The usual road taken in Metal circles in dealing with METALLICA of late is to either jump to their defense, or to spout out the four letter words and elaborately grotesque metaphors like no tomorrow. I’ve been mostly guilty of the latter, primarily because I’d followed the band since 1989, and even during my Kurt Cobain phase they were on my A list. But as time has gone by, I’ve become better acquainted with the nature of the music industry, and have begun to understand why bands like ANTHRAX, SEPULTURA and SLAYER decided to turn in their Thrash Metal chips in exchange for a new, groovy kind of game. I’m not taking back any of my comments regarding their past material, because it still revolts my ears with the exact same intensity, and because I’ve seen true Metal bands who are content to keep a day job and play small venues for a few hundred dollars rather than change their sound to keep the arenas full.
So as to this particular song and its connection to all of this, it’s basically another fit of compliance with the music industry and mainstream culture. I’m fairly certain that all Lars had to do was hear a few snippets of MACHINE HEAD’s “The Blackening” to get his cue for it being alright to revisit some of the older elements of METALLICA’s extensive history, and this songs comes off like a disingenuous attempt at straddling the gap between the old school Thrash fans who started giving them grief in 1991 and the Alternative Rock junkies who ate up the "Load" albums. In some respects it has already achieved what it was meant to do, and that was fool people into thinking that METALLICA had reestablished their Thrash sound, as well as to bring back the epic ballad style that was first brought out on “Fade To Black”. Sure it’s way better than any song on “St. Anger”, just like “The Blackening” was miles ahead of “The Burning Red” or “Supercharger”, but that doesn’t make it good.
All you need to do is focus on the opening riff in order to hear the huge disconnect between this and anything METALLICA did in the 80s. At best, it’s a cheap imitation of something off of “Load”, if not a semi-plagiarized U2 guitar line. Don’t let the frequent lead breaks and heavily improved quality of Kirk’s playing fool you, there isn’t a true Metal foundation to speak of beneath the quasi “Fade To Black” aura of the first 50 seconds of this. Afterwards what ensues is a slightly better version of “The Unforgiven II” which has a similar vocal sound out of James. At about half way through this things start to pick up and we have some riffs to speak of, although things don’t really get going until the 5 minute mark. I have to say, they do get going pretty nicely when Kirk’s shred lines come in, including the riff work underneath all the clusters of rapid notes.
My biggest complaint about this song is the production, particularly the drum production. Although it’s not quite as blatant as on the previous debacle, Lars’ drums still sound utterly terrible. The snare has very little punch to it, and even less sustain. Essentially he traded in his trash can lid sound for something in between a cardboard box and a 5 gallon bucket. The cymbals tend to be overpowering, while the bass drum has barely enough presence to compete with the high end nature of the song. The guitar sound mostly resembles the non-muddy, but weaker distorted tone heard on the "Load" albums, while the bass has largely been buried under the drums and guitars. Basically Kirk’s lead tracks are the only ones on here that aren’t in need of a serious overhaul, though I should note that Kirk has made a big step by finally freeing himself from his wah pedal addiction.
So the final verdict on this song is mostly a failing one. There isn’t much to write home about other than some of the riffs during the 2nd half of the song and Kirk’s leads, which don’t make the first 4 minutes of the song worth listening to. If this song indicates anything, it is the culture of compromise divorced from principle that METALLICA has continually exhibited since the beginning of the 1990s. At best, this album could maybe resemble their self-titled release, though a poorly mixed version of it at that. I can say that this song is metal for the most part, but it’s not the kind of Metal that I’d recommend blowing money on. Maybe the next single will be better, but when it comes to METALLICA, it is yet another thing I wouldn’t invest the fruits of the sweat of your brow over.
(Online September 16, 2008)