The first thing you notice about Metallica's new album is that it sounds great. The band's previous disc, . . . And Justice for All, seemed a model of hard-rock clarity and punch when it was released in 1988. Played back-to-back with Metallica, Justice sounds almost thin; the new record's sonic textures and audio depth of field are a revelation.
But Metallica isn't simply a superspiffy engineering job. Its detail and dynamics are essentially musical in concept, part and parcel of the arrangements, song structures and impact of individual tracks. The first few bars of the opening cut, "Enter Sandman," tell the tale. The song begins with the fade-in of a chugging guitar riff. As the riff rises to full volume, ushering in the rhythm section, an entirely different guitar texture, sounding like a phased, finger-picked, electric twelve-string, comes in under and behind the primary riff. All this subtlety draws the listener in, focusing attention. When drummer Lars Ulrich enters, the whack of his first snare-drum accent seems to jump right out of the record and into the middle of the room. By the time you're half a minute into Metallica, musicianship, arrangements and engineering are working hand in hand to define the parameters of a sonic space that the entire disc will claim as its field of interaction.
In stylistic terms, Metallica is about diversity. Justice, and to a lesser extent the 1986 breakthrough album Master of Puppets, connected one song to another with related themes and riff structures; these were unified works, almost thrash-metal concept albums. Each of the twelve songs on Metallica stands on its own. The multipart musical structures that paced the much longer compositions on Justice haven't been abandoned, but the forms have been telescoped into songs in the four- to six-minute range. Whenever a passing musical moment reaches out and grabs you, it's a pretty safe bet that you won't be hearing it again until the next time you play the album.
When a band slaps an eponymous title on its fifth album, some sort of redefinition is implied. And in fact, Metallica is a long, long way from the charged momentum and skullfuck imagery of the early material created with original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (now the general of Megadeth) and the late bassist and band spark plug Cliff Burton. Several of the songs on Metallica are downright gentle. "Enter Sandman," possibly the first metal lullaby, does advise the child it addresses: "Hush little baby, don't say a word/And never mind that noise you heard/It's just the beasts under your bed/In your closet, in your head." But the song's delicately layered guitar textures and the unmistakable empathy in James Hetfield's vocals signify an abiding affection. "Nothing Else Matters" doesn't even pretend to tough it out. It is hardly an MTV lite-metal ballad, but the soaring vocal harmonies on the chorus, the delicate acoustic-and electric-guitar interplay between Hetfield and Kirk Hammett and the way Ulrich deftly blends his orchestra chimes and cymbals into the guitar harmonies make it a ballad all the same. Hetfield's lyrics offer a key to the more personal, directly emotional drift of the album when he sings: "Never opened myself this way/Life is ours, we live it our way/All these words I don't just say/And nothing else matters."
Several songs on Metallica seem destined to become hard-rock classics. "Wherever I May Roam" blossoms from a sitarlike opening into a stomping but lyrical power-chord rocker, with Jason Newsted's chordal bass voiced with the guitars to provide that unmistakable Metallica crunch. When Hetfield sings, "My body lie, but still I roam," he echoes, perhaps unconsciously, one of bluesman Robert Johnson's most indelible images. Structurally diverse but containing a transcendently melancholy and melodic chorus, the song sounds like an anthem in the making, but an anthem kept to a human scale. "The Unforgiven," "My Friend of Misery" and "Sad but True" seem likely to have a comparable staying power. And Metallica doesn't neglect the head bangers, the group's original constituency. "Through the Never," "Of Wolf and Man" and "The Struggle Within" are hard-edge and hard driving, and even the prettiest songs forgo any hint of radio-ready sweetening.
Metallica is no longer the cutting edge of metal, as it was in the beginning, but the band is expanding its musical and expressive range on its own terms. This can only be a positive step for a group that is effectively bridging the gap between commercial metal and the much harder thrash of Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth.
Metallica's only sour note is "Don't Tread on Me," which seems unequivocally jingoistic. After the impassioned protest against war and social injustice on . . . And Justice for All, "Tread" comes as a shock. Message to the members of Metallica: Check out the lavishly funded Hill and Knowlton public-relations campaign that sold the gulf war to America's couch potatoes. Do a little research on the game of musical chairs that finds Republican bigwigs shuffling back and forth between top-level cabinet posts and key boardroom positions with certain oil-rich multinationals. Go fight in a war yourselves. Then wave the flag and jump on the yellow-ribbon bandwagon, if you still want to. "Don't Tread on Me" rings hollow in its music as well as its lyrics, the only outright bummer on an otherwise exemplary album of mature but still kickass rock & roll.
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