Metallica frontman James Hetfield has said their 11th studio album is rooted in the past, its title a reference to “the first 18 years of our lives, that form our true or false selves … Much of our adult experience is re-enactment or reaction to those childhood experiences”. You could take this as the talk of a man who has spent a lot of time in therapy. In 2019 Hetfield entered rehab again, an experience that clearly informs a chunk of 72 Seasons’ lyrics. “Temptation, temptation,” he keeps repeating as If Darkness Had a Son kicks in. Too Far Gone? draws on the Alcoholics Anonymous principle of approaching recovery one day at a time. Chasing Light has him “down and out”, shaking with “deep withdrawals”. “Come on, give the boy a break,” he pleads, “or he will break.”
But students of Metallica’s musical roots may also find a different undercurrent in Hetfield’s statement. At the end of the time period he mentions, the band’s drummer Lars Ulrich had saved up his paper-round money and decamped to England in search of the new wave of British heavy metal: he ended up in Stourbridge, glomming on to Diamond Head, the NWoBHM’s luckless nearly-weres. Ultimately left for dust commercially by Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, Diamond Head nevertheless became a key influence on Metallica: Ulrich claimed the band simply “wouldn’t exist” without them.
And 72 Seasons was trailed by the single Lux Aeterna, essentially a Diamond Head homage, its lyrics simultaneously hymning the brotherhood of the heavy metal community, nodding to Metallica’s debut album (“full speed or nothing” sings Hetfield, recalling the mission statement of Motorbreath) and retelling the saga of Ulrich’s teenage trip to Britain, and the warm welcome afforded him: “A sea of hearts beat as one, unified … kindred alliance connected inside.” Should anyone have missed the point, there’s a line about “amplification lightning the nation”, a grammatical fudge that only makes sense as a reference to the title of Diamond Head’s debut album.
But the Metallica fan who takes Hetfield’s statement as suggesting 72 Seasons features a back-to-basics approach might note that that’s also how Metallica trailed their last two albums, a reaction to spending the 90s and early 00s exploring avenues some distance from their roots: the influence of blues and southern rock, country and Soundgarden; even banning guitar solos entirely on 2003’s St Anger. Metallica have vociferously defended that era ever since, but clearly something about it didn’t sit right with a band who initially set themselves up as saviours of real metal amid the hairspray, makeup and MTV-friendly hitmaking of the glam era. With the release of 2008’s Death Magnetic, they effectively began doing what a lot of artists do 25-plus years into their career: returning to the sound that made them popular in the first place – albeit without the dramatic commercial slump that usually precipitates such a decision.
Which brings us back to 72 Seasons, an album that displays the advantages and the drawbacks of such an approach. It would be a sour Metallica diehard who doesn’t feel their heart lift a little as Lux Aeterna powers along, or as Screaming Suicide erupts into a series of compact, effect-laden Kirk Hammett solos, or as the band knowingly reference their own past: whatever you make of the evil-priests-smiling-as-the-witch-is-immolated lyrics of You Must Burn!, it’s hard to miss that its musical DNA is equally composed of the final single from 1991’s Metallica, Sad But True, and Harvester of Sorrow from 1988’s …And Justice for All. Without wishing to minimise Hetfield’s personal torment, the tracks that deal with his recent problems carry a weight and an edge that serves as a decent replacement for the hunger and testosterone that potentiated their 80s work.
Equally, there are issues: moments when said edge appears to be blunted, or when you find yourself wishing the band – who are audibly enjoying themselves – had been a little more judicious with the editing, a recurring problem with latter-day Metallica. The closing Inamorata goes on for 11 minutes, but seems to be that long primarily to evoke past Metallica epics by dint of its dimensions, rather than because the track warrants it. Some of the (relatively) shorter songs could have used a nip and tuck as well: there’s nothing terribly wrong with the muscular Sleepwalk My Life Away bar a paucity of melody about its blues riffing that means it outstays its welcome. Or perhaps 72 Seasons feels every bit of its 77 minutes because of a lack of variety: no ballads, not a huge number of dynamic shifts.
There’s enough worthwhile stuff to ensure that fans will be happy – you can overlook its shortcomings while the title track rages – and that touring won’t seem entirely like an exercise in running through the back catalogue. Equally, no one hoping to convince a non-believer of Metallica’s greatness will reach for it over the classics.
This week Alexis listened to
The xx vocalist continues casting off her band’s veil of melancholy in her solo career: Enjoy Your Life is joyous, hugely classy dance-pop that samples Beverly Glenn-Copeland.