Mini review: Metallica – Beyond Magnetic EP

 

Beyond Magnetic

Beyond Magnetic

Prelude: The Anniversary Shows

Last week (between December 5th and 10th), Metallica played four shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco for fan club members, in order to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary.  The shows were studded with stars, old friends, old band members, and heroes of the band members, and included set lists comprised of a wide variety of songs from the band’s career, as well as select covers.

Fans got to see every living current or former member of Metallica with the band, as Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine joined his old band for the songs “Phantom Lord”, “Jump In The Fire”, “Metal Militia”, “Hit The Lights,” and show-closer “Seek And Destroy” on Saturday, December 10th.  Former members Ron McGovney (bass), Hugh Tanner and Lloyd Grant (guitars), who were with the band for short stints at its birth, joined the band also on this night for the final song and various other songs from Kill ‘Em All (1983), as did longtime bassist Jason Newsted, who joined the festivities during all four shows.  Additional guests included Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler, Saxon’s Bill Byford, longtime Metallica producer Bob Rock, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Jerry Cantrell (Alice In Chains), Pepper Keenan (Down/CoC), Gary Rossington (Skynyrd), Glenn Danzig, Lou Reed, Mercyful Fate, John Bush (Armored Saint), Apocalyptica, Metallica fill-in guitarist John Marshall (Metal Church), and Sean Harris and Brian Tatler of Diamond Head.  It was quite the celebration and reunion!

For these shows, Metallica pulled a few songs from their catalog that had never been played before, including “Carpe Diem Baby” (Reload, 1997) and the Cliff Burton tribute “To Live Is To Die” (…And Justice For All, 1988).  They also introduced some previously unreleased content, which has created a lot of buzz in metal circles.

At each show, they debuted an unreleased song from the recording sessions that produced their latest album, Death Magnetic (2008).  From what I understand, fan club members were emailed the songs after each gig, and they quickly showed up on YouTube.  This week, Metallica officially released the four tracks as the Beyond Magnetic EP, exclusively through iTunes here in the U.S.

The Beyond Magnetic EP

The buzz around these songs is that they are… really good.  After Metallica’s recent collaboration with Reed, Lulu, which features songs written by Reed and arranged by/with Metallica and was roundly criticized for being very challenging to listen to (because the songs just aren’t that good), this EP is breath of fresh air in comparison.

Beyond Magnetic clocks in at 29:08 with four seven-minute songs and an 8-minute tribute to Layne Staley, “Rebel of Babylon”.

The first track, “Hate Train”, is a good solid song with strong, heavy riffs mixed with thrash sections that go a long way toward restoring faith in the band’s ability to write interesting music.  Other than during a mellow breakdown at around 3:30, Hetfield’s vocals are strong throughout.

Track two, entitled “Just A Bullet Away”, was referred to under the working title of “Shine” during the sessions, as seen on the “Mission Metallica” videos that came out as part of the promotion for Death Magnetic.  This track has a 6/8 feel for most of its duration, with galloping, marching riffs, although the song does break down at the four-minute mark for a mellow part, like the previous track.

“Hell And Back”, the third tune, is a mid-paced song with some dynamics, as it starts out somewhat quietly before gaining some heft for the choruses and much of the duration. It’s a good song, but difficult to write much about.

“Rebel Of babylon”, the aforementioned tribute to late Alice In Chains vocalist Layne Staley, is the most epic in scope out of this collection of songs.  It combines a mellow intro that builds into slow riffing, and then some fast thrash riffs that, used liberally throughout the song, recall moments from …And Justice For All.  The chorus, with its line “Don’t let it burn out tonight!” followed with “Kill me one more time/Stigmata/Kill me one more time/Neo martyr/Gonna die young/Gonna live forever/Kill me one more time/Rise up, rebel of Babylon!” are delivered powerfully in a higher register.  THIS is the kind of music that James Hetfield’s voice is made for.

The mixes on the EP are similar to those on Death Magnetic, although they are described by the band itself as “rough mixes”.  The vocals are, like those on the past two albums, among their driest ever – to say it another way, there is no reverb on Metallica vocals post-2000, and so these are fairly raw, pure sounds in that respect.  The guitars are not softened and buried like they were in the mid-90s releases, but rather have a heavy, raw edge to them and sit nicely in the mix.  And, unlike their counterparts on the album, the tunes on Beyond Magnetic are not over-mastered, to the point where the horrendous digital clipping that plagued Death Magnetic is, thankfully, not much of an issue here.

Overall, these songs are some of the ‘riffiest’ that Metallica has written in twenty years.  **Since …Justice… in 1988, which was an exercise in “how many riffs can we stick in these songs”, the band has gone from “let’s be economical and make strong songs out of fewer riffs but still be heavy” (Metallica); to “we have many, many simple riffs, so we wrote so many song-y hard rock songs that they’ll take two albums to release them all (Load and Reload); to “two of our best songs from the Load sessions didn’t get released for some reason, so we’ll record them with an orchestra” (S&M); to “we’re so unable to write good songs or riffs that we’ll see if we can kill our fans by repeating riffs so many times that they scream in pain” (St. Anger); to finally putting together a body of work that pulled together a newly-recovered hunger and aggressiveness with their more recent songwriting skills and their classic arrangement skills on Death Magnetic.

**Yes, I’m being snarky here.  I actually liked large portions of all of that music, but it was interesting (and rough) to watch them devolve and then re-grow as a band over the past two decades.

This EP is absolutely a companion to Metallica’s latest.  The songs were written three or four years ago, but if their recent live performance and release is any indication of the direction that Metallica is still going – as well as indicating that the band likes the songs! – fans have a reason to be cautiously optimistic about their next album, which is currently expected in 2012… although we all know how that tends to go with this band.

The “What-if”s concerning these songs and Death Magnetic

In some ways, it’s a shame that one or more of these songs didn’t make the cut for Death Magnetic.  I’ve read several comments that argued for certain songs to be dropped in favor of “Just A Bullet Away”, generally in the following order of ‘most desired to be trashed’:

  1. The Unforgiven III
  2. My Apocalypse
  3. The End Of The Line
  4. Cyanide

Personally, I really enjoy “The Unforgiven III” and I’m glad it’s on the album.  On the other hand, my least favorite song from Death Magnetic was, by far, “The Day That Never Comes”, which was the first single and video from the album.  I skip that song every time it comes on now.  If that had been dropped in favor of “Just A Bullet Away,” I would have been cool with that, but I think my favorite song from the EP is “Rebel of Babylon”, and if they had stuck that in place of the instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” (which I do like, by the way, but not as much as some of these songs), I think that it would not only make the album better, but its lyrical tone and epic nature would fit perfectly, both as ‘the epic song before the thrashy closer’ and within the overall theme of the album.  That’s my two cents.  But I loved listening to Death Magnetic as it was (other than my previously mentioned least favorite track), so this is all just for fun anyway.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed listening to these songs, and will probably listen to them many, many times in months to some.  If you’re a Metallica fan, this is your contemporary Metallica sound.  Lulu was not.  This is.

* * *

Ok, so this ended up not being so “mini” – but I thought it would be when I started it!  Ah well, the title stays.

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4 Comments on “Mini review: Metallica – Beyond Magnetic EP”

  1. alex says:

    Nice review, man!

  2. JP says:

    Drop “The Day That Never Comes”?! I can’t believe I just saw that. I personally would have been entirely fine with dropping “End of the Line” for ‘Hate Train’ (which each coincidentally contain train themes) and “My Apocalypse” for “Rebel of Babylon”. I do like, “End” and “Apocalypse” but those two DM tracks in particular are amazing. I would even have pushed “Just a Bullet Away” somewhere in there but NOT replace anything else. I’ve heard rumors of their next album going to the Black Album format of fewer riffs and shorter tracks but I hope they don’t kill these elaborate compositions entirely. Damn do I love them.

    • Russ says:

      It’s just an opinion, anyway, but… yeah, I’d drop “The Day That Never Comes” from almost any lineup of Metallica songs. I certainly don’t mind that you feel differently.

      While I do like some of Metallica’s more sing-songy stuff with the Oscar The Grouch whiny (mid-1990s-on) vocals, I disagree with the comparisons between “The Day That Never Comes” and “One”. I’m not saying you said that, but I read/hear that all the time from people. Other than structural comparisons, “The Day…” compares unfavorably with “One” in almost every way.

      That aside, I don’t feel that it fits on the album very well, and it’s not that great of a song. I like the intro the best – those clean, ethereal arpeggios sound great. Then, the song drops into what has become a Metallica standard; that is to say an “Unforgiven”/”Turn The Page”-like ballad with a heavy chorus. The song continues in its “One”-like structure by giving us some ascending muted riffs (cool), flattens out into the “Love is a four-letter word” section (which brings to mind “Load”-etc.) (uninteresting), and then goes into a fast part with out-of-time drums, boring thrash riffs, and terrible guitar tone (…). The harmony lead is fun, but not much else is. And the clipping gets very, very bad at that point on the recording.

      When the band doesn’t sound together in a song like this, it loses me, particularly when the album is so poorly mastered. There are many songs that are tighter on the record, and I was disappointed that I just could not get into that song, because I really wanted to like it.

      BTW, “My Apocalypse” is one of my favorites. It’s got some great intensity, particularly at the end, and it’s much tighter, so while the second half of “Day That Never Comes” just sounds like a mess – execution-wise, structure-wise, and sound-wise – the end of “My Apocalypse” sounds like the end of the world, and it finishes the record perfectly for me.


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