Let’s talk about a subject that’s near and dear to every Metallica fan: post-traumatic stress disorder.
The hippocampus is a region of the brain (embedded within the temporal lobe) involved in memory consolidation and contextualization. PTSD sufferers have reduced hippocampal volume, which means (neuroscientists conjecture) their brains are less able to instantiate past trauma as a memory, as opposed to an active, ongoing event.
Put more simply: where most people know that bad memories are in the past and cannot harm them, PTSD sufferers don’t. The mind endlessly relives horrors, spiraling around them like a record stuck in a groove. Again and again, the memory breaks free, pouring out of containment like corrosive acid. Fists clench. The breath hitches. The heart thunders in the chest. The blood seems to scream. They cannot move on and heal. According to their damaged temporal lobe, the traumatic event is happening right now.
Why do I mention this? For obvious reasons: it describes Metallica’s career.
All bands have a story – one partly based on facts, and partly based on public perception. But Metallica’s story stopped progressing in 2003. Yes, they kept on doing things. But for many of us, our subconscious image of the band is frozen eternally in 2003, like a PTSD victim’s memory of trauma.
Once, Metallica made sense. Their early career has a narrative arc so sharp and defined that feels almost written, like a Hollywood screenplay (soon it might become one). They exploded out the gate in 1981, four scrappy youngsters with something to prove. They went on a monumental hot streak, releasing four LPs now regarded as some of the finest ever made in heavy metal. They pioneered an exciting new style (Bay Area thrash metal), and broke it to the mainstream.
Tragedy struck in 1986, but they soldiered on (“back to the front!”), reaching still greater heights of mainstream success. The Black Album has sold an astonishing 22.7 million copies. To put that in perspective, if all of those albums were stacked in a pile, it would be a pile 22.7 million albums high.
Then the next arc of their story began: the collapse.
They cut their hair and lost the plot. They released discs of idiotic grunge rock, played said grunge rock with an orchestra, sued fans, went to rehab, almost tore their own band apart with infighting, recorded “Mama Said” and “I Disappear” and several other crimes against humanity, and generally alienated a lot of their old audience. They spent the entirety of 1996-2002 as a self-parody, stepping on rake after rake, becoming a bigger joke by the day.
They hit rock bottom with 2003’s St Anger, an album so profoundly and deeply hated that it’s actually kind of loved. People can step you through St Anger and point out all the terrible parts, moment by moment. There are fan projects on Youtube that “fix” St Anger with guitar solos and better production. I mean, come on. Nobody does that stuff for an album they don’t secretly admire, right?
St Anger was such an incredibly shitty CD that it hit Metallica fans like a hippocampus-shredding trauma event. No matter how many years (and new albums) pass, our collective image of Metallica remains “the band that just released St Anger, and now must redeem themselves.”
Read the Metal-Archives reviews of Death Magnetic or Beyond Magnetic or Hardwired…to Self-Destruct or Lulu. St Anger appears as an endless comparison. It’s become the reference point that all Metallica albums are judged against. In our hearts (if not our heads) Metallica is still a barely-functional clown-car disaster that sues Napster and steps on rakes.
The problem: all that stuff happened at least twenty years ago.
Metallica has existed for forty-two years. Imagine a timeline of their career: all of the classic albums are packed into the first 16.667% of that line. Cliff Burton died at the 11.905% mark. The Black Album came out at the 23.81% mark. Load/Reload came out at the 35.714% mark. St Anger came out at the 52.38% mark.
Doesn’t that hurt your brain? In what universe is Load an early Metallica album? How can St Anger, the definitive example of a shitty late Metallica album, be at the exact middle of their career? Surely it’s not possible that Robert Trujillo has been Metallica’s bassist for longer than Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted combined? It doesn’t make any sense, yet this is the world we live in.
Time is moving on, but the Metallica story isn’t. Nobody can let that 2003 image go. Metallica will forever be the band that made St Anger.
But moving on from trauma requires accepting that it isn’t your fault. If Metallica’s narrative isn’t progressing, that’s on them. They have to give us a reason to actually update it, and so far they haven’t. For twenty years, they’ve offered up ghosts and hints of former glory (and another terrible album in Lulu), but they still haven’t come back.
With that in mind, does 72 Seasons do the job, and finally end the St Anger trauma cycle?
Well, it’s easily the best Metallica album of the decade so far. But since it’s their only album of the decade, it’s also the worst. So maybe that’s a bad angle of analysis.
It has a shitty title, a bad cover, and music that falls well short of expectations a fan of the classic albums might hold. Like Death Magnetic and Hardwired…to Self Destruct, it avoids colossal miscalculations like nu metal or country music, yet it’s still not a return to thrash metal.
Its basic tonal characteristic is “Load, with some thrash riffs and fast songs”. And even if you want that, this is a flawed presentation of that idea. 72 Seasons is basically ruined by three problems.
Problem #1: The songs are far too long
Straight off the jump we get “72 Seasons”, an absolutely killer track. No, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s one of the best things they’ve recorded in decades. The band is simply on fire here. The riffs crush and slash. It’s energetic as hell, and there’s real drama in the dynamics and performance. Even James Hetfield’s vocals are awesome, and I’ll be damned if that’s a sentence I planned on writing in 2023.
…but after it finished at 7:39, my thought was “that song could have been 4 minutes long”.
This was a troubling premonition of things ahead. The whole album has an unedited feel, like a padded student essay. Riffs repeat more times than they need to. Bridges devolve into unfocused jam sessions that nobody seems to know how to end. At least “72 Seasons” is strong enough to survive overexposure. This can’t be said for most of the rest.
Tracks like “Screaming Suicide” and “If Darkness Had a Son” just meander around, getting steadily more lost in vague chuggy gloop. The riffs are unmemorable, and the band has seemingly forgotten how to write a chorus. “Sleepwalk My Life Away” has an interesting intro, full of coiled menace, like a snake about to strike. Then the song starts, and it’s the most complacent, self-satisfied drivel you’ve heard this side of Load. Just bland groovy mainstream rock that goes on for 7:30 and would have been overlong at any length. “You Must Burn!” sounds like “Sad but True”, stretched out on a rack. Seven more minutes of groove riffs.
Then we get “Fixxxer, part II”…or “Inamorata”, as I believe it’s called. Is that chorus worth eleven minutes of your life? Is any of it worth eleven minutes of your life?
Not all the songs are duds. “Too Far Gone?” is a vocal-driven punk rock song akin to Bad Religion, and “Room of Mirrors” is an uptempo thrasher. Both of these songs have solid hooks and strong performances from James, but even here, there’s unnecessary flab. The band is too big to need to edit, but they should have considered it.
Roger Ebert once described a boring movie (I don’t remember which one) as being like waiting for a bus in a part of town where you’re not sure there’s a bus line. That’s a great way to put the album. Sometimes inspired ideas come, other times not, but it’s always a chore waiting for them.
Problem #2: The production is awful
The album disagrees with my ears in a way that’s hard to articulate. It’s clean and polished and technically “good”, but there’s a cheap nastiness to it, too. Trust me: you will get sick of how the album sounds after seventy-seven minutes.
Hetfield’s guitar tone is overprocessed dogshit. Again, it’s hard to explain what’s wrong, but for guitar nerds out there…you know the sound you get when you plug your guitar into a Tubescreamer, set the gain to 0, dime out the tone and level, and plug it into a high-gain amp? Congrats, that’s the 72 Seasons guitar tone. Really thin and dull, with no depth or chunk or sustain to the sound. Has James blown out his hearing? Even the St Anger guitar tone was better than this.
Once again, Lars Ulrich is mixed far too loud, if we are kind enough to assume it’s even him playing (the drums on “Lux Aeterna” are either programmed or so robotically performed that they might as well be). I don’t hate Ulrich as much as some do, but he’s not the kind of musician you want to hang your entire sound around.
He stands out as a particularly insufferable presence on “Inamorata”. The bridge has a nifty talk-and-response interplay between the guitars and Trujillo’s bass (it reminds me of “Orion”‘s bridge), but I can hardly hear what’s happening, because Lars’s hi-hats are mixed so fucking loud.
Most of the blame belongs to Greg Fidelman, one of metal’s biggest hacks. He ruined Slayer’s World Painted Blood, he helped ruin Black Sabbath’s 13, and now he’s here to deep-six Metallica too. A Rick Rubin disciple to the core, his style is smooth, commercial metal with zero edge or balls. I am convinced he a covert K-pop operative on a mission to sabotage as many metal bands as he can, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t succeeding.
Problem #3: the band has no identity anymore.
St Anger was no misunderstood gem, but at least it was bold and decisive. It picked a direction and stuck to it. But 72 Seasons, like Hardwired before it, is very uncertain about what it is.
Thrash metal does not sound good when mixed with modern rock, and when the two styles are combined in one song it almost tears the song in two. The excessive length ruins the fast songs and further deadens the groovy rock tracks. The attempts at going back to their roots are undercut by the shiny modern production. Everything in this album is at war with everything else.
“Lux Aeterna” is a song I’ve avoided discussing at length, because it exhibits the album’s divided character the best. It finds the band in full Diamond Head parody mode. The riffs and energy and speed are beamed straight in from 1980, and it’s thrilling to hear.
…But the old-school style songwriting clashes horribly with Greg Fidelman’s production job. The mix needs to be rough and raw and drenched in reverb, like old-school NWOBMH. But all you can think about is how obnoxiously slick it sounds, and how fake and processed the drums are.
The lyrics are just word salad that sound like they were written by ChatGPT. Once, Metallica’s songs were about things. Even instrumental tracks like “Call of Ktulu” and “To Live is to Die” had little filaments of meaning trailing off them, inviting you into a world beyond the song. Now, it’s just James issuing portentous mumblecore at you. “Traumatic! Dogmatic! Volcanic! Psychotic!” Shut up.
So that’s 72 Seasons. It’s long, it’s a slog, and it’s only occasionally worth the effort.
Metallica is so associated with dramas, scandals and stupidity that they really need to regain some semblance of their former greatness. Makeweight efforts won’t cut it. If they want to retain their title as metal’s biggest band, they can’t merely just be okay.
It’s just a continuation of the two albums before it, and presents a picture of a band floating in limbo, unwilling to commit to a sound or a style. Death Magnetic and Hardwired…to Self-Destruct run for a combined two hours and thirty minutes, and have about eight or nine good songs between them, most of which are still flawed in some way. 72 Seasons adds perhaps three more to the pile. It’s probably the worst of the post-St Anger releases (aside from Lulu), and unlike that album, it lacks even the bravery to be truly and memorably bad. This is just another milquetoast effort, doing what it needs to do – barely.
As future decades roll by, Metallica’s discography will be forgotten in reverse, starting with their later releases, but with some of their earliest albums being the last to disappear from memory (and St Anger, of course.)
This will not make the cut. The band still hasn’t found a way outside its self-inflicted trauma loop. As noted psychologist J. Alan Hetfield astutely observed in his seminal 1997 text, “Fortune fame, mirror vain, gone insane / But the memory remains”.$i;?>
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