Facing Musical Mortality, Metallica Contemplate Youth on 72 Seasons

By not pressing to recapture the past, Metallica sound more liberated than they have in decades.

Music Reviews Metallica
Facing Musical Mortality, Metallica Contemplate Youth on 72 Seasons

Metallica 72 Seasons album art

Metallica’s present-day members are either just on the verge of or just past the age of 60. Ditto for their peers in thrash metal’s so-called Big Four: Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth. While promoting Metallica’s last album Hardwired to Self-Destruct, drummer Lars Ulrich disclosed that no one knows how much longer the metal giants will be able to hold up the physical end of the bargain. Oddly, this sense of finality never appears, even as a faint shadow, in the 77 minutes of wall-to-wall riffing on the band’s eleventh studio album 72 Seasons.

Mind you, there’s plenty of preoccupation with death—and fatalism, inner turmoil and an all-pervading feeling of woe as well. Additionally, more than half the songs—“Screaming Suicide,” “Inamorata,” “Too Far Gone,” “If Darkness Had a Son,” “Room of Mirrors,” “Crown of Barbed Wire,” “Sleepwalk My Life Away”—peel the curtain back on a particularly naked sense of self-doubt. But it’s not like we haven’t heard Metallica pursue these themes before. The negativity that defines heavy metal has grown so familiar, it’s become a kind of comfort food. And frontman/guitarist James Hetfield has been sandpapering his own skin with pointed introspection since 2003, which we got to see in gory (and often endearing and hilarious) detail in the documentary Some Kind of Monster.

Most surprisingly given the way time is ticking on Metallica’s life expectancy, 72 Seasons brims with a zest for life that verges on joyful, even when the subject matter hews in the opposite direction. And on “Lux Æterna” (Latin for “eternal light”), although Hetfield’s lines about “sonic salvation” and “kindred alliance” are meant as an homage to heavy metal fandom, he captures the sheer thrill of being alive. When Hetfield wails the song’s title, we’re reminded that heavy metal’s signature howl can function as a primal, affirming bark at the moon—a simple, resolute declaration that I am here. And when he repeats “full speed or nuthin’” over an almost cheerful-sounding gallop, we’re reminded that Metallica haven’t sounded this exuberant in 35 years.

As explained prior to the album’s release, the title “72 Seasons” refers to the number of calendar seasons a person has lived through by the time they reach their 18th birthday. Hetfield has further elaborated that the title hints at the intense passion one feels for music at that age. Of course, it’s that youthful gusto that helped Metallica channel their love of Motörhead, Maiden, Misfits and Diamond Head into a riveting sound that gave rise to a whole new paradigm. Metallica, in fact, are the living embodiment of how far a young person’s combination of naivety and arrogance can take you: just about any metal band on the planet that formed since their two legendary 1982 demo tapes is following, in some way, the trail that Metallica paved.

When Metallica pioneered the accelerated, aerodynamic form of metal that would eventually come to be known as thrash, they were fueled by piss, vinegar, alcohol and, most importantly, a hunger to push music forward. It’s shocking to think about now, but three of the band’s then-members were only 18 at the time. (The fourth, future Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine—who catalyzed, if not invented thrash-style guitar riffing on his own—was 20.) With Metallica leading the charge the whole way, thrash metal’s commercial stock ticked up from about 1986 to 1992 or so. By the end of that period, Metallica had outpaced everyone and ballooned into the biggest metal band—indeed one of the biggest bands—ever.

Once Metallica reached the mountaintop,they stumbled mightily, an ungainly juggernaut-sized beast unable to get out from under its own weight. When they worked with producer Rick Rubin for 2008’s Death Magnetic, his svengali-like instruction to them was to get into the same frame of mind they were in when they made 1986’s Master of Puppets, widely regarded as the ultimate thrash metal statement of all time. Of course, Rubin’s ploy didn’t work. As Hetfield himself has admitted, you just can’t go back and recapture the past. What’s different this time is that Metallica no longer sound like they’re pressing to recover their old power—which, let’s face it, is gone for good.

72 Seasons works mostly because the band simply allows itself to look—rather than reach—back. There’s an ease that underpins, say, the signature thrash groove of “Shadows Follow,” the military march of the title track, the “Sad But True”-esque downtempo crunch of “You Must Burn!” etc. And—eureka!—the album is mostly devoid of the embarrassing melodies that have plagued the band’s last five studio efforts. One of the triumphs of 72 Seasons is that Hetfield has finally learned how to integrate his desire to actually sing in a way that isn’t incongruous with the aggression of the music.

The bad news, however, is that many of the riffs are indistinguishable from watered-down records by likeminded groups from the mid-’90s, such as Anthrax’s Stomp 442, Megadeth’s Youthanasia and Sacred Reich’s Independent—all of which followed the same mold as Metallica’s shift to a straight ahead rock sound on their 1991 self-titled blockbuster commonly known as “The Black Album.” To be fair, there’s something reassuring about Metallica borrowing from a communal pool of riffs. Fans well-versed in this genre will no doubt be asking themselves “Did I hear a riff like that on an Overkill track years ago?” Or, “What Slayer tune does this remind me of?”

Of course, Metallica tip their hat to their own catalog as well. “Screaming Suicide” recalls the unbridled punkish fury in their 1987 cover of Diamond Head’s “Helpless,” while “If Darkness Had A Son” nods back to the rolling crunch of the Justice-era classic “Eye of the Beholder.” These decisions don’t succeed in getting the listener’s blood pumping as well as the original items do. They can’t, and there was never really any hope that they would. Instead, they land with the warm-fuzzy sensation of a group of old men looking through faded pictures of themselves. 72 Seasons is the sound of Metallica celebrating the past while simultaneously liberating themselves from the impossible burden of living up to their former excellence. They could have done a lot worse.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com

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