Ride the Plastic Lightning
Absorbing Metallica’s latest badass opus entirely in video-game form
I have not yet had occasion to actually hear Metallica’s totally badass new album because I am way too busy living it, tearing off magnificent spider-fingered runs during the manic breakdown in “My Apocalypse” on my doofy-looking plastic guitar, which corresponds to the onscreen actions of Lars Umlaut, a morbidly obese face-paint-and-spiked-leather gentleman who summons a vicious flock of bats when he gets really excited. Yes, in keeping with the band’s longstanding, unflagging embrace of modern technology, Death Magnetic, the band’s first release since 2003’s disastrous St. Anger and the following year’s even-more-disastrous Jesus-these-guys-are-wussy-lunatics documentary Some Kind of Monster, saw release two weeks ago as both a plain ol’ Virgin Megastore/iTunes product and, far more desirably, as a fully playable 11-track Guitar Hero III download. Innovation! You don’t actually want to listen to a song called “The Unforgiven III,” right? Wouldn’t you rather merrily click ’n’ clack through it while staring intently at a television?
I agree. Let us make rock-criticism history together.
Actually, let’s start off by noting that every tune on this album is, like, 10 minutes long; for those of us with early-onset arthritic tendencies, this creates the first-ever scenario in which you’ll find yourself saying, “Shit, I wish this Metallica record had more ballads.” But long before your wrists start aching, when you first drop $17 or whatever (the Microsoft points system is deliberately confusing) and tear into opening salvo “That Was Just Your Life,” there’s an enormous, perverse pleasure in slithering through the slow, ominous opening riff, a barely masked “Enter Sandman” rip that eventually explodes, predictably and wonderfully, into that apocalyptic double-kick gallop and bombastic tirade of totally unnecessary and totally awesome buddabrumpbumpbumpbump drum fills that typify the Metallica experience. James Hetfield is still grunting testosterone-drunk inanities as though they’re biblical prophecies, but this way, as you’re otherwise occupied with the task of not getting your ass booed offstage, you only catch the occasional errant cliché (“fall from grace”!) and knuckleheaded aphorism (“Love is a four-letter word”!) as you struggle and sweat. “The End of the Line” is even better, a loose and tremendously fun mélange of seemingly unrelated riffs, especially the jabbing one-note (which note, you ask? The red one) blast that powers the chorus and eventually morphs into a daffy Kirk Hammett guitar solo that spirals off into delightfully atonal, busted-fax-machine nonsense.
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Yes, just in time for the Guitar Hero generation, Metallica have finally unmuzzled their own. Some Kind of Monster was a deranged, fascinating, brutally unflattering portrait of a once-terrifying band of boozing sociopaths reduced to impotent, simpering infighters, clearly artistically bankrupt as a 40K-per-month therapist sought to scam them all the way to actual bankruptcy, too. Only Hammett came off well, in a visionary tirade wherein he pointed out that the band’s refusal to allow any bitchen solos on the bludgeoning, joyless St. Anger—a decision based on the notion that bitchen solos were totally outdated—would only make the record sound totally outdated when bitchen solos returned to prominence. He was right, and Death Magnetic plays like a peace offering, giving Kirk ample opportunity to roam, and you, oh, recreational Guitar Hero warrior, ample opportunity to dislocate a finger trying to keep up with him. “All Nightmare Long” is particularly vicious/loopy in this regard, as well as in a lyrical sense, with James grunting “LUCK! RUNS! OUT!” as though reading directly from Revelations (which he might be, actually). The chorus is “Hunt you down without merc-aaaaaay!” Fun stuff.
The ballads? One out of two ain’t bad. “The Day That Never Comes” is super-easy (500-note streak, suckas) and finds James in fine bellow; it pleasingly recalls Lynynrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” for whatever that’s worth. True, after some top-shelf power-ballad catharsis, the tempo speeds up and some limp, aimless riff-bashing ensues, far more inexcusable a pander to the diehard Master of Puppets-coveting heshers than the first half is to the melody-loving mainstream. There’s a fine line between “jamming” and “stalling.” But it’s nonetheless a hell of a lot better than “The Unforgiven III.” Oy. The song itself isn’t terrible, but the way it’s presented in video-game formis lethal. The track begins with nearly a minute of piano-and-string-section goop, and for that minute, you, the fake guitarist, have nothing to do but idly stare at your fake band and the fake crowd, none of whom has anything to do either, but all of whom are strangely still acting like they’re rocking out, the fake band strutting and stomping about, the fake crowd whooping and headbanging to what might as well be Yanni. It all feels very, very sarcastic. Hard to conceive of a song called “The Unforgiven III” as a fount of unintentional humor, but there you go.
The other major problem here is “Suicide and Redemption,” a 10-minute dirge offered in the game as two separate tracks: James’ part and Kirk’s part. The former is painfully dull; the latter is painfully dull for seven minutes, and then suddenly gets incredibly fucking hard. Endless blistering triplets that shut you down and get your ass booed offstage instantly. The third time I slogged through what seemed like a half-hour of quasi-melodic farting just to get abruptly vaporized and subsequently informed that I’d only made it through 70 percent of the song was awfully demoralizing. How can I accurately review this record without hearing that last 30 percent? What if there’s a Balkan brass breakdown or a Lil Wayne cameo or something? You mean I have to downgrade and go through this bullshit on medium difficulty? That’s even more boring and demoralizing! But finally, just once, with artfully deployed star power and an inelegant, button-mashing, hail-Mary fusillade, I emerged victorious on the other side . . . and endured another unremarkable three minutes of quasi-melodic farting. I’ve got a great idea for the plot of “The Unforgiven IV.”
But Death Magnetic—and this truly bizarre way to experience it—is all about redemption, and for that, we’ve got “Cyanide”: a terse main riff, repetitive enough to get really good at but not tired of, coupled to James’ typically dopey lyrics (“Cyanide! Living dead inside! Break this empty shell forevermore!”). It’s maudlin high-school poetry as always, but perfect in this context—every note assigned a candy-colored button, band and audience alike rendered as goofy cartoons. It’s a toy, a cheap thrill, and oddly perfect. When the loopy solo hits, tilt that plastic axe upward, deploy star power and pray for the best. If you can’t ride the lightning, maybe you can ride it out.