Good, Not Great: On “72 Seasons,” Metallica are Perhaps Too Comfortable (Review)
Managing expectations is essential when engaging with Metallica’s post-1991 output. You just can’t go into new material from the thrash titans expecting another …And Justice for All. You can’t expect a front-to-back thrash record, either. You can, however, expect the band to mostly stay in mid-tempo radio-thrash mode on new records. It’s just not in them anymore to play at redlining intensity. They’re done with that.
Now, they’re ambassadors of metal. They’ve been one of the biggest musical acts on Earth for three decades, having gone from band to brand, these days participating in awkward publicity like teasing a song on TikTok or doing a residency on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. It’s all a bit disappointing at this point.
Indeed, every release after their behemoth of a self-titled album has been a letdown for fans in some way; even Metallica itself was that for many. This is especially true for the 21st century. Their three albums—four, if you’re including the still-baffling Lulu from 2011—of original material since the turn of the century have all been rightly met with some combination of disillusionment, frustration, and regret.
Twenty oh three’s St. Anger was a tragic misstep into nu-metal: Enough said. The good-not-great follow-ups, 2008’s Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired... to Self-Destruct weren’t the return-to-form that was promised, even as their respective lead singles, “The Day That Never Comes” and “Hardwired,” telegraphed as much, setting the public up like Lucy with the football. Instead, the majority of those (overlong) albums was serviceable and mostly fun, thrash-adjacent metal and hard rock that borrowed heavily from the Load / ReLoad-era. Despite all that, both albums debuted at Number One, and both tours had nine-figure grosses.
So, of course, Metallica’s done that again with their equally good-not-great 11th album, 72 Seasons, and its gleeful, high-energy lead single, “Lux Æterna.” For three-and-a-half minutes, you’d think Metallica made a sequel to Kill ’Em All filtered through their late ’90s material. It’s an absurdly fun song, and it’ll likely sound even better in stadiums during the accompanying tour, functioning as the logical show-opener. The song’s placement in the middle of a 12-track, 77-minute album, then, feels calculated. Indeed, only one other song (“Too Far Gone?”) is under five-and-a-half minutes, and seven of them are six minutes or more. “Lux Æterna”’s inclusion and placement, then, seems less about album pacing than distraction—As in, you’re supposed to temporarily forget that the other 73-plus minutes are kind of a slog to get through in a single sitting.
And that’s because the other 11 songs are all some variation on the thrashy hard rock modeled after guaranteed hits like “Ain’t My Bitch” and “Fuel.” Which is to say: There are genuinely interesting ideas and some real fun contained within. James Hetfield has an innate ability to craft hooky guitar lines and riffs, and 72 Seasons has an abundance to be found; “Too Far Gone?” has multiple to itself. And while there aren’t any world-beating riffs that can compete with “For Whom the Bell Tolls” or “Enter Sandman,” Hefield and Kirk Hammett sound like they’re having a blast playing the slick riffing of “Chasing Light” and the sinister riffing of “Shadows Follow.” Hammett, too, offers some of his best solos in a quarter century for “Sleepwalk My Life Away” and “Inamorata.” Matching their enthusiasm is Lars Ulrich, who turns in some of his tightest playing ever on “Screaming Suicide,” “You Must Burn!,” and “Crown of Barbed Wire.”
The problem with 72 Seasons comes down to squandered resources. Much of the giddy performances throughout are undermined by paint-by-numbers songwriting that’s more focused on radio play than innovation. “Sleepwalk My Life Away,” for example, begins with a seriously fun groove, thanks to Rob Trujillo’s bass line, but it’s quickly wasted when the song flattens into a bland, hard rock number. Lars’ drumming on “You Must Burn!”—a highlight of the album—can’t save an otherwise plodding, forgettable track with no real hooks. Even with a success like “Chasing Light,” a song that manages to overcome the mid-tempo plod with multiple clever riffs, is marred by some deeply tortured yin-yang logic in the lyrics: “Struggle on, ’cause without darkness / Without darkness, there’s no light.”
Let’s talk about the lyrics. Hetfield always had a gift for distilling the results of humanity’s tendency—a predilection, even—towards self-harm and -destruction via war, religion, politics et al into pithy cynicism. He’s at his best when he’s exploring that as an apathetic father figure: “Bred to kill, not to care, do just as we say / Finished here, greeting death, he’s yours to take away,” “I see faith in your eyes / Broken is the promise—betrayal,” and “Seeking no truth, winning is all / Find it so grim, so true, so real.”
Since his victory over addiction and subsequent sobriety during the St. Anger sessions forward, though, Hetfield’s outlook has changed. Now, the darkness that’s caused all that death and destruction has become the focus, not its results. For the last few records, he’s been exploring the demons within us all and the internal battles we all fight against them. His (re)adjustment, and the courage that’s required, has come with some growing pains, to be sure.
“Worn out always being afraid / An endless stream of fear that I’ve made” from St. Anger became, “Like a poison that I swallow, but I want the world to die / Like a release from a prison that I didn’t know I was in” from Death Magnetic became, “Infamy / All for publicity / Destruction going viral” from Hardwired... to Self-Destruct.
Those growing pains are gone, mostly. On “Screaming Suicide,” for example, Hetfield explores the blackest of black thoughts with unflinching honesty: “Then my voice appears / Teaching you of fears / Are you good enough?,” the dark voice taunts. “You don’t recognize / Head is full of lies / You should just give up.” Then comes gaslighting: “Don’t ever speak my name / Remember you’re to blame.” The song would be among the darkest in Metallica’s catalog if not for the pivot towards hope (“And now you speak my name / You’ve given back the blame”), before concluding on a Tony Robbins-esque note: “Now that I’m exposed inside / Shined a light on cyanide / I’m no longer needed here / Now you’ve faced your biggest fear.”
Despite the occasionally inspirational tone (“Commiseration / Sonic salvation / Cast out the demons that strangle your life”), there’s a sense of inevitability and/or acceptance towards internal darkness throughout. This is a Metallica album, after all. When Hetfield’s narrator puts on the titular crown of barbed wire, it’s destiny that’s being worn. When his narrator tries to outrun a beast of darkness on “Shadows Follow,” it’s right behind him. When his narrator tries to shut his eyes, it’s a fruitless attempt to shield himself “from the fate.” He can’t ever stop running from that beast, either, because it’s always hungry and it won’t ever stop stalking its prey to “fulfill a destiny.” When misery comes up, it’s something that’s needed and loved by Hetfield’s narrator on “Inamorata” because there’s “comfort in the hell I know.”
But perhaps there’s too much comfort here. If the mention of misery reminded you of “My Friend of Misery,” that’s probably not an accident or a coincidence. 72 Seasons contains references or allusions to several classic Metallica songs including “Motorbreath” (“Full speed or nothing”), “Harvester of Sorrow” (suffering children, “Dragging home this heathen harvest”), and “Sad But True” (“I am desperation,” “I am isolation”).
And so we’re back to frustration: referencing better songs just invites a comparison, as well as a desire to hear those songs instead. Despite having many neat riffs, some inspired soloing from Hammett, and a few strong choruses, there’s nothing on 72 Seasons that even approaches the un-fuck-withable-ness of Master of Puppets. Still, this record is better than watching the band awkwardly play with actual puppets as a marketing ploy. So there’s that.
72 Seasons was released April 14th via Blackened Recordings.