Three years. That’s how long it’s been since Metallica released Death Magnetic (which was their first studio LP in six years, following the universally-hated St. Anger). Three years since Metallica released what is arguably their best collection of songs since And Justice For All. Three years since fans and critics alike balked at the horrendous mix full of clipping and compression. Three years since Death Magnetic made the sound of a golden nugget of kickass dropped into a toilet. Three. Freaking. Years. And then, the Metallica camp tells us that we’re only going to receive an EP, and that this EP will be comprised of leftover tracks from the previous album in rough format. This is the kind of news that makes fans raise an eyebrow and brace themselves for disappointment.
Which brings us to the real question here: does Beyond Magnetic capture the return to great songwriting of its predecessor while avoiding the painful sonic pitfalls of that same recording? Good news: mostly yes.
This EP really does deliver. While at first glance it seems pretty short at just four songs, that’s an illusion…because it clocks in at almost thirty minutes with the shortest track being almost seven minutes long. The result is that everything on Beyond Magnetic feels epic and completely unrestrained, and really, isn’t that what we’ve wanted from Metallica all along?
Most importantly, the overall sound quality on this collection of tracks is better than that of the LP from which they were cut, despite the fact that they represent rough tracks. That may be what’s saving these songs; since they’re still in rough format, Rick Rubin may have left things alone that got overdriven on Death Magnetic. I still detected some occasional clipping and there were a few moments where the low end was a little high, making things muddy, but it was still an improvement. And hey, go back and listen to the sound quality on Kill ‘Em All or Ride The Lightning some time – pretty ugly in a lot of places, and we still loved those albums. There’s something to be said for metal recordings not being too slick. Besides, these are rough tracks…and damned good ones at that.
This collection feels like classic Metallica, and not in that we’re-trying-and-failing-to-recreate-our-old-songs kind of way that has been a pitfall for so many bands. It sounds like the band is just doing what comes naturally, and it all really works. From the opening track of Hate Train, you can feel the whole band being fully dedicated to this material, and Hetfield growls through it in proper style. Right when you’re sure that they front-loaded the EP with the best track, the boys in Metallica launch into Just A Bullet Away, and you realize that this track is even better and will become a live show classic going forward. It is heavy, fast, and includes an amazing half-tempo ballad-style bridge that happens after a sudden stop…it has incredible impact, as it is a musical expression of the lyrics at that point in the song (“Stop the voices in my head”). From the repeated lyric of “suck on the barrel/suck on the barrel/suck it ‘til it’s gone dry” to the killer dueling guitars at the end of the track, it is proper Metallica action, and makes one wonder why this song wasn’t included on the original LP.
Rebel of Babylon, apparently a song inspired by the life and death of Layne Staley (of Alice in Chains, for the uninitiated), ups the ante once more. This track packs a whole tool box full of riffs and features plenty of change-ups that keep things interesting from start to end. Old school fans will be thrilled by the true speed metal rhythm chops throughout (Hetfield always did have a great right hand), and Hammett has some of his most interesting soloing moments in years. There is also some great guitar harmonics interplay between Kirk and James, and both Lars Ulrich and Jason Trujillo really hold down the bottom end, keeping all of those changes rock-solid. Virtually everything about this song creates the same aura of badassedness that surrounded those early albums and developed Metallica’s rabid fan base. It’s so good that it makes me want to fist pump out the window of my car while I’m driving.
The only disappointment for me is the track To Hell And Back. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not bad – but it is highly derivative of their rock-era work (i.e., the Black album, Load/Reload, etc.), and honestly not that interesting. The riffs are predictable, the melody is average, and a lot of it feels like it was mailed in. Hetfield does dedicate a lot of emotion to spitting out the vocals, but the lyrics don’t hit home like the rest of the album. I will say that I enjoy the bridge quite a lot, but it’s by far the most engaging part of the song and only further outlines how average the rest of the track really is. The band also picks things up toward the end, but by then it’s too little too late to push this song into the same category as the rest of the EP. I don’t hit the skip button when I get to this track, but if I have time to listen to only one song, this is never the one that I pick out.
There is one more thing to discuss, if we want to be completely objective here, and that’s the timing of the release. That’s right, we need to mention Lulu. While not the festering bowl of burro bile that it’s been made out to be, it’s an uncomfortable and awkward collaboration with Lou Reed. It probably seemed like a cool idea at the time it was conceived, but it just simply doesn’t work, kind of in the same way that Van Halen III just didn’t gel. The boys aren’t close to having a new LP ready to go, and they needed to distract from the publicity train wreck that is Lulu. That explains a lot about them releasing what was originally a for-the-fans-only side item as an official EP. Honestly, it’s a smart strategy. It helps derail the potential for St. Anger levels of fan backlash and grants them a little breathing room to work on the next release and create something really good (and hopefully get Rick Rubin to back off on the sliders a little bit).
No matter the motivation(s), the end result is that this is a really solid Metallica album. It’s truly worthy to be included alongside their best material, despite its imperfections. It may not win over new fans, but that’s not really their motivation here anyway. This is something to keep their current fan base happy, and it should do a very good job of that. Anyone who calls themselves a Metallica fan should have Beyond Magnetic as part of their collection.
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