The metal titans leap off the couch with a galvanizing dose of progressive thrash.

MAGNETIC PERSONALITIES Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo and James Hetfeld, from left, mean business on their new CD.

MAGNETIC PERSONALITIES Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo and James Hetfeld, from left, mean business on their new CD. Photograph: Anton Corbun

Spinal Tap aside, has a band ever come off looking sillier than Metallica did in Some Kind of Monster? The strangest thing about that fascinating documentary—an account of the making of the Bay Area metal kingpins’ 2003 effort, St. Anger, which focused on their $40K-per-month group-therapy initiative—was that it wasn’t some unauthorized smear. No, all the touchy-feely brainstorming sessions, bloated rock-star pontificating and petty squabbling was not only endorsed, but actually financed by the band. Did they realize they’d gone soft, and envision the film as the kick in the ass they needed to get back on track?

Whatever their motives, they sure set themselves up. In contrast with the millions of rabid fans worldwide awaiting the release of Metallica’s ninth full-length, snarky bystanders have been hoping that Death Magnetic would reveal a flabby, over-the-hill Metallica to crack wise at, providing a sequel to the critical smackdown administered to St. Anger. That record—though far better than you might have heard—sounded like it had been digitally dialed to heavy and loud rather than actually performed that way. Fortunately, the Rick Rubin–helmed Death Magnetic corrects that problem. It is witheringly brutal, with a full, crisp sound that trumps St. Anger’s mechanistic bludgeon.

Beyond the production, the songs are truly ferocious. This is unequivocally a record of thrash metal, not the down-tempo, alt-rock-leaning stuff the band favored on the Black Album and Load/ReLoad. Moreover, these ten tracks—each between five and ten minutes—are among the most knotty and elaborate the band has ever composed. As in Metallica’s mid-to-late-’80s heyday, Death Magnetic’s aesthetic is not just heavy, but blatantly experimental. The band might not mine prog as conspicuously as Tool or the Mars Volta does, but this release reaffirms that it is still vitally concerned with epic rock music doled out in the form of meaty, indivisible albums. Unlike on Metallica’s twin masterworks, Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All, several of these songs attempt to mask ho-hum riffs with frenetic juxtapositions. But on the whole this collection is riveting; you are not likely to hear a less boring record this year.

Along with a progressive spirit, Death Magnetic flaunts another vintage feature: the guitar solo. The band debated this topic hotly in Some Kind of Monster—drummer Lars Ulrich pegged such ornamentation as dated, while axman Kirk Hammett dismissed minimalism as a passing trend. The argument has apparently been put to rest: Hammett’s blazing leads litter the record, at times rivaling the cartoonish speediness favored by modern bands like DragonForce. But the Death Magnetic’s true highlights arrive when Hammett and frontman James Hetfield team up for hyperdriven riffage on tracks like “All Nightmare Long” and “The Judas Kiss,” which will really give Mastodon and other vanguard metal acts something to chew on.

Clunkier aspects offset these blistering peaks. “The Day That Never Comes,” one of the record’s two power ballads, exudes a cheesy, grunge-era earnestness, yet gets by on a stunningly intense finale. But its companion, “The Unforgiven III,” in which a boneheadedly pretentious piano-and-strings section gives way to tepid wuss rock, should have been subject to a decree issued by Ulrich’s Gandalf-like father in the doc: “De-leeete that.” And Hetfield’s still-commanding melodic bellow can’t obscure the fact that in typical Metallica fashion, the album’s generically angsty lyrics reek of middle-school poetry.

But overall, this is the album Metallica needed to make. Death Magnetic doesn’t rival the band’s greatest achievements, but it is most definitely a proud middle finger to anyone who counted the group out. Did Hetfield & Co. offer themselves as straw men in Some Kind of Monster so as to play up Death Magnetic’s impact? Even they probably couldn’t have envisioned reemerging with a record this vigorous.

Deep cuts: Five crucial Metallica tracks

“Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” This piece, from 1983’s Kill ’Em All, is a striking, fuzzed-out solo feature for the band’s late bass prodigy, Cliff Burton.
“Escape” Ride the Lightning (1984) is rife with primo tracks, but crunchy thrash and majestic melody make this an unheralded classic.
“Disposable Heroes” Of the band’s antiwar diatribes, this one—from 1986’s groundbreaking Master of Puppets—is the grimmest and grittiest.
“…And Justice for All” Metallica hit its creative peak with 1988’s …And Justice for All, including this gorgeously strident nine-plus-minute epic.
“St. Anger” This 2003 disc has myriad weak points, but the title cut boasts a surprising number of unshakable hooks.

Death Magnetic (Warner)