35 years into their career, Metallica‘s music is so ingrained in heavy metal’s DNA that writing about it objectively is almost impossible. Their albums were among the first I ever owned, and they were the first live show I ever saw (with Suicidal Tendencies and original-lineup Danzig opening!). In recent decades, I’ve cringed alongside the rest of you at the band’s various missteps, and rooted for them as they slowly reclaimed bits of their 1980s glory. 2008’s Death Magnetic was a huge step in the right direction, and while I’m skeptical of a Metallica double album, Hardwired…To Self Destruct seems to offer a more thorough return to the band’s old-school values.
Opener “Hardwired” is a short, focused blast of proto-thrash, and despite its juvenile lyrics, gets the record off to a promising start. To my relief, the obnoxious production of Magnetic is gone, replaced by a beefier update of the …And Justice mix. More importantly, the band sounds firmly committed to playing heavy, thrashy music again — a direction that felt somewhat tentative on Magnetic. “Atlas, Rise!” ups the ante with chunky riffage and, as many have noted, some very Maidenesque guitar harmonies. “Now That We’re Dead” is a perfectly good mid-tempo crusher, marred only by the return of Reload-era Hetfield to ruin the chorus. However, the band redeems themselves with “Moth into Flame,” a thrashy, dynamic composition that is one of the best things they’ve written in decades (even if they totally stole the riff from “The Toxic Waltz“).
“Dream No More” is the first blatant dip in quality, nailing “Sad But True”‘s riffs to “The Memory Remains”‘ vocal melody for an exercise in disappointment (and don’t even get me started on those lyrics). I hesitate to call “Halo On Fire” a ballad, but it’s the first track on the record to contain clean guitar tones, building up to an intense Hetfield vocal and, eventually, an extended guitar outro a la “Fade To Black.” As Disc 1 concludes, consider me impressed. It’s not perfect, but it proves once and for all that these guys can still kick ass, when and if they feel like it.
Sadly, those asses get kicked with much less frequency on Disc 2. “ManUNkind” finds Hetfield yarling like a goddamn buffoon again, while Ulrich attempts swing rhythms that are not in his wheelhouse (to put it gently). “Confusion” is Metallica‘s first war/military lyric in forever, but the subpar riffage and low energy ensure that this is one battle they will not win. “Am I Savage” is the first track here to truly resemble the band’s Load/Reload period, with lame groove riffs and a vocal melody that Hetfield should’ve steered clear of. “Murder One” is ostensibly a tribute to Lemmy Kilmister, with lyrics strung together from Motorhead song titles, but musically, the song never really takes off.
As you may have noticed, self-editing is still problematic for Metallica. Every single goddamn song save “Hardwired” is about six minutes or longer, resulting in a ridiculous “double album” that contains only 12 tracks. Nearly every song approaches a part that feels like a perfectly-timed ending, then carries on for another 1-2 minutes. Even the crappy songs have a few redeeming parts, like the atonal Gojira bit in “Am I Savage,” or Robert Trujillo’s bass intro to “ManUNkind.” But sadly, it’s not enough to hold some of these tracks together or keep them interesting for 7-plus minutes.
However, some highlights still remain. “Here Comes Revenge” is a thick slab of metal reminiscent of Metallica‘s 2nd side, with a building tension that’s rare in the band’s catalog. Hammett opens and closes the song with some animalistic guitar noises, adding a primal feeling that complements the lyrics nicely. And fans have already gravitated to “Spit Out The Bone,” which rages hard enough to hold its own against the “Battery”/”Damage Inc.”/”Dyer’s Eve” contingent. This track is thrash by any definition, as Hetfield weaves a man-versus-machine lyric that offers no happy ending. At 7 minutes plus, the track’s arrangement is perhaps overly convoluted, but it simply overwhelms with a barrage of riffs and solos.
More-so than any Metallica record since …And Justice, Hardwired feels heavily dominated by one James Hetfield. The riffs and guitar harmonies are unmistakably his doing, delivered with deadly precision and THAT guitar tone. And other than a few embarrassing spots, this is his best vocal performance since 1991. Ulrich’s often-mocked drumming is pretty solid, and if the band’s studio footage is any indication, his arranging skills were crucial to this album’s effectiveness. Hammett’s writing contributions are thankfully minimal, and aside from a couple spotlight parts, Trujillo wisely stays out of the way. This seems to be a departure from the band’s more democratic post-St. Anger protocol, but clearly it was for the greater good. Here’s hoping that Hammett’s “missing” cell phone was in Hetfield’s possession all along.
As always, Metallica has plenty of fans that will cry “they’re back!” no matter what they release, and an equal number of individuals who will hate this album regardless of its merit. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. A lot of Hardwired is non-essential, and Metallica‘s inability to self-edit is troubling (says the guy who wrote a 1,000 word review). But beneath its flaws, there are large portions of Hardwired that sound convincingly like the band that helped define this genre and introduce so many of us to the heavy stuff, myself included.