There are several degrees of expectation, but the key ones are low expectation, high expectation, and original Metallica fans. You’re aware of the first two, I’m sure, but number three may be a mystery to you, and for good reason, as satisfaction requires nothing less than a wormhole in time, a crate of Jagermeister, and just maybe the reanimated dead. Intrigued?
Friday marks the release of Metallica’s latest, Death Magnetic, and already the fists are flying. Some are claiming it’s a return to the sound somewhere between … And Justice for All (1988) and the eponymous “Black Album” (1991), and they’re not too far off. Balancing between the hard rock Metallica’s been working for the past decade and the guitar-solo heavy thrash of their earlier benchmarks, Death Magnetic is a study in compromises. Yes, it was produced by Rick Rubin, who made his early mark producing Slayer. (He’s also produced Jay-Z, Johnny Cash, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.) Yes, it has that dry, reverb-adverse sound that dogged Metallica’s previous album, St. Anger (2003). Yes, guitarist Kirk Hammett gets to wail again. No, this is not Master of Puppets II.
That last bit is key — after having been promised and teased that those young and angry lunatics had returned, we have the album you would expect to have followed the previous ones. Robert Trujillo is a fine bass player, but, to paraphrase Chevy Chase, Cliff Burton is still dead. Thank you and have a pleasant tomorrow.
This is where the divide becomes clear: those who appreciated “The Black Album” will find much to like about the new one, and not unintentionally. There’s a reason why the dominant graphic tone on the cover is a stark, blinding white and why we’re now up to “The Unforgiven III.” But to those who thought of “The Black Album” as some kind of heresy, this is another injustice (pardon the pun).
In recent years there’s been a subculture of metal fans who’ve proudly announced how much they hate Metallica and how, if they ever stop playing Guitar Hero and bother forming a band themselves, they will never, ever sell out their fans like Metallica did. That’s all well and good. The problem is that everybody grows whether we like it or not. Only one band gets to remake the same album over and over and over again and not take crap for it. (AC/DC’s Black Ice arrives late October.) All the rest have to deal with it and move on. James Hetfield doesn’t sound like he used to because he’s older. He may still sing the old songs in concert, but it isn’t the same, nor should anyone be so lunkheaded to think that it could.
What’s even more perplexing is a smaller group of former Metallica fans who are lashing out in a volley of spite that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so damn infuriating. Their argument is this: The band gave them the album they wanted, so to hell with the band. They pandered to rock radio in the ’90s and into the aughts. Now they’re pandering to the old souls who still prostrate at the altar of Ride the Lightning once a week. Don’t you see? It’s a reverse-sellout sellout! How dare Metallica try to fake us out by giving us what we were asking for! Those bastards!
In this case, the comfortable, cozy feeling of having an identifiable enemy has clearly retarded the fans. (You can take that slur in any manner you see fit.) For them, nothing less than pulling a Marty McFly, getting Hetfield back on hard liquor, and getting Trujillo possessed by Burton’s ghost will do. To them I say, Good luck mopping aisle five at midnight.
It comes down to the feeling a fan gets when he or she is connected to a band and their sound, a snapshot of a particular phase in the band’s life and career. I can picture someone experiencing Master of Puppets (1986) for the first time and deciding it was everything they wanted from an album. I know people who feel just that way. I know others who were huge fans of the Jesus Lizard and were appalled by what resulted when they jumped from the indie scene to Capitol Records in the ’90s alt-rock cattle call.
Hell, back in the ’80s, based on her love of the single “We Live for Love,” my sister bought Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion (1980) and was hooked. Her favorite song? “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, of course, but she liked it before it became a hit. Once the song took off and became something like omnipresence, my sister didn’t feel the same way anymore. This song she connected with was now everywhere, not hers alone anymore, and she rejected it. However, there are seldom straight-line trajectories. As an artist you’ll either find your niche and fan base and grow or you’ll become more and more obscure until one day you either stop, officially become a has-been, or, worst of all, soldier on like you aren’t a has-been. The State Fair Tour of Shame isn’t viewed that way by accident.
A contingent of Metallica’s fans have a right to dislike Death Magnetic. Perhaps they like balls-to-the-wall thrash metal, and this ain’t that. It’s fine to take that position provided it’s based on something concrete, i.e. “I like these songs” vs. “I don’t like these songs.” Another contingent has a right to feel the album is worthwhile — it stands up as a good recording and, when paired with St. Anger, looks like a friggin’ masterpiece. The band really has tried to present something that complements rather than defies their back catalog.
Yet the expectations for Death Magnetic are so astronomically high among some fans that nothing in any way, shape, or form could possibly come close, and these people will be the most disturbed when their hair starts falling out, the weight doesn’t drop off like it used to, and they seemingly pee more than they drink. May they never come home early one day to find their very own Suicide Girl has been messing around with Moby. If the inclinations of a band toward change can set them off so badly, this might very well kill them.