With certain rock bands, evaluating a new release isn't just about what's on tape. It's also about how the new material will translate when the band is interpreting the songs live with the punishing sound waves jetting out of mammoth speakers in a sold-out arena, interspersed with cherished classics. Metallica is one of those groups.
There are moments on the metal titans' new album, "Death Magnetic," out today, that make one salivate for the band's Jan. 18 show at the TD Banknorth Garden. It's easy to envision being swept up in several of these tunes live thanks to long passages of spine-snapping and agile riffage, flashes of melodic bite, and a clutch of anthemic choruses that demand community participation.
Of course, a record should succeed as a listening experience by itself, and "Death Magnetic'' passes the living-room test as well as it bodes for the concert stage. But it doesn't pass by the widest margin one could hope for given the band's venerable history and the involvement of such a gold-plated producer, Rick Rubin.
Six of the 10 tracks on "Death Magnetic'' are solid keepers, with the occasional lyrical or vocal groaner from lead singer and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield. The rest offer varying degrees of disappointment. Since many of the tracks stretch past the seven-minute mark, however, most at least have commendable components, like the surprisingly effective detour into slinky funk on "Cyanide'' and the blazing, arpeggiated Kirk Hammett solo on "The Day That Never Comes.''
All offer multiple flavors as Metallica tries to recalibrate its original speed and fire by revisiting its instrumental muscle and prog instincts switching up time signatures and moods mid-song with militaristic precision.
As he did with Slayer, Rubin, the go-to guru for boiling down veteran artists to their scrappy essence, helps Metallica distill some of its best riffs in ages and even prods them to experiment a bit. First among equals is "Broken, Beat & Scarred,'' a call to compare emotional war wounds and celebrate resilience featuring a seductive uncoiling riff.
But Rubin also allows the musicians to indulge in some rote mannerisms that echo the sound but not the spirit of their strongest work. A song like "All Nightmare Long'' conjures the menacing specter of "Enter Sandman'' but ultimately feels more like the generic soundtrack music for a first-person shooter video game. Hetfield occasionally struggles lyrically, moving from artful to parodic in his expressions of anguish.
He vividly conjures a victim dreaming of the day he becomes the oppressor on the bleak "The Day That Never Comes'' but runs through a litany of connect-the-angst cliches about pitch black days and bloody tourniquets on "The Judas Kiss.''
His vocals likewise toggle between genuine ferocity and overcooked Muppet-esque growls. And what might've been an intriguing "Death'' subplot -- the recording debut of bassist Rob Trujillo -- is a non-issue as his contributions are mixed to near obscurity.
Although the group-therapy dynamics and bone-dry sound of the band's last album, 2003's "St. Anger'' -- which, despite its flaws, had some brutal moments of personal revelation -- were alienating, the new album's return to the furious shred and dread helps alleviate its residual bitterness. Hopefully, by the time Metallica hits the road, it'll be clear which songs deserve a share of the spotlight.