mastering process still pushed things too far in addition to the distorted mix.
3, There’s YouTube footage which some fans claim to show Lars and James and a Pro Tools editing screen showing the songs had been pushed too far into the red.
4, While some are now blaming Rubin’s engineers it is Lars and James that signed off the mix, meaning the blame for the terrible sound quality lies with them.
5, The versions of the songs in Guitar Hero 3 are said to sound much better, having not been mixed by the band. I haven’t heard these versions yet. But it will be interesting if true.
6, As the distortion was added at the recording/mixing stage there are two possible scenarios for saving Death Magnetic. Firstly if all the recording was of high quality a new undistorted mix would not be an issue. However if distortion was introduced by poor recording technique then the band would have to rerecord. I doubt the latter will be the case.

By the way if you are interested in reading about the “Loudness War” and why many rock records are being ruined by “Hot Mastering” then see my blog post on the issue in 2006.