It's worth taking a moment to compose yourself before listening to 72 Seasons, the new album from the biggest metal band of all time, so you won’t fall prey to a knee-jerk reaction. Hardcore Metallica fans have long wanted to hear a return to the fire of those hallowed first four records, and to shout their excitement from the rooftops. Instead, their disappointment has led to some unfair criticisms of the band, especially about their post-St. Anger material.
Yes, Metallica have had serious wobbles, such as the critical mauling of 2011’s Lulu. They’ve also given us moments of pure class, like Moth Into Flame from 2016’s Hardwired... To Self-Destruct, which is now worthy of classic 'Tallica status. But for most of this millennium, they’ve simply been an agreeably solid metal band – which is broadly how they come across on 72 Seasons. Even having to listen from the comfort of a record company office, it’s clear that it would be far more unsatisfactory were it not for James Hetfield, the undoubted man of the match here. He’s always provided the emotional pull for Metallica, but rarely, if ever, has he laid himself as bare as he does here.
The album’s title refers to the first 18 years of a person’s life, and James has dug deeper into his early trauma on this record than ever before. ‘Lost his way through wicked streets, but he is someone’s little boy, all the love a young one needs, thoughtless elders have destroyed’, he sings on Chasing Light. It’s genuinely moving to hear him confront and wrestle with this period of his life with such candour.
The snarling, bawling, heavy metal master James Hetfield is still here, particularly on the full-throttled Motörhead homage, Lux Æterna – a track that gives the album a much-needed rocket boost. But he does so much more on 72 Seasons, crooning in pain, barking with regret, singing with defiance and displaying a dynamic range that the music Metallica have crafted can’t match, maintaining a similar tone and pace throughout its 77-minute runtime.
The band can still nail their trademark massive, crunching, half-time, stadium metal in their sleep, and they do here on many occasions – You Must Burn!, Screaming Suicide and Shadows Follow are all likely to inspire millions of banging heads. Yet the lack of colour to accentuate James’s stories becomes frustrating. Even if everyone accepts that Metallica aren’t capable of the warp-speed thrash of their youth anymore, this is the band that wrote The Unforgiven, Fade To Black and Bleeding Me. They can do delicacy and elegance, and 72 Seasons desperately needs more dynamics to match James’s light and shade. It’s halfway through the epic, 11-minute closing track, Inamorata – the album’s high point – before we get a clean guitar, alongside a bluesy break and some beautiful harmonies from Hetfield to close out, and Metallica sound all the more fantastic for it.
This deep into a career, it’s hard to imagine many bands making their finest material. That Metallica have still found something new to say (if not play) deserves respect. They may not have delivered their very best, but they’ve given us the best we realistically could have hoped for.
72 Seasons is out April 14 via Blackened. Read a special interview with Metallica in the latest issue of Metal Hammer, out now.