Saturday, September 13, 2008

St. Anger's Revenge: More Thoughts on D-Mag

D-Mag is the worst produced and mixed album in Metallica's career. There's nothing that even comes close. I spun my older albums and, as always, was amazed at the quality of the sound. Metallica always guarantees a high standard for their sound. Every one of their studio albums, regardless of whether you liked them or not, sounded pristine, heavy, deep, and loud. An honest loud, not this cheap-as-hell brickwalling.

For comparison's sake, I put St. Anger on the turntable. This is an excellent album to compare the production and sonics against D-Mag. I threw on side four and played "Purify," my favorite song from the album. The sound is loud, mean and ornery as hell. Within seconds it becomes apparant that this sounds louder and heavier than anything on Rick Rubin's disaster.

And this comes to the main point, which seeming no one ever deals with or is even aware. Rick Rubin is not a record producer. He has never touched a mixing board, and he doesn't know the first thing about producing or mastering sound. He does have a golden ear for music, yes, and he has been crucial to many artists like Johnny Cash. But the sound quality of his productions are absolutely horrendous. The audiophiles, of course, know this and have been warning us for months. Turns out they were right.

Back to St. Anger's Purify. This album sounds much better on LP, not only because you can digest three songs at a time, but because the infamous "trashcan drums" carry a certain hypnotic ring to them. This song, especially, captures that hypnotic quality that was essential to the early years of hard rock. That hypnotic repetition of guitar riffing with the metal gong really provides a certain mean and cranky, post-psychedelic sheen.

The production is also excellent, despite the bad reputation. Bob Rock has always been an excellent producer. He knows his game, and every band he has worked with - Motley Crue, Metallica, even Veruca Salt - comes out shining brighter, louder, and more immediate than when they began. To my mind, he has been an essential component to Metallica's career, George Martin to their Beatles.

On Purify, the guitars are loud, growly, they have depth in their sound. The decay is steady rumbling, like a good motorbike. The guitars on D-Mag, by comparison, are thin, pressed flat like a pancake. They are light. That's probably the worst insult you could hurl at a heavy rock band. I've heard accoustic guitars that sound "heavy," that have that weight and gravitas. Go listen to Buffy Sainte-Marie's first album and you'll know exactly what I mean. Death Magnetic carries no heaviness whatsoever. It is a thin and tiny sound, one intended for...I dunno. An iPod? A cheap transistor radio? Who can tell when everything is mushy and muddy and bleeding all the damned time?

What the hell happened to the dynamic range? D-Mag has none. Absolutely none. It's the first one-dimensional rock album I've ever heard. St. Anger had dynamic range, kids. It had loud and medium and quiet, all smashed together in that beautiful ugliness. The guitars are given space to breathe. There is air in the room.

Here's another example: the album's final song, All Within My Hands. The beginning with the guitar effects have a certain color, something purple in my head. Notice the loud, heavy guitars rushing in. You can tell a difference in the sound. This was once Metallica's trademark, one of those great tricks cribbed from classic early Black Sabbath. Note the verse, with its spacey rhythm guitar floating in the background. Note the rhythm of the drumming. Note that rumbling bass on your left speaker. It's open and spaced-out, every instrument can be distinctly heard. Then those loud guitar riffs come crashing down, all atonal and sharp angles. Then you get the chorus riff, heavy as hell and greasy to match, which suddenly explodes into chaos.

Folks forget that Metallica was a pastiche of hardcore punk and British metal. That last album was purely from the old punk side. Whine and cry about the rock-star therapy and the lack of solos, whatever. You can learn a lot from that album.

In terms of sheer power and heaviness, St. Anger completely demolishes Rubin's Death Magnetic. It isn't even close. D-Mag is so brittle and small in its sound, like the bones of worn-out old men. The emerging consensus - that the songs are great but the production is terrible - will not hold. In time, the terrible production and atrocious mix will win out. Heck, how many of you could never make your peace with the trashcan drums? Rock albums have been broken for lesser crimes.

Just wait six months. Then let the notion of Rick Rubin's continued involvement with Metallica sink in. This is what all their albums are going to sound like from now on. How long do you think you'll stand for that? Imagine the next album. Now imagine that it will sound even worse. Even more bleeding, even more brickwalling, even more thin, wispy mushiness.

D-Mag is the worst-mixed album in Metallica's career. The mix seems to be where the crime was committed, and one of hard rock's great albums was destroyed. That's a damn tragedy. It's absolutely inexcusable that something this painfully poor was allowed out of a recording studio. Who the bloody hell is in charge here? Did James and Lars simply never learn what production and mixing are all about? Perhaps. They relied upon Fleming Rassmussen for a number of years. Then they relied upon Bob Rock for many more. The only time they were really the ones controlling the knobs on the mixing board was...And Justice For All.

James and Lars are great musicians and great songwriters. They should never be allowed near production ever again. It's like handing a sequin suit to Elvis. Or, to put it more precisely, they need people manning the mixing board who know their chops. Somebody needs to re-mix this album. I'm going to make my own Metallica shirt that says that: Fix The Mix, or Bring Back Bob.

One final thing. I shouldn't make it sound as though I hate Death Magnetic. I've praised the songs before and I still love them. It's just so deeply frustrating for me, like listening through a poorly-made transistor radio. All I get is static and noise, when what I want is the music, the music, the glorious music. To hell with the damned static.


BlinkingText said...

Excellent commentary.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Thanks a lot. I definitely appreciate all the kind words.