Friday, April 21, 2023

Review: Metallica, "72 Seasons"

Metallica’s 72 Seasons will, no doubt, be one of the most loved metal albums of the year. It will also be one of the most hated.

That’s the spot the band has found itself in with every album released since the early ’90s. (Except maybe St. Anger, which is pretty much reviled by most.) You could make the argument that it goes back farther than that. There are fans that will say And Justice for All was the beginning of the end because they did a music video for “One,” and I’ve heard arguments at one time or another as to why every album since Kill ‘Em All has sucked.

I’m guilty, too. I was furious when the self-titled Black Album came out in 1991, and all of a sudden people who had been making fun of me for listening to Metallica for years were driving around blasting “Enter Sandman.” I felt strangely betrayed. I dislike the song immensely to this day, though I did eventually come around to the album with time. Since then, it’s been a mixed bag for me.

I still don’t speak of Load, I like St. Anger more than most people, I really liked Death Magnetic, and I thought Hardwired was middle-of-the-road with four or five good songs and a bunch that I don’t even remember seven years later.

But 72 Seasons is head and shoulders above all of those records since 1991. There’s an energy to the songs here that I haven’t felt in Metallica for more than 30 years. It’s a celebration of everything they’ve done over the years – good, bad and ugly – as well as a tribute to much of the music that they love with plenty of nods to Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, NWOBHM bands and even later acts like Alice in Chains.

When I say that it’s a mix of everything they’ve done, I don’t mean there are songs on the album that sound like something off Master of Puppets. That ship sailed a long time ago, and it ain’t coming back. What I mean is that there are flavors of everything that they’ve done. Take, for example, the main riff of “Lux Aeterna.” If it was presented with the guitar tones and production of Kill ‘Em All, it would not be at all out of place on that album.

72 Seasons is peppered with those. I even hear a few St. Anger bits, though those are few and far between. Most obvious, naturally, are the nods to the Black Album, and this record is filled with them. From the chugging e-chord of “You Must Burn!” that brings to mind “Sad But True,” to the main riff of “Sleepwalk My Life Away” which is essentially “Enter Sandman” with the serial numbers scraped off, to the melodic and lyrical tip of the hat to “My Friend of Misery” on album-closer “Inamorata,” they’re not even hiding the attempt to draw the parallels.

Metallica kicks off 72 Seasons the same way that they closed Hardwired, with a blazing heavy thrasher right out of the gate in the title track. If you were listening to the albums in order, “Spit Out the Bone” from Hardwired would feed right into this one seamlessly. It’s an opening salvo that makes the statement that even though they’re not going back to those old-school thrash roots, they haven’t forgotten them – and they’re no longer trying to hide from them.

Second track “Shadows Follow” continues in a similar vein. It has a little more of a Black Album sound to it, but the thrashy elements are also heavily in play. It’s the strongest 1-2 punch to kick off a Metallica album possibly since the “Blackened”/“… And Justice for All” combo in 1988. They stick with the speedier side of things for third track, “Screaming Suicide.” In my opinion, it was the weakest of the four songs they released prior to the full album, but it’s grown on me in context.

From there, things settle down into a more mid-tempo pace beginning with “Sleepwalk My Life Away.” As I previously mentioned, the main riff of this one is a modified “Enter Sandman,” and they’re even giving the eye-wink on it with the related titles. As we get to the bridge and chorus, though, “Sleepwalk” pulls in more of the hard-rock influences of the Load / Re-Load era. It’s one of my least favorite tracks, for obvious reasons given the description and my above statements, but it’s still not bad at all. And even if it had been, that would have been forgiven when “You Must Burn!” cranks up next.

This is absolutely one of my favorite songs on 72 Seasons. “You Must Burn!” has that open plodding e-chord chug of “Sad But True,” as I noted, but the real influence here is Sabbath. The slab of power chord riffage beneath the verse and chorus drips with Tony Iommi essence, and even the lyrics offer a nod to the originators. But then let’s talk about what happens after the second verse when Metallica delivers another Black Sabbath-inspired riff overlayed by a very un-Metallica higher-pitched vocal.

Then the true treat of the song arrives, a bluesy groove that kicks in around the 4:26 mark that is, I believe, the best groove that’s ever appeared on a Metallica album – and it features a rare Kirk Hammett use of a wah pedal for its intended purpose rather than just as color for his solos (although, he uses it that way, too). “You Must Burn!” alone is worth the price of 72 Seasons in my mind.

Not to let things get settled in too much, they speed things back up with lead single “Lux Aeterna,” which James Hetfield revealed was his choice for the title of the record. The song was a perfect pick to introduce 72 Seasons. It has a raw rock ‘n’ roll energy that’s been missing from the band for a while in my opinion. It really does have that Kill ‘Em All feel with the blend of riffs that borrow heavily from late ’70s / early ’80s British metal and a punkish attitude. If you gave it the right mix, tone and James Hetfield barking out vocals like he used to, I’m 100 percent convinced that it would fit on their first record.

The back half of the album doesn’t have quite as many highlights as the front half, but there’s not anything that I’d consider awful here. “Crown of Barbed Wire” offers up a blend of ’70s influences and Alice in Chains flavor. Honestly, when Hetfield moans out “So tight, this crown of barbed wire” – not so much the first time, but the later instances in the song – it makes me really wish we could hear the late Layne Staley deliver the line in a guest shot.

“Chasing Light” is another melding of Black Album and Load eras, but it has a great riff and an interesting chorus that’s again a little out of character for the band. Of the four early release songs, “If Darkness Had a Son” was probably the most one-note performance, but there’s something almost hypnotic about the song for me with Hetfield’s open e-string chugs and the lead lick that Hammett lays over them.

If there’s a song on 72 Seasons that might get the skip button from me, it’s “Too Far Gone?” It has a nice riff, and there’s a cool nod to Thin Lizzy in there, but it’s the one here that’s just not for me. “Room of Mirrors” brings back the Kill ‘Em All feel in the rhythm section of Lars Ulrich and Rob Trujillo. That piece is very reminiscent of “Motorbreath,” though nothing else about the song is as Hetfield sings a fairly melodic verse with a lyrical nod to Death Magnetic.

72 Seasons closes just as strong as it opened with the 11-minute “Inamorata,” which deserves all the praise that it will get in some circles. Another Black Sabbath-influenced slab of slower-paced metal, this is the longest song Metallica has ever recorded – but doesn’t really feel like it. Their 1970s hard rock influences come to play all over this track, and yes, there’s a lot of Load in it, too, but I’m willing to overlook that this once. There’s an interlude in which Ulrich and Trujillo take center stage that puts me in mind of the slower portion of Judas Priest’s “Victim of Changes” when Hetfield begins singing. Coming out of that, the remainder of “Inamorata” is very Thin Lizzy-influenced (minus a dip back into Sabbath for the chorus again).

Outside of the songs, another thing to note is that 72 Seasons sounds really good. Metallica has a not-so-great latter-day history with production – from the infamous garbage can snares of St. Anger to the too-loud clipping of Death Magnetic. They’ve fixed that here with a mix that could be compared to Bob Rock’s work on the Black Album.

When 72 Seasons closes, I immediately want to dive in again and give it another listen. That hasn’t happened with a Metallica record in a long time, not even Death Magnetic, which was my favorite of the post-1992 albums by a long shot.

Many metal fans will have made up their mind long before any music from this album was released that they hated it, and that’s fine. I’d love to have another incredible thrash record from Metallica, too. But if you’re looking for a 1980s thrash record, I’d suggest you check out Overkill’s Scorched which was released on the same day as 72 Seasons. It’s quite good and very much the ‘80s thrash that they’ve always done. Metallica isn’t that band anymore and never will be.

What Metallica is, however, is a band that sounds like they’re having fun making music again. 72 Seasons has great energy, and I love how they’ve packed it with little Easter eggs, both musical and lyrical for fans. Is it the equal of any of their first five records? No. Is it the best thing they’ve done since those five albums? In my opinion, absolutely – and it’s not that close.

Debate that all you want. While you’re arguing, I’m going to be over here banging my head and enjoying Metallica like I haven’t in many years.

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