Noteworthy CD releases
Metallica, The Verve, and David Byrne and Brian Eno regroup for three new albums that reprise some old themes and play with some new.
Metallica: 'Death Magnetic'
In a 2002 song called "The Sound of Muzak," the band Porcupine Tree penned the following pithy observation: "The music of rebellion makes you wanna rage/ but it's made by millionaires who are nearly twice your age." I couldn't help but recall that line while listening to Metallica's "Death Magnetic" (Warner Bros.), the band's first record in five years. Shouldn't these 40-something family men be releasing Christmas albums or all-star duets of jazz standards at this stage of their career? Thankfully, no.
That shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone who saw the 2004 documentary "Some Kind of Monster," an unflinching look at the intraband conflict that culminated with singer James Hetfield entering rehab. Metallica's Teflon-tough image was irreparably crumpled by confessional scenes with a cardigan-wearing counselor. Well, that and the footage of Hetfield attending his daughter's ballet class.
Having endured such a painful process of interpersonal reconciliation, one might imagine Hetfield would bare his soul on these new songs. Unfortunately, "Death Magnetic" betrays no such angst, though there's plenty of anger in the generic rants about battling oppression.
Musically, this record is a return to the raw, seven-minute epics of Metallica's 1980s catalog. Here, the riffs sound as if they've been sharpened on lathes. On tracks such as "The End of the Line," "All Nightmare Long," and "My Apocalypse," producer Rick Rubin has teased out the band's long-dormant melodic talents. The dynamics are enhanced by lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, who solos with the abandon of a man newly freed from handcuffs. Even so, the album's tone is as monochromatic as the band's wardrobe – black is still the new black for these rockers – as the songs range from fast ones to faster ones. A ballad or two amid this strong set would have added welcome diversity.
The Verve: 'Forth'
It seems The Verve still had some unfinished symphonies – and unfinished business – to attend to. It was just a decade ago that the Manchester band's opus, "Bitter Sweet Symphony," propelled it to stardom in its native Britain and abroad. But then the group, which had gone through several breakups and reconciliations over the years, abruptly called it quits. Anthems such as "I See Houses" and "Rather Be" make one glad that they're back. Even better: Richard Ashcroft's gorgeous vocal, which floats on top of a psychedelic ether, on "Judas." Other tracks are more robust. On "Numbness," Nick McCabe's torrid guitar playing could raise the mercury in a thermometer. Unfortunately, too many tracks on "Forth" (Mri Associated) feel like messy space-rock jams. "Noise Epic," in particular, is a case of truth in advertising. But the album's triumphant closer, "Appalachian Springs," makes one optimistic that this reunion could stick.
In 1981, Brian Eno and David Byrne released "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," a landmark album in its use of samples – back then, a laborious process of fiddling with tape – and unique fusion of ambient electronica, funk, and world music.
The long-awaited sequel, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" (available at everythingthathappens.com), may not be a true follow-up at all. For starters, it's credited to David Byrne and Brian Eno. That switch in the sequence of names reflects the makeup of the music. Whereas Eno's sonic imprint is most easily heard on "Ghosts," a largely instrumental record, it's Byrne's voice and musical style – especially his past work with Talking Heads – that dominates "Everything." Byrne's voice is a revelation throughout. His quirky delivery seems more naturalistic than before, and his voluminous voice is pure soul on the title track and "Lighthouse."
On "Feel My Stuff," Eno's scuttling piano line gives way to an ominous rhythm that underpins a vocal that's by turns playful and combative. It sounds like Massive Attack led by Bono. Elsewhere, gospel-influenced songs such as "Life Is Long," "River," and "Strange Overtones" are the ideal soundtrack for drive time on a Friday afternoon. Even the lyrics are uncommonly literate. Everything that happens is magic.