"You rise, you fall, you're down, then you rise again," James Hetfield yowls in "Broken, Beat & Scarred," an attempt to recap the trials and tribulations of the best-selling mainstream metal band in history on its much-hyped ninth album. "What don't kill you, make you more strong."
Ah, yes: Though they now live in suburban mansions, travel to concerts in separate SUV limos and are unapologetically photographed shopping at Armani, Hetfield and his mates would have us believe that after the dreadful, beyond-self-parody of "St. Anger" (2003), they've traded the New Age self-help psychobabble of "performance-enhancing coach" Phil Towle for the good, ol'-fashioned nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche, the official philosopher of all great heavy metal. Producer Rick Rubin, rock's master of resuscitating trashed careers, gave the group its marching orders: Forget everything starting with the mascara-wearing sell-out of the so-called "Black Album" (1991) and reconnect with your garage-band roots (if not the unhealthy habits) of the old Alcoholica, then go write the "second half" of the masterful "Master of Puppets" (1986).
It doesn't work--how could it?--but "Death Magnetic" does offer a little more of a rush than anything else the band's given us in the last two decades. Lars Ulrich will never be anything but a shadow of the best thrash drummers--the guys in Nachtmystium, Disfear and Mastodon could eat him for breakfast, to name but a few of many new underground metal heroes--but at least he keeps things moving under Hetfield's rote but quick-moving riffs and the welcome return of Kirk Hammett's unoriginal but quick-moving solos, and things only really fly horribly off the rails during the soggy grand piano and French horn opening of "The Unforgiven III."
Alas, every time you start to lose yourself in the sturm und drang, you run into the album's two biggest problems. The first is the much-publicized sound: As numerous metal and techie blogs have pointed out, this disc sets a new record for the amount of digital audio compression, a technical enhancement that basically makes the music sound loud at any volume, but at the expense of harsh digital clipping and distortion on many of the instruments, notably the drums. Then there's obstacle numero uno: Hetfield can sing--or try to, replacing the old sandpaper growl with an attempt at melody--about death, suicide, torture and other similar festivities all that he wants. But the angst just ain't there anymore, and would-be explosions of anger, dread and self-loathing such as "All Nightmare Long," "The Day That Never Comes" and "The Judas Kiss" ultimately sound as genuine as the latest from the Jonas Brothers.
"How can I be lost/If I've got nowhere to go," Hetfield asks. Good question, James. Good question.