It still boggles my mind just how big Metallica got. It's not that they didn't deserve it—those of us listening early on knew that they were gamechangers—but that they've achieved a level of success that's unparalleled for heavy music. People will happily splurge on expensive Metallica tickets who have no interest in listening to metal because it's Metallica and I'm sure that will hold true even as they return to the thrash metal from those early years. I wonder what the naysayers who felt that the band had betrayed their roots when they went commercial with the Black Album think of this.
Now, it has problems so it's not a match for any of those original four releases, but it reaches their heights at points and does so in much the same way that they did. The opening title track is maybe a little cleaner in production than Master of Puppets but it wouldn't be out of place on that album and that's high praise indeed. Initial single Lux Æterna is the closest they've sounded to Diamond Head since Kill 'em All and it has all the energy that came pouring off their debut, which came out an almost unfathomable forty years ago this year.
That all suggests that this is aiming at nostalgia and that's partly true but the album is at its best when it's looking way back or looking forward. 72 Seasons took me back to the eighties and Tommy Vance playing something from an upcoming album on The Friday Rock Show and I couldn't wait for the show to finish so I could fast forward through my tape to listen to it again. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard One; it was that impactful a moment. But the intro to Sleepwalk My Life Away is new, a combination of prominent bass, unusual drum rhythms and memorable rhythm guitar, all building to Steve Vai-esque stunt guitarwork. It's moments like this that stand out here, but we have to wait until the end of the album for another one.
Of course, not everything is up to that standard. Sleepwalk My Life Away drifts on and other songs aren't as ambitious to begin with. Shadows Follow feels too long at six minutes, a problem that the album struggles with throughout, while Screaming Suicide feels too derivative of earlier Metallica songs. It's like It's Electric crossed with Through the Never. It sounds good but I still can't hear it as its own song rather than a couple of earlier ones. You Must Burn! is the first of a few plodders that I can take or leave. They do this well and there are points when it prowls menacingly, but mostly it just feels like it's played in bold print for no reason other than emphasis.
Those first half dozen tracks tally up thirty-six minutes and there are plenty of entire albums that wrap up sooner than that, but this one's not even half done. Perhaps because they spend so much time touring and the years add up between albums, they feel the need to make them generous. In this case, there are forty minutes still to come over a further six songs and it ends up feeling quite a lot, especially when they kick off with more plodders in Crown of Barbed Wire and Chasing Light. The biggest problem the second half has, though, is that it's much less versatile in approach than the first half, so that the songs blur together.
Now, it's all immediately recognisable as Metallica and it's enjoyable enough. It's certainly easy to listen to, but nothing stands out until we get to Room of Mirrors, which is a long way. This one's an up-tempo song that feels light on its feet and Kirk Hammett delivers a neat extended guitar solo, but it takes almost twenty-five minutes for the second side to get to it. I wonder if these songs are able to stand out if heard in isolation, like on the radio. Certainly I heard a teasing amount of Thin Lizzy in Too Far Gone? and I'll check that out separately to see how well it plays on its own merits. Is that going to apply to the other songs on the second side? I don't know yet.
And, sixty-four minutes into the album, Metallica start up Inamorata, which is the longest song on any Metallica album at over eleven minutes and it's worth waiting for. It's slower than the rest of the album, but it has quite the story arc. Initially, it's a doom metal song and a lively one too, and, whenever it threatens to descend back into plodding mode, it does something interesting. Around the five minute mark, it drops into mellow Black Sabbath and the build back out is a tasty one. It's something new from Metallica, even if it looks a long way back for its inspiration, and it's welcome.
And so, this is excellent when it's feeling extra-nostalgic and it's great when it's imaginative, but it isn't either of those things for long enough. It's a good album, don't get me wrong, but there are a few points where it threatens to be something much more than that but never sustains it.