Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Metallica - Beyond Magnetic EP [album review]

Released digitally in December 2011; released on CD in January; vinyl release on April 21st
Fresh off the disastrous reception last November that greeted Lulu, Metallica's collaborative album with Lou Reed (read my scathing review here), the metal icons released Beyond Magnetic. The four track EP was released in conjunction with the band's quartet of shows at San Francisco's legendary Fillmore venue in December to commemorate their 30th anniversary (seek those shows out if you're a Metallica fan, by the way...they will be regarded as historic ones in the band's career). Although the group would never admit it, one can't help but suspect Metallica also felt a need to cleanse the palate of their fans after the bitter taste left from the ill-advised Lulu project. Mission accomplished. Beyond Magnetic's four songs, which the band states are only "rough mixed" but sound quite fine, were recorded during the 2007-2008 sessions that resulted in the stellar Death Magnetic album. That release's hefty 74+ minute running time, however, left little room for any more music.
Not surprisingly, these four tracks are very much in the same vein as the material that ended up on the full-length album, with Metallica once again returning to the more ambitious-in-scope songwriting that was prevalent on their classic ...And Justice For All and Master Of Puppets albums. That means plenty of time signature changes, quiet-loud dynamics, and lengthy songs (each is in the seven to eight minute range), traits that added up to "unfocused" material in the eyes of Death Magnetic's detractors. "Unfocused" is a little strong for my liking, although I understand that critical viewpoint. They'd likely have a field day with the EP's best track, "Just A Bullet Away". After four minutes of primo metal, lead by the menacing vocals and peerless rhythm guitar of James Hetfield, the song stops dead and resumes after a four second gap, slowing the pace and mood down significantly. The mid-song deviation almost sounds like a different composition altogether, while retaining subtle melodic elements from the preceding portion, which the song eventually returns to for its back end. It's a structure employed in the past on such Metallica classics as "Master Of Puppets", "Orion", and, in a bit of an inverted twist of the formula, "One". Here, the inter-song shift is handled a little clumsily (the silent gap is far too long), although not enough to detract too much from an otherwise first-class song. "Hate Train" also finds the band firing on all cylinders, especially the muscular drumming of Lars Ulrich, who fills the track with an impressive array of jackhammer kick drum, agile tom fills, and in-your-face cymbal crashes. "Hell And Back" is another track with a fairly schizophrenic make-up - it's all over the place musically, but still satisfies thoroughly. EP closer "Rebel Of Babylon" also delivers the heavy goods, as riffmaster general Hetfield seamlessly interweaves a controlled metal-style technical proficiency with an aggressive punk attitude. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, whose solos throughout Metallica's career have frequently left me cold, turns in some doozies here, notably on this track and "Hate Train".
Beyond Magnetic may be made up of leftovers, but these vibrant and high-calibre scraps are damn tasty.
Rating: A-