The 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster got credit for exposing the private side of Metallica's transformation from metal godhead into a pack of spoiled, creatively arthritic millionaires, but from Load to Napster-bashing—milestones so widely reviled that their names alone signify shark-jumping—that shift was already public knowledge. Say what you will about 2003's St. Anger, the troubled, willfully tuneless record whose creation Monster documented: As a group-therapy session and creative reset button, it was the only honest thing Metallica could've written at the time.
Death Magnetic, on the other hand, is the record Metallica had to write to stay relevant after St. Anger's tragic group portrait. Ditching longtime producer (and long-suspected weak link) Bob Rock for rock-star-crisis expert Rick Rubin, the band positioned itself for renewal even before entering the studio. And in reconciling the moody, contemplative hooks of 1991's self-titled pop-breakthrough with the searing solos, punch-press rhythms, and sheer balls of 1988's And Justice For All, it's ultimately proved that Metallica can still be Metallica.
Death Magnetic's first three tracks are a master class in the formula, with "The End Of The Line" evoking a mind-meld between Master Of Puppets' "Disposable Heroes" and the black album's "Sad But True" (particularly in James Hetfield's vocal phrasing). "All Nightmare Long" and "The Judas Kiss" serve up searing '80s-style thrash dosed with Kirk Hammett's wah-driven soloing, and even the lead single, "The Day That Never Comes," salvages its turgid opening with a lead-soaked closing blitzkrieg. Some bloat makes the record fully feel its 75 minutes—see the 10-minute instrumental "Suicide & Redemption," and the triple-unnecessary ballad "The Unforgiven III"—but considering all the baggage Metallica had to shed just to find itself again, some minor excesses don't detract from Death Magnetic's importance.