Sound — 6
One thing right away - the album is not very well produced. Rick Rubin is of course not responsible for this, as he didn't engineer it. At times it's a bit too loud, gets a bit fizzy and as often is the case with Metallica's albums, it's basically guitar-snare-vocals. Lars' drumsound is very loud and occupies a large portion of the spectrum, while Hetfield/Hammett hog most of the rest and Trujillo is not as prominent as one could wish. Lars' infamous "St. Anger" - snare is gone, but I still find his snare on "Death Magnetic" leaving some to be desired. Lars has also always opted for a more thumpy and wet bassdrum, which in turn makes it sound a bit muddy in the low end.
Rhythm guitars on the other hand are tighter than a gnats behind and sound absolutely killer. It's a classic thrash sound in a modern costume. As far as production goes, it's not a great one, it's barely good and I certainly would expect more from a band of this stature.
Lyrics — 7
One of the things that bothered me the most on "St. Anger" were the, at times, atrocious lyrics. I'm glad to say that James Hetfield is, if not back to his '80s form, penning some good, solid lyrics again. The topic most of the album deals with is, as the title indicates, death. Nothing new under sun but it's not so much what you say but how you say it. There're plenty of catchy lines to be found, like "Bow down, sell your soul to me, I will set you free" in "The Judas Kiss" or the catchy-yet-somewhat-daft-sounding chorus in "Cyanide." While Hetfield doesn't reach the heights of some of his finer works such as "...And Justice For All," "Master of Puppets" or "The Outlaw Torn," he can't be found guilty of putting together a lyric that hurts the song.
The vocal delivery is also fairly solid. James sounds like, well, one could expect from a thrasher his age. He has lost some power and grit, but then again so do nigh all vocalists when they make it to the age of 40-something. I can certainly understand people who criticise his as times country-esque howl or the constant addition of "AH!!" to every other line. But does it bother me? Not so much, but one should also note that I'm accepting Hetfield's delivery for what it is, not praising it. It's fairly solid, at times he sounds great and at times he doesn't sound all that great. I find that as long as he sticks to barking out lyrics, like the verses in The End of The Line, it sounds pretty damn good. But it's far less pleasing when he tries to tap into a more singing, high pitched voice like on "The Unforgiven III." However, I'd rather have James doing a good, aggressive delivery with some weaker singing here and there, than the other way around.
Overall Impression — 8
Kirk Hammett a few weeks ago said something along the lines of "It's not that we couldn't do a riff/solo record anymore, it's just that we chose not to" when asked about the new album and the accusations they've had to stomach with their previous three or four albums. The general feeling I get when listening to "Death Magnetic" is that stylistically, you can trace the lineage from their '80s efforts to this. Heavy riffs, solos, harmonies, interesting arrangements and a riff-our-hearts-out attitude makes it possible to state that while "Death Magnetic" is not "...And Justice For All"'s younger brother, they're at least musically and stylistically related.
I'd argue that six or seven out of the ten songs are good-or-better. That's not a bad track record, and makes a good chunk of the album a very enjoyable listen. The instrumental "Suicide & Redemption" takes a good couple of minutes to achieve anything worth of notice, but the calm, quiet section with Hammett's melody guitar is one of Metallica's finer moments in a good 20 years or so. It's fair to say that a few songs don't deliver all that well ("The Unforgiven III" is, well, unforgiveable) and a good 10-15 minutes could've been scratched to make this 1.2 hours long album a bit less padded. Outstaying your welcome is one of the worst sins you can commit in my book, but the album opens with a strong barrage of songs and ends on a pretty high note with "My Apocalypse."
As for the individual efforts, well, Hetfield's vocals we've already talked about. Kirk Hammett is at times horrible and in other places pretty harmless. In my book, a solo should elevate the song and not just take up 12 or 18 bars of space to function as some kind of bridge, but rarely if at all does Hammett deliver a really, really tasty solo. The rhythmplaying is as one could expect, extremely solid, tight and punchy and there's nothing to complain about in that department. Rob Trujillo can't be praised or criticised of much, because he's fairly inaudible at most times, at least on my stereo system. Lars Ulrich, on the other and is very audible and that's a shame. Lars used to be a solid, if adventurous metal-drummer in the '80s but has now deteriorated to a shell of his former self. At best he's pretty harmless and doesn't hurt the song much, but some of the beats and grooves he's conjured up for this are just atrocious.
However, while there are individual efforts that deserve criticism, it should also be noted that Metallica in their prime never where a band with much individual flash and they achieved their greatness because of their strength as a band. And that's exactly the case with "Death Magnetic" - it's a solid effort by the group with a good number of catchy and interesting songs, some songs we definitely can do without, but as a whole it's a solid, mature effort well worthy of a band that's been around for a quarter of a century. "Death Magnetic" probably won't make my top 10 of the year, because in the grand world of metal, this is just another band and "Death Magnetic" is just another good-if-not-great album. But I think we can hand out the Feel-good Album of the Year-award right now. Welcome home Metallica. It's been far too long.