For 20 years, being a sentient Metallica fan has meant balancing evil and good. In 1988, the band reversed its stance against (evil) music videos. "One," their debut video, took war-casualty clips from Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun to a warehouse full of progressive-thrash riffs, snarls, and pissed frowns (good). There was an album devoid of bass (...And Justice for All). There were doom-influenced touchdowns ("Enter Sandman," "Sad but True"). There was an insipid prom theme ("Nothing Else Matters"). There was the unforgivable ("The Unforgiven II"). And there were many unmentionables.
In 1989, Canadian composer John Oswald spent two weeks splicing ...And Justice for All into his own stormy analog medley, chopping the hour-long odyssey down to a two-minute avant-garde cannonball. "The drum arrangements were inadequate," Oswald's publicist said of Metallica's album, "so here's a new, improved version." The composer's unauthorized "Net" sound collage—originally on his Plunderphonic CD—was quickly suppressed after threats of legal action. Despite this, "Net" has survived the ages—through tape trading, file sharing, even MySpace streaming. It remains a beacon for choosy Metallica audiophiles, some of who are now wrestling with the sonic quality of the band's latest album, Death Magnetic.
Metallica would like its fans to believe "The Earth Gets Louder." The phrase is printed on Death Magnetic posters hanging in local record stores. But since the release of the album in September, more than 17,000 people have signed an online petition calling for an official remix. They say it's flagrantly loud. And, well, they're right. Death Magnetic is negatively affected by unusual distortion that rattles above drums, guitars, and vocals like a blown speaker. The album's mastering engineer, Ted Jensen, seemingly acknowledges this flaw but deflects responsibility. "In this case, the mixes were already brick-walled before they arrived at my place," he reportedly wrote to a Metallica forum member. "Suffice it to say, I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here."
The most victimized song is the current single "The Day that Never Comes," a track whose clean guitar arpeggios initially leap off the page in bold clarity. Yet when introductory texture ramps up into otherwise gifted shred, the canvas is crumpled and the rhythm section turns to mud. Tracks like "The End of the Line" and "Cyanide" are simply fatiguing. Without a sense of nuance, floor-boarded levels put a blinding spotlight on compositions that might ordinarily sound written in a monster truck.
Portland producer/mixer Tony Lash suggests radio is an underlying factor in the general trend toward overly loud recordings. "They do so much limiting on the radio," he says, referring to the often-damaging process of manipulating a song's dynamic range to be consistent with surrounding songs on a playlist. "I think some engineers decided the best way to take control of that is to just have it be really limited at the mixing stage and the mastering stage. That way, when it hits the radio, the change isn't that drastic."
Luckily for die-hards, the overarching distortion on Death Magnetic isn't as apparent on the downloadable version of the album for the Guitar Hero III videogame. Furthermore, gamers have successfully extracted individual components from each song. These so-called "stems" can be imported into digital audio workstations and mixed to suit individual preferences—with or without Metallica's permission.