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College Professor Pens Essay, "Death Magnetic and Metallica's Redemption"

By Bill Irwin, Ph.D, Professor of Metallica
Tuesday, October 7, 2008 @ 10:49 PM


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In 1985 Metallica saved my life. Listening to the suicide song, ''Fade to Black,'' while rain fell on hopeless high school nights, I felt I wasn't alone, that someone else knew my pain.

Listening to ''Creeping Death,'' I knew I had brothers in rage. The music was not easy to listen to and the lyrics provided no easy answers.

In an age of whiney political rock stars, Metallica challenged me to think for myself, to focus on the ''struggle within.''

Last week Metallica's most anticipated album ever, ''Death Magnetic,'' was hailed with acclaim as it went straight to No. 1 the Billboard charts, iTunes and amazon.com, and sold nearly 500,000 copies in the first three days.

But the title begs the question -- if Metallica is so life affirming, why is it so obsessed with death? The existentialist philosophers understood this paradox well.

To acknowledge death is to accept freedom and responsibility. ''Through black days/through black nights/through pitch black insights'' we must all decide whether, why and how to live.

''Death is the elephant in the room,'' frontman James Hetfield muses. We're all terminal, but most of us don't act like it.

Death's imminence should impart an urgency to the now, as the galloping tempo of Metallica's music mimetically reminds us. Metallica does not glamorize or celebrate death. Rather, the band elicits the inspiration and desperation that nearness to death evokes, a constant theme throughout its discography. Its second album, ''Ride the Lightning,'' is particularly effective in this regard, presenting first-person accounts of a prisoner about to be electrocuted, a soldier dying alone on the battlefield and a man contemplating suicide. The years and albums to come would bring the brutality of ''Battery,'' ''Damage Inc.,'' and ''Dyer's Eve,'' followed by the cerebral depiction of a limbless veteran deprived of his senses, begging his caretakers to kill him in ''One.''

With all this gloom, we must wonder: what does consideration of death tell us about the meaning of life? Perhaps there is no objective meaning, as suggested by the empty universe that stretches out infinitely before and after us in time and space in ''Through the Never.''

To give up is too easy, though -- not the Metallica way. Thinking about death isn't meant to paralyze us with reflection, but rather to spur us into action.

The ideal life as Metallica portrays it in songs such as ''Of Wolf and Man'' involves acting naturally and with a heightened sense of consciousness -- as we do when our lives are literally imperiled.

The meaning of life is to be made in the moment; no matter what the circumstances, we can ''redefine anywhere.''

Metallica has been surpassed in morbidity by the metal subgenre it helped to inspire, death metal.

Indeed, in the past 10 years, with a change in sound and a related decline in sales, Metallica has barely been metal at all.

But ''Death Magnetic'' finds the band playing with the speed and verve of years gone by. More than a comeback album, ''Death Magnetic'' is a resurrection.

Hetfield has experienced a personal and creative rebirth in recovery from alcoholism -- a condition that left him ''living dead inside,'' as he sings in the new song ''Cyanide.''

As ''Suicide and Redemption'' indicates, even the greatest sins of inauthenticity need not go ''unforgiven.''

With ''Death Magnetic'' the prodigal son has returned. Let's slaughter the fatted calf and celebrate life.

William Irwin, Ph.D. is the editor of ''Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery'' and professor of philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

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