Blackened – BLCKND055-1 (2023, Apr.).
Global Appreciation: 9.4
- Music: A
- Recording: 9
- Remastering + Lacquer Cutting: 9.5
- Pressing: 9.8
- Packaging: die-cut inner gatefold sleeve
Category: speed metal, thrash metal, heavy metal, hints of doom metal.
Format: Vinyl (2x LP at 33 1/3 rpm).
James Hetfield - lead vocals, rhythm guitar, production
Lars Ulrich - drums, production
Kirk Hammett - lead guitar
Robert Trujillo - bass
Recorded and mixed at HQ, San Rafael, CA between March 2021 and November 2022.
Greg Fidelman – production, recording, mixing
Sara Lyn Killion – engineering
Jim Monti – engineering
Jason Gossman – additional engineering, digital editing
Kent Matcke – assistant engineering
Dan Monti – digital editing
Mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine.
Vinyl lacquers cut by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.
Pressed by Furnace Record Pressing in Alexandria, Virginia.
David Turner – cover art
Lee Jeffries – band portrait photography
Evaluated by Claude Lemaire
Forty years ago who could have predicted Metallica would turn out to be the most successful–and arguably important–metal band in the history of the genre. True they did not invent it–Sabbath, Purple, and Priest preceded them by a long stretch– but through determination, strong compositions, powerful production, and keen musicianship, Metallica defied the odds of making fast and heavy music without compromise, winning nine Grammy Awards and selling over 125 million records worldwide.
Formed in 1981 in Los Angeles, they were soon labeled as one of the so-called 'Big Four'–along with Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth–pressing the accelerator of the burgeoning speed and thrash metal scene. These high octane musical subgenres were the offspring from merging heavy metal with hard core punk; supercharging the intricacies of Maiden and Diamond Head with the sheer brute force horsepower of Motörhead and Discharge.
Remember that by this time, traditional hard rock was in sharp decline, being superseded by glam metal, aka hair metal, aka pop metal. Pushing power ballads, and anthemic guitar-driven rock via glossy girl-laden videos, bands such as Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, and Twisted Sister ruled the airwaves and MTV. Even seventies' stalwarts Kiss and Van Halen are prime examples of bands distancing themselves from their raw roots, pivoting towards this new arena-esque Sunset Strip subgenre.
Having ditched Dave Mustaine for Kirk Hammett on lead guitar, Metallica, whose other members included singer-guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, and bassist Cliff Burton, released its debut LP Kill 'Em All in July 1983. The album's tight, aggressive, tuneful tracks demonstrated that, already at this early stage, Metallica was a cut above its competition and a force to be reckoned with. Its follow-up release 1984's Ride the Lightning, marked some modulation and evolution in the band's sound and writing, exposing a darker and heavier facet.
Masters of Metal
The more melodic Master of Puppets released in March 1986 cemented their status as world-leading metal masters, making it one of metal's most influential and critically acclaimed albums. Truly the title track–a fan favorite among live shows–is in and of itself a masterpiece. But just as things were looking up, tragedy struck that September, during touring in Sweden, when bassist Burton died in a bus crash at age 24.
Two years later, ...And Justice for All pushed progressive elements to the forefront with its multiple tempo shifts and myriad musical intricacies. It featured former Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted replacing Burton, and the Grammy-winning epic single "One", an anti-war compositional chef-d'oeuvre.
The next album, 1991's Metallica–more often called The Black Album–with Canadian producer Bob Rock at the helm, broaden the band's horizons, with songs like the harder rock anthem "Enter Sadman"–the main riff suspectedly resembling Excel's "Tapping into the Emotional Void"–and the softer power ballad "Nothing Else Matters" making their music more "commercial", and accused by some of "selling out".
Three other albums produced with Rock, resulted in lukewarm reception as the band appeared to be exploring different directions with Load (1996), Reload (1997), and St. Anger (2003)–and accordingly, the latter did anger most fans. This also marked the departure of bassist Jason Newsted prior to its recording, whereas Bob Rock temporarily took on that role until his own departure as the band's record producer.
Death Magnetic in September 2008, re-energized the band; their compass clearly pointing upwards, with fans coming back to the fold. Produced by Rick Rubin, it was a welcome return to their trash and prog metal roots, and introduced bassist Robert Trujillo–formerly of Suicidal Tendencies–as permanent replacement for Newsted. The multi-nominated album won them three Grammys. Hardwired... to Self-Destruct in 2016 focussed on speed and thrash, and was the first produced by Greg Fidelman, who had strictly engineered their previous album.
Fast forward to the present, the guys now nearing their sixties, speculate on how a person's first 18 years–72 Seasons–vis-à-vis growing up, developing skills, and forming one's personality, as well as our parents influence, end up shaping one's destiny. I think at a certain point we all go through some reflection on past, present, and future days. Amid much fanfare, the album launched last April 14th in a coordinated promotional event, where worldwide record stores and movie theaters welcomed fans a few hours prior to the premiere to get a first listen. Having loved Death Magnetic (in the 5LP boxset version for the superior sound) but left less enamored by Hardwired... to Self-Destruct–liking the music and sound, but finding both somewhat redundant after a while–I was uncertain if Metallica could still, after eleven studio releases, ride that lightning bolt, and make me want to jump in the fire.
So come on...
The double-LP contains 12 tracks varying between 3 1/2 and 11 minutes in duration, totalling a rather long 77 minutes, a trend going back to Load in 1996 which lasted 79 minutes–a minute short of the maximum allowed on a CD! The musical style is not a revolution, but closer to a continuation of the previous LP Hardwired..., with some songs recalling their earlier material up to 1991's Metallica. Fidelman reprises his role as producer, recording, and mixing engineer. Recording and mixing took place at Metallica's HQ, San Rafael in California between March 2021 and November 2022 with mastering done at Bob Ludwig's Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine while vinyl lacquers were cut by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.
The eye-catching cover comes in an original sophisticated die-cut inner gatefold allowing us to see fragments of the rigid vinyl sleeve sporting hi-rez photo close ups for each band member's face–one per side–overemphasizing their age.
The double-LP is available in different color schemes including standard black, which is the version I bought. Pressings come from Furnace Record Pressing in Alexandria, Virginia, now owned by Metallica since March of this year. Mine were well centered, flat, shiny, free of 'pops and ticks', and had a low noise floor from start to finish; so a very encouraging sign regarding Metallica's pressing plant purchase. As for actual record weight, it seems somewhere between 150 and 165 grams.
From the first track past the gate, "72 Seasons" with its killer riff, you can tell this is off to a great start. Many tracks are quite speedy in tempo, such as "Lux Æterna" borrowing a page from Motörhead's 1980 groundbreaking single "The Ace of Spades", with Ulrich's unrelenting double-kick drumming, propelling the metal machine full throttle ahead.
I was agreeably impressed that they were still able to surprise me with some unexpected guitar twists and sounds, borrowing from late-1960s-1970s hard rock but rarely heard in the context of thrash metal.
The last track of side C, "If Darkness Had a Son", resembles a combination of "Eye of the Beholder" and "The Shortest Straw", two great songs from ...And Justice for All. The last side finishes on a few strong notes starting with the groove-oriented "Too Far Gone", featuring a fun foot-tapping midtempo riff, rhythmic and melodic vocals, plus twin guitar harmonies ala Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden, and military-esque staccato snare rolls.
It is known that Metallica place equal importance on its choice for first and last song when assembling an album. The latter is substantiated with "Inamorata", which left me the impression that it was some kind of sequel or that there's a link to "My Friend of Misery" from The Black Album–even its lyrics in the chorus mention "Misery, she loves me". To me this is the most monumental composition on the album. It is also the longest, slowest, and heaviest track, and with its sludgy stoner doom metal, shows a clear lineage to early Black Sabbath such as 1971's Master of Reality.
Near the song's halfway mark, after Hammett's tortuous solo, a calm follows the storm where Trujillo's bass, Hetfield's subtle guitar chords, and Ulrich's 16th note hi-hat harkens back to Sabbath's "War Pigs" from 1970's Paranoid. Then the vocals enter in a very mellow and melodic way, before a short crescendo of drums and vocals erupt emotionally in tandem, culminating in the highly harmonious guitar layer buildup. That is followed by the double-kick and snare strikes reminiscent of "One", and the instrumental "Orion" off of Master of Puppets. The finale, with its powerful floor tom pummelling is a veritable call and response of Olympian magnitude.
Musically and sonically it's a solid album with few filler material, apart from "Room of Mirrors" which I found fair but not up to the same high level, and some songs that could have benefited from being shorter. The uniform sound is dense, thick, and compressed but not overly so. Of course, I would have preferred less dynamic compression but in comparison to 90% of metal releases it is applied moderately and in good taste, especially within what the segment has delivered since the last two decades. The tonal balance is full range with good bottom, warm tubey mids, and just the right ratio of treble detail and crispness to cut through the dense mix. Hetfield's vocals–melodic at times–are nicely rendered and a touch laid back, more so than on Master of Puppets and Metallica (The Black Album). The soundstage exhibits excellent wide dispersion thanks mostly to the guitar tracks punching in and out of the mix, maintaining our excitement. They sound awesome with superb overdrive tone plus some wah-wah pedal effects appearing here and there. Cymbals have some roughness and grain but not to the point of aggressing the ears, and are less grainy and dirty sounding than on The Black Album. Floor toms have tremendous impact while kick drums and snare are very punchy and articulate but dryer-sounding than their first three albums. This chosen sonic presentation by producer engineer Fidelman gives it a very precise, direct, heavy, and pleasantly full "mixing board", deadish room sound, making it a good fit for a fast-pace intricate music genre such as this. Not surprising that this is his winning formula, as it is close in sound to the previous Metallica release, as well as Black Sabbath's final album 13 from 2013, produced by Rick Rubin and engineered by Fidelman.
In a perfect world, I would have added a fraction more room reverb ambiance and dynamic contrasts but it remains impressive nevertheless. Those having a DBX-type dynamic expander in their home system will welcome a touch of expansion. Chris Bellman did a superb lacquer cutting job, nailing it better than on his previous cuts for Master of Puppets and Metallica.
In the eye of the beholder...
Hot on the heels of 240 seasons, the guys can still rock, admittedly with some heavy help from "Pro Tools and co." But I'm fine with that, after all they are there to deliver a product and with Greg Fidelman in the loop, it is a highly produced, processed, and polished product. Some may find it too contrived or mechanical-sounding, but this is 2023 and not 1983, and in this day and age when Bard and Chat are on the cusp of replacing all of the arts in a flick of the switch, it is somewhat reassuring that Metallica still put in that human touch and effort to actually compose, perform, and record such a project. I dare anyone to complain that these guys are past their prime, for that is most certainly not the case! Sure they'll probably sound more sloppy playing these songs live without those tools but that is a whole other story. After all when The Beatles chose the studio over the stage during their Revolver and Sgt. Pepper period we certainly didn't think any less of them; and those two albums under the direction of George Martin were extremely complex and in a sense processed–analoguely and mechanically of course–for their time.
For my ranking, my favorites remain Master of Puppets, ...And Justice for All, and Death Magnetic, with 72 Seasons coming in a close fourth. It is not as crude as Kill 'Em All nor as rebellious as Ride the Lightning, but it is more exhilarating than Hardwired... to Self-Destruct. If this turns out to be their swan song, this will be a more than respectable coda.
Now to the ultimate question:
Was the album powerful enough to travel back in time to my teen years? Perhaps not way back to lucky thirteen when music approached its most magical moment for me, but certainly circa 72 Seasons when I heard for the very first time "Fight Fire with Fire"!
Note: this article was entirely written without any AI assistance.
Reference List (Singles, albums, and labels):
Kill 'Em All [Megaforce Records MRI 069]
Ride the Lightning [Megaforce Records MRI 769 or Blackened BLCKND004R-1 or Blackened 00602547885241]
Master of Puppets [Blackened BLCKND004R-1]
...And Justice for All [Elektra 60812-1]
"One" [Vertigo METDJ 512 or Elektra ED 5349 or Vertigo 874 067-1]
Metallica (The Black Album) [Elektra 61113-1]
"Enter Sadman" [Vertigo METBX 712, 868 729-1]
"Tapping into the Emotional Void" [Caroline Records CAROL 1372]
"Nothing Else Matters" [Vertigo 866 709-1]
Load [Elektra 61923-1]
Reload [Elektra 62126-1]
St. Anger [Elektra 62853-1]
Death Magnetic (5xLP, 45 rpm box set) [Warner Bros. Records 512119-1]
Hardwired... to Self-Destruct [Blackened BLCKND031-1]
"The Ace of Spades" [Bronze BRON 531]
"Eye of the Beholder" [Elektra ED 5332]
"The Shortest Straw" [Elektra 60812-1]
"My Friend of Misery" [Elektra 61113-1]
Master of Reality [Vertigo 6360 050]
"War Pigs" [Vertigo 6360 011]
Paranoid [Vertigo 6360 011]
"Orion" [Blackened BLCKND004R-1]
13 [Vertigo, Republic Records B0018539-01]