I've been posting over this weekend about the newest Metallica album, which has become ensnared in controversy. I don't know if you have managed to follow along, so I'll just give a short summary here.
The situation we're facing is a simple one, really. Metallica released their newest album to great hype and acclaim. To many fans, Death Magnetic is a return to form after the band's trials and tribulations in recent years. It's a great album. Unfortunately, it is also a sonic disaster. The album suffered excessive compression and "brickwalling" at the final mixing stage, which completely destroyed the sonic fidelity and dynamic range of the songs. What comes out of the CD barely even qualifies as music; fuzzy static would be more honest.
Sadly, this is all too common in today's music industry, a phenomenon known as "the loudness wars." Record labels and producers have been in a furious race to make their CD's sound "louder." This is done by heavily compressing the sound, to the point where all that is left is static noise. Listeners suffer ear fatigue within minutes, not to mention headaches. Dynamic range - the difference between loud and quiet - is all but disappeared. And this is one of the major reasons - if not the primary reason itself - that the music industry has been in a commercial tailspin for years.
So that's the situation with Metallica's new CD. I purchased the 2-disc LP and met the very same problems as the CD. This was the fault of the mixing engineer at the final stage of production. Little surprise that many of Rick Rubin's productions are plagued with compression and brickwalling. This commercial release is quite simply unlistenable; the worst-mixed and worst-produced album of Metallica's illustrious career.
That's the bad news. Now here is the good news. It's quite fantastic news, in fact.
There exists a second mix of Death Magnetic, previously unknown. It is the mix that is available for Guitar Hero.
For those of you who don't know, Guitar Hero is a music rhythm game where you play along to real rock songs with a small plastic guitar. Your "guitar" has a series of five buttons, which you press in order to follow along to the songs. When I was a kid, we had this electronic game called Simon. Guitar Hero is really the same at its core, but it goes much deeper. It manages to tap into that air-guitar mood, that fantasy many of us have of being rock stars, without the hassle of learning to play music.
Needless to say, Guitar Hero is currently the hottest thing in videogames. And everyone in the music business wants to get in on the act. Many artists have made their songs available for the game (you pay for these like any CD), and now the move is on to release full albums. Which brings us to Metallica.
Metallica agreed to have the entire Death Magnetic album available for play on Guitar Hero the same day the commercial CD/LP was released. This meant that the game's developers, Neversoft (famous for Tony Hawk Pro Skater) were given album tracks before that final, lethal mixdown.
This is the great news and the great surprise. What we have is essentially, a second mix of D-Mag. This version is revealed to be far superior in every way. These songs are full of dynamic range, full of quiet and loud interludes, packed with sonic details, sharp and heavy as hell. There are none of the compression issues found on the CD. None whatsoever. The Guitar Hero mix is a revelation, and quite literally saves this album. It redeems the album.
At this point, I cannot in good conscience recommend that you buy D-Mag in its current form. The songs themselves may be brilliant, but the mixing completely destroyed any chance you will ever have of enjoying them. You may try to tough it out, but I promise you that you will tire of all the noise. You will tire of the thin, light, wispy sound bubbling out of your speakers. Can any greater insult be leveled at a heavy rock album? Sad but true.
That leaves one major question remaining: will the Guitar Hero version of D-Mag be made available on CD? Well, yes and no. We will hope Metallica, their management, or Warner Bros would recognize the problems with their current CD's, and recall the albums in favor of a proper re-mix. That is more difficult than it sounds for a number of reasons. But it is not impossible to suggest the band could release a clean version of D-Mag.
That's the "no." Here's the "yes." Because more and more gamers and music fans are becoming aware of the superior Guitar Hero mix, the race is on to rip these music tracks and post them online for download. There are a number of options, from simply playing perfect games and recording the music from your home theatre, to ripping the game discs apart and extracting the files. Sooner or later, this will happen. You will have the true version of Death Magnetic, for play on your iPod or CD player.
Of course, this will remain an underground movement. But it should become more freely available as time goes on. My personal hope is that the D-Mag tracks will be made available seperately, so we can create our own custom mixes on computer before burning to disc. For most everyone else, you should be able to download a full "album" as-is.
What can you do? Plenty. You can let Metallica and Warner Bros know how you feel. The loudness wars has been largely ignored by the general public; with enough of an outcry, you can make a difference and perhaps convince the parties to repair their damaged CDs. Spread the word of the Guitar Hero mix and share the album with your friends. Write emails. Make phone calls. Send petitions. Go to concerts and share your concerns with the band in person. Make t-shirts. Make videos. Build the community. You can make a difference, friends, but only if you make your voices heard.
You can start by copying and sending this post to your friends. Spread the word!