So here it is. Finally, after literally years of getting conflicting statements about when this album was supposed to come out, it’s finally here now. For awhile there, a new album from Metallica was in the same sort of mythical development hell that the new Tool album was (and as of this writing, currently still is), but we finally heard some new music a couple of months ago and now the album has dropped with the almost Megadeth-y title of Hardwired… To Self Destruct. Being a band with a somewhat tumultuous history and sharply divided fanbase, it’s practically impossible to talk about a new Metallica release without viewing it in the context of the band’s past works. I know that as artists it must suck to have everyone comparing your latest work to your older ones, but I’m gonna do it anyway because I have a lot to say on the topic, even beyond the content of the album.
If there’s one thing I can say right off the bat, the thing that my ears notice pretty quickly about this is that this is the first Metallica album in a long while that doesn’t feel overthought to a certain extent. What do I mean by that? Well, listening all the way back to Load, (an album that I love but generally is not received well by a lot of fans) it seemed like once a mainstream audience really embraced Metallica as one of the major forces in not just metal, but in rock music as a whole, I get the feeling (at least according to some interviews from the time that I’ve watched) that they felt the need to overhaul their sound in order to keep up with the way in which the sound of rock music was changing throughout the nineties. Problem with this, however, is that the fans ended up rejecting the blusier, slower sound that Load and ReLoad brought to the table, (unfairly) casting it off as a shallow appeal to an alternative audience, which set off this weird sort of backspin for the band that has lasted almost twenty years in which they kept trying to get back to the feel of the classic five album run they were initially loved for, but never really looking forward. In my opinion, their covers album Garage Inc. was the first manifestation of this “get back to your roots” idea that the band was obsessed with for quite awhile. St. Anger was really their first shot at this with original material, and I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the record was a disaster on almost every level. Watch the documentary Some Kind Of Monster if you really want to get an uncomfortably intimate look at how bad the state of the band was at that point in time. 2008’s Death Magnetic fared much better, but lacked focus as a result of what I thought was the band’s attempt to recapture the proggy feel of …And Justice For All. Eight years on from there, we arrive at Hardwired. This is just my impression, mind you, but like I said, it’s impossible to look past the context of the record for a band like this.
So what does this new record bring to the table? To bring it back around to what I said earlier, this album seems to finally escape the overthought nature of the band’s past couple of albums. Metallica seem to be just writing what comes naturally to them in 2016 and the results are much better than I was honestly expecting. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that this, even just a day into hearing it, is probably the best record they’ve brought out since Load. And that’s my biased opinion. If you’re not inclined to like Load like I am, you’ll probably think that this is their best since the Black Album. Rather than try to play the young man’s game of being aggressive as possible and sounding worn out by it in the process (lookin’ at you, Slayer), they wisely decide here to focus on grooving riffs and big melodic choruses. The Black Album is definitely their model here, with most of the record chugging along at a slower pace. In fact, the really fast, thrash-oriented material is relegated to the first and last songs, in a way bookending the record.
Another important point to note about this record is that it’s actually Metallica’s first double album. I sort of cringed as I read that a couple months ago when details about the album were slowly being revealed. Iron Maiden released a double album last year, and it was a case of pretty severe bloat, the good songs on it being somewhat brought down by the fact that there was just too much on the record. Dream Theater also did the same thing earlier this year. But I was nevertheless intrigued to see what Metallica would do with this idea. Funny thing about that is, unless you had this fact pointed out, you probably wouldn’t notice. The album’s only about seventy seven minutes long, meaning that not only could this fit on one disc (seventy eight minutes is the standard limit for an audio CD), it’s not even the longest Metallica album, at about a minute shorter than Load, a single disc album. However, before it sounds like I’m just nitpicking, I do see what they were going for with this choice. There’s a definite stylistic shift between the first and second half of Hardwired. The first six songs consist essentially of wall-to-wall bangers and anthems, total instant gratification. The second half is where some of the more experimental material starts to creep in. Unfortunately, I think the second half, despite the ambition, is where some of the problems of the record start to show themselves. I think that most of it boils down to the fact that some of the songs on the latter half are a bit long in the tooth. All of the songs here are pretty damn long, but you only really start to feel it during the second disc. In particular, “ManUNkind”, in addition to sporting one of the most cringeworthy titles I’ve ever seen, is quite a drag if I’m being honest. But the album does pick up immediately afterwards with “Am I Savage”, which contains an absolutely thuggin’ groove that exemplifies the best aspects of Load and ReLoad’s influence on the disc. Still, some of it could have been trimmed. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that all of the songs here are quality.
The first half, though, is pretty damn awesome, and contains probably the best Metallica material of the 2000s, and some of it even goes above a lot of their nineties material. Special highlights are “Moth Into Flame” and “Now That We’re Dead”, songs that best demonstrate Metallica just going for the gut with big stadium rock songs. In fact, someone pointed out to me that the intro to “Now That We’re Dead” sounds sorta like “Lick It Up” by Kiss, something that I can never unhear, but it does reinforce the notion that Metallica are privy to what their strengths in this day and age are. Another highlight for me is “Dream No More”, another track in a longstanding Metallica tradition of writing songs about H.P. Lovecraft stories. I’ll admit that the bit near the end with the “CTHULHU AWAKEN!” line made the hairs on stand up on the back of my neck a bit.
In essence, I think Metallica have basically made the best possible move they could have made at this point in the game. Now, make no bones about it, this is not the “rebirth” that Death Magnetic was supposed to be. I think it’s a bit too late for that. To be honest, there’s a good chance that this could be the band’s final album. If they wait another eight years between records again like they did between Death Magnetic and Hardwired, the band members will all be in their sixties, and I fear for the possibilities of what that may sound like. But as it stands, this is a very good album. If they do what they usually do, a massive world tour is in order, and I would especially like to see any of the songs on the first disc live, and even two or three tracks from the second. It’s interesting to see how all of the supposed “Big Four” thrash bands have released albums in the past year, and despite how much shit Metallica get from some hardcore metal fans, they still made the best album out of all four of those bands. Slayer’s and Megadeth’s records both suffer from being business as usual but not at the intensity level you want from that style, and Anthrax’s was, well… just not that good. I think Metallica have once again come out on top because they were honest enough with themselves to realize what they do best given their current circumstances.
-Moth Into Flame
-Now That We’re Dead
-Spit Out The Bone
-Dream No More