Essential New Music: Metallica’s “72 Seasons”

It was nearly two decades between 1991’s Metallica and 2008’s Death Magnetic. Nearly two decades of collective head-scratching among fans, wondering when our heroes would find their footing and put out something we could headbang to without hesitation. Lifelong Metallica diehards might remember a time when “We Did It Again” by Ja Rule was all we had to pacify us until the band finally put out St. Anger in 2003. On St. Anger, Lars Ulrich finally broke out the double bass drums that he had deprived fans of for so long, only for it to be overshadowed by that godforsaken snare that you’ve read about a million times already. All considered, it’s hard to listen to a Metallica album that sounds like 72 Seasons and find too many flaws.

For better or worse, 72 Seasons seems like the natural continuation of the sound the band has been crafting since Death Magnetic. The 12-song, nearly 80-minute album fills the ever-increasing riffy void that fans of the band have grown accustomed to since the turn of the century. These days, a new Metallica album is almost a once-in-a-decade treat. But no, as many people in the YouTube comments section will quickly point out, 72 Seasons is not Master Of Puppets II. But that’s not a bad thing.

On 72 Seasons, Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Rob Trujillo seem to block out the noise of critics and comments and, instead, find a groove within each other. Guitarists around the world won’t be struggling to play the Iommi-style riffs that are sprinkled throughout 72 Seasons (like the infectious breakdown of “You Must Burn!”), but they will struggle to realize them with a band in the way that only Metallica can. 72 Seasons is a marriage of ’90s-era Metallica, where riffs were expanded to fit different sections of each song, and its classic era, where the band relied heavily on gallop-y, 16th-note-driven guitar work. 

72 Seasons boasts the greatest leap that Metallica has ever made in terms of melody, with the pre-solo section of “Too Far Gone?” being perhaps the best example. Hetfield and Hammett begin with epic, harmonizing guitar parts that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Rainbow album. “Epic,” as a style, is a territory that Metallica has explored on record before, but never has the band executed it this well. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Hetfield’s soaring melody of desperation and isolation. If you can’t hear a sold-out-stadium crowd singing along with “Too Far Gone?”, check your pulse. Metallica has not put this feel on a record in decades.

Lyrically, 72 Seasons highlights, perhaps, that all these years spent singing about casualties of war, drug abuse and mental illness were a projection to mask Hetfield’s own demons. Rather than him casting judgment on the world, his lyrics have turned inward. “So I stand here before you/You might judge/You might just bury me,” he screams on penultimate track “Room Of Mirrors,” with an earnestness that can only come from true vulnerability. It’s the most exposed Hetfield has ever been on record.

There are some lyrics that Pitchfork would call “tripe,” as it did in its review of Death Magnetic, but metal has never been the genre of literary masterworks. It’s the genre of bone-crushing guitars, thunderous drums and pissing off your parents. It’s strange that fans of a genre of music founded on rejection of the status quo can be so critical.

Sonically, 72 Seasons is pretty much the same record as 2016’s Hardwired…To Self Destruct: Ulrich’s tasteful double-kick patterns still sound like they were made on a Smith-Corona Galaxie Deluxe, and the guitars are tracked at a frequency that allows Trujillo to sound like he’s actually in the band. (It also sounds like Ulrich got a new hi-hat that he’s really proud of.) Musically, it’s more or less a retrospective of the band’s entire career. It’s loose and riffy like 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All and the following year’s Ride The Lightning, and with producer/engineer Greg Fidelman assisting Hetfield and Ulrich behind the boards, 72 Seasons has the same polished sound of the Metallica of a quarter century ago. 

Pain breeds great art, and the spoils go to its fans. Such is the case with 72 Seasons. Last August, it was announced that Hetfield had filed for divorce after 25 years of marriage. In 2019, Hetfield had once again checked himself into rehab, bringing a Metallica tour in support of Hardwired to a grinding halt. Fans around the world were concerned, of course, for the Metallica frontman. But in a perverse way, they knew what this would mean for the forthcoming Metallica record.

Here’s the deal, though. Metallica is no longer being introduced to the world. If you were around to experience Metallica when Hetfield and Ulrich had long hair, you’re old as shit by rock-star standards. You don’t do the same stuff you did 30 years ago, either. Think I’m wrong? Have your copilot read your old Facebook status updates out loud next time you need to stay awake for a long drive.

The point is, stop expecting Metallica to remain static. 72 Seasons isn’t Puppets or Justice, but it doesn’t try to be. Justice didn’t try to be anything besides Justice, and Puppets didn’t try to be anything besides Puppets. 72 Seasons is as authentic as any other piece of art that the band has put out. So turn it up loud enough for the neighbors to hear and understand that you’re lucky enough to still listen to a new Metallica album.

—Jacob Paul Nielsen