The Thing That Should Not Be
Against All Odds, Metallica's Death Magnetic is Amazing

This is my 400th column.

I’m coming right up on the end of my eighth year doing this thing, and if all proceeds the way it’s supposed to, I’ll hit 500 sometime in August of my 10th year. That’s a tremendous amount of time to dedicate to a single project, but when I look back at the best stuff I’ve done here since 2000, I’m pretty proud of it. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.

So here’s my semi-annual thank you to everyone who’s been along for this ride. New converts, longtime readers, what have you – I’m glad you’re here. This would be pretty pointless without you, and I appreciate the friends I’ve made through this column, and the letters I receive on a regular basis. Music is the best, as the man once said, and I’m grateful I get to share my love of it with you, and hear about your love of it in return.

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I got the strangest e-mail from Marillion this week.

As any longtime reader knows, Marillion is pretty high on my list of favorite bands. They’re also one of the most forward-looking, all-inclusive, cutting-edge marketing machines on the planet, and they never fail to surprise me on that score. From album pre-orders to concert subscription services to free samplers for new listeners to revolutionary fan-powered enterprises, this is a band that has remained completely independent for many years mainly by being unbelievably imaginative.

Their 15th album, Happiness is the Road, is weeks away from release. Here is a rundown of some of the extraordinary things they’ve done so far to make this an experience for the fans. First, they held another pre-order, and somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 fans ponied up for the new record before a single note was recorded. They used that money to make the record, and to pay for gorgeous packaging – two hardcover books in a thick slipcase, loaded with images. Then, they listed the names of everyone who pre-ordered in the liner notes.

They held a couple of drawings for pre-orderers, the most interesting of which offered a chance to play on the new album. One lucky woman got to travel to the Racket Club, Marillion’s studio, and play finger cymbals on “Essence,” one of the new tracks. A couple of months ago, the band launched another contest, this one on YouTube – fans were given a new song for free, and asked to create their own video for it and post it online. The video with the most views by the end of the year will get $10,000, and an additional 10 grand will go to the band’s favorite entry.

All of this is brilliant grass-roots marketing, but it wasn’t until this week that I realized just how far outside the box they’ve been thinking. Knowing full well that this new album would hit file-sharing sites within hours of promo copies being sent out, the band decided to distribute the album on those sites themselves. Or, more accurately, they asked us, their fans, to do it.

Their e-mail, sent just to those of us who pre-ordered, offered a chance to download the entire new album (all 110 minutes of it) for ourselves, and then download and distribute separate specially-coded files of all of the songs. These files will direct downloaders to another site, where they will be asked to enter an e-mail address, and be given the option to pay for the track. They don’t have to pay anything, but the files they download are heavily DRM-encoded, which means they can’t be burned to a disc or transferred to an iPod.

The idea, apparently, is to flood file-sharing sites with these files, so they will drown out the inevitable DRM-free leak of the album. At the very least, the band reasons, they’ll get e-mail addresses out of it, and can hopefully encourage those people to buy a concert ticket, or another album from the band’s site. The decision to let the pre-orderers download clean copies for themselves must have been a difficult one – the band knew just how upset some fans would be if they gave the new record away for free to everyone who wanted it, so this is a courtesy if anything, but they must also know that these clean files will find their way to the same sites as the encoded ones.

It’s a bold idea, though, and I hope it works for them. The publicity it’s generated can be a good and bad thing – it’s drawn more attention to the little band that could, and hopefully will drive up sales from people like me who hate file-sharing and all it represents, but now that the freeloaders know these files are out there, they’ll likely find them a lot easier to avoid, especially if clean files are on the same sites. I wish Marillion every success with what could not have been an easy course to chart.

As for me, I wouldn’t know how to upload files if you paid me, so I just took my free download and left it at that. I hope that’s okay with the band – I’ve pre-ordered Happiness twice, actually, to have it in deluxe and standard packaging, and I promise all I’ve been doing is listening to the clean files, not sharing them. (Well, I’ve been playing them for people too, but not sharing the files… you know what I mean.) I thought about waiting for my pre-order to arrive, but I’m a weak, weak man. And besides, I could get into some freak accident and die before it shows up, missing my chance to hear it at all.

Does that rationalization work for you? Because it worked for me.

I’ll give a full review of Happiness is the Road next month. I’m grateful for the extra time with it, honestly, because in six or so listens, I’ve gone from “This is monotonous, boring dreck” to “This is one of the best albums they’ve ever made,” and I think it’s slowly starting to click. It’s a Marillion album unlike any other, and at the same time, it’s very much what they do. I can’t wait to hear the real thing.

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This one’s for Steve Pelland.

I was 14 years old when …And Justice for All, the fourth Metallica album, was released. It was one of the first albums I remember waiting for, and buying as soon as it came out. It was also the first Metallica album I heard all the way through – I’d heard scattered songs, like “Fade to Black” and “The Four Horsemen,” but never an entire record. And as a church-going teen, it was something of a scary endeavor. I actually hesitated pressing play that first time, but I’d heard over and over again that Metallica was the best band in the world, and I had to find out if that was true.

If you’ve never heard it, …And Justice for All is an amazing, oppressive, dark, difficult, poorly-mixed album of intensely complicated metal. It was Metallica’s first record after the death of their original bassist, Cliff Burton, and they clearly felt they had something to prove – there is nothing fun about this album at all, and it’s 65 minutes long. It’s a punishing experience, an exhausting first go-round for a newbie.

But it led me to the Holy Trilogy, the Burton albums: 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, 1984’s Ride the Lightning, and 1986’s incredible Master of Puppets, considered by many the best metal album ever made. It’s hard to argue – Puppets is a progressive masterpiece, as complex and beautiful as it is heavy and angry. Metallica gets credit for being louder and faster than most other bands, but they’re not usually thought of as melodic, and they never really get props for the prettier moments on their records, like the intro to “Battery” and the glorious middle section of “Orion.”

Anyway. As I was absorbing these monumental records (and finding more artists like Metallica to enjoy), I met Steve Pelland. He worked with me at a local grocery store while we were both in high school, and we bonded over (you guessed it) Metallica. And Megadeth, and Testament, and a few other bands too, but mostly Metallica. He was my best teenage metalhead friend. So when Metallica announced their new album in 1991, a self-titled affair with an all-black cover, well, Pell and I had to hear it together.

We’d heard “Enter Sandman,” of course, and while we made excuses for it, we knew it wasn’t the Metallica we loved. The rest of the Black Album was the same – simple songs, often based around one riff, most of them around five minutes long. I can say this now, although I couldn’t say it then – it was boring. There were good points: the riff on “Sad But True” remains a monster, and “Nothing Else Matters” is still the prettiest thing the band has done. But it was lacking, and we were disappointed.

Steve and I went our separate ways when I took off for college, and I never really got to hear what he thought of where our favorite band went after that. It turns out, the Black Album was the template for everything else for more than 10 years. Load and ReLoad were simplistic boogie-rock, taking much of their sound from ‘70s radio. They were probably fun to make, but they weren’t much fun to listen to.

And St. Anger, the “comeback” album from 2003, clearly wasn’t a good time for anyone. That record brought back the aggressive vibe of the old days, but crippled it with terrible songs, insanely bad production and the incredible decision to excise Kirk Hammett’s solos from the process. It’s still the Metallica album I play the least.

It’s fair to call me a long-suffering Metallica fan, and I’d bet Pell feels the same way. I approach each new Metalliproject with skepticism and cynicism now – I’ve been burned too many times. Will I buy every new album from the band? Sure. Do I expect to enjoy them? Not really.

I can’t say I went into Death Magnetic, the just-released ninth Metallica record, with any real hope. Our boys are old now – they’re all in their mid-40s, even new bassist Robert Trujillo, and long past their metal sell-by date. Then there’s that title. Death Magnetic doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. It’s certainly not a statement like Kill ‘Em All or …And Justice For All. And then there was the St. Anger experience, which has taught me to ignore any and all claims that the band has “recaptured their old fire.” My mantra has become “I’ll believe that when I hear it.”

Well, sit down, Metallifans. I’ve just heard it, and I believe it.

Death Magnetic is the best Metallica album in 20 years, the best thing they’ve done since Justice, easy.

I know, I know, hard to believe. But they’ve done it. They’ve made a stone cold classic album, two decades after their last one. Credit producer Rick Rubin, who unfailingly brings out the best in his clients. But also credit James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, who turned in their best batch of songs since the Reagan years, and credit the whole band for playing these songs so tightly, so powerfully. I hope it’s not an insult to say they sound half their age on this thing.

Just listen to opener “That Was Just Your Life,” and your faith will be restored. After a lengthy, doomy intro played on clean guitars, that riff starts up, and Ulrich hammers his drums, first in straight time, then in “FUCK YEAH!” thrashy double-time. The song takes a hundred hairpin turns – it’s as progressive as anything on Justice, and as heavy. Despite their reputation as speed-happy screamers, Metallica has always been a melodies band, and they don’t disappoint here – these explosive metal epics have choruses and hooks, too, and this one’s is awesome.

And then, of course, there is Hammett. He’s unleashed here for the first time in a decade, and his solos are massive. The brief one in “That Was Just Your Life” ends with a classic Hammett whammy-bar divebomb, and I couldn’t keep the goofy grin from my face. My inner metalhead’s favorite band is so very, very back.

The rest of the album is, astonishingly, just as good. I chuckled a bit at the title of “All Nightmare Long,” but it turned out to be my favorite thing here. The chorus is somewhat nu-Metallica, but the verses and instrumental sections are right out of the classic era. “The Day That Never Comes” resembles “One” a little much, but its second half shreds. Most of these songs break seven minutes, and unlike the endless dirges on St. Anger, they deserve that length. Hell, there’s a 10-minute instrumental (“Suicide and Redemption”), on which you can really hear how good Trujillo is, and it rocks.

There is one speed bump, and if you’ve glanced at the track list, you can probably guess what it is. “The Unforgiven III” is a slower power-ballad kind of thing, and it doesn’t quite belong amidst all these complex epics. I have not yet (ahem) forgiven the original “Unforgiven” for inspiring Nickelback’s whole career, and the sequel (on ReLoad) wasn’t worth my time either. Happily, the third one is the best of the bunch, but its orchestral touches and slow power chords drag the record down.

It’s not fatal, however, and it is the only low point on an album full of highs. Even simple pieces like “Cyanide” drip attitude and confidence, two things missing from every album since 1988. And trickier ones, like “The End of the Line,” sound so damn good you’ll think you’re listening to some mythical lost album from the golden years. They couldn’t have picked a better closing song than “My Apocalypse,” sort of a five-minute coda – it fills the same role as “Damage Inc.” and “Dyer’s Eve,” bringing the album to a crashing, heart-stopping halt.

I don’t know if Steve Pelland’s bought this thing yet, but he’s going to love it. I know, I know, I didn’t believe it either, especially after the band whined their way through Some Kind of Monster and started suing their fans. But somehow, they’ve done it. For the first time in 20 years, Metallica has made a great album, and as a long-frustrated fan, I’m pleased to report that it’s safe to come back now. Is it as good as the Holy Trilogy? Of course not. But you won’t believe how good it actually is.

Pell, let me know when you’ve heard it. I can’t wait to hear what you think.

Next week, Lindsey Buckingham and Amanda Palmer.

See you in line Tuesday morning.