A few tweaks here and there, and these guys could be a force to be reckoned with.
Metallica – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct
So here it is. Eight years in the making. The biggest, the most successful and – ultimately – the most polarizing band in the history of heavy music have finally returned with their tenth studio album. It would be fair to say this is not only the most anticipated heavy rock album of this year but, possibly, the most anticipated of the decade too.
I’ll spare you the history lesson or necessary contextualising of this album. We all know who Metallica are and, likely, you’ll have heard the record by now and will, no doubt, have an opinion on it too. We know this review will do nothing to change your opinion and why should it? That’s the thing about Metallica, they are the one metal band who engender utterly visceral and immovable reactions either way, extreme love and extreme contempt in equal measure. They’re the band for whom everyone has an opinion. This has been particularly apparent since the album dropped with most reviews appearing to be very much framed through the prism of an individual reviewer’s personal thoughts and feelings on the band. Lets not beat around the bush here. This review will be no different.
Like many, Metallica were my metal ‘gateway drug’ it would be fair to say they are the single reason for a lifelong and deep love of heavy rock and metal music that burns as brightly to this day as it did at its genesis. Hearing Metallica for the first time was one of the most life-affirming moments in this reviewers life; the sheer weight and crunch of the guitars, Hetfield’s god like growl and dominating presence on stage; the ripping solos, the complex arrangements and rhythms… it was a sound that was utterly enthralling and unlike anything I’d heard in my (then) fifteen years on the planet. I will also stipulate that I was first introduced to Metallica in 1996… during the bands then maligned Load-era; a time when the band had all but dispersed of the thrash metal sound they both created – and perfected – on their earlier works then adopting a more groove-orientated classic rock approach. From that point, to now, mud has always been slung at the band by many puritanical metal fans. Let’s not kid ourselves, many fans who were already reeling from the commercial monster that was the Black album … became apoplectic when the band cut their hair, hired U2s photographer, dressed like Cuban pimps and even indulged in some light makeup with Load. From the anti-establishment, ‘fuck it all and fuckin no regrets’ kings of metal to take such a drastic sidestep was too much for many. Understandably. Yet, hindsight is 20/20 and the Load/Reload albums undoubtedly feature some of the bands most exciting, quirky and interesting work; tracks like Bleeding Me, Fixxer and The Outlaw Torn are some of the most grandiose and spine-tingling in their canon while Wasting My Hate, Ain’t My Bitch or Prince Charming have a snarl and bite to them that is often overlooked.
The point I am getting to here is this; if you are a Metallica fan who first ‘got’ the band from around 90s – where you hadn’t been let down by their move into classic blues-inspired rock territory – then you are in luck, because the band that you loved then have come back with an album that trumps everything they’ve done since their world-beating self-titled fifth album. If you love all the eras of Metallica up to and including Load/Reload then Hardwired …To Self-Destruct will be the greatest gift Metallica could have given you this year. If you are still upset about the hard rock tendencies of the latter years and cry for a return to the classic expansive thrash sound they pioneered in the 80s then – while there are many things here for you – especially on Disc One and the albums closing track (which is arguably one of the best thrash songs they’ve ever written) – your patience will likely wane on the slower rock tracks that feature, predominantly throughout Disc Two.
Disc One kicks off with the album’s title track Hardwired and serves as a perfect introduction to the album. A stripped back ‘Kill ‘Em All’ piss ‘n vinegar thrash track that charges out the traps with a youthful zest that the band haven’t demonstrated in years. The chorus ‘We’re so fucked, shit outta luck, Hardwired to Self-Destruct’ – while not likely to win any prizes for its literal depth – is prescient given the social and political volatility of the post-Brexit/Trump world we currently find ourselves living in – within this context it’s the natural way to open the record. Atlas, Rise! follows and is a blizzard of chugging riffs, tasteful solos and pure NWOBHM inspired songcraft – this is Metallica at their most anthemic and features some of the most spine-tinglingly glorious moments on the record; the ‘All you bear, all you carry’ pre-chorus to the ‘Die as you hold up the skies, Atlas Rise!’ chorus are, simply put, fucking amazing. The raging mid-section features Hammett composing classic solos that build to a dualling guitar breakdown so epic that it will lift you off the floor. It’s brilliant stuff and I had to be peeled off the ceiling listening to it. I still do. Now That We’re Dead slows things down to a Black album meets Load vibe that has a swagger about it that many will have doubted Metallica still had in them. It is laced in hooks and is as memorable as it is heavy; very much like a modern-day Enter Sandman. James Hetfield, in particular, sounds especially fired up here. The Amy Winehouse inspired (lyrically though not sonically) Moth Into Flame follows and, being the second track released from the album, was the first suggestion that HWTSD may in fact be an album that was, finally, befitting of the bands name and legacy. Like Atlas, it is a fizzing and explosive slab of classic heavy metal, the signature James Hetfield chugging riffs are in full force demanding you bang your head off your shoulders; it is destined to remain a live staple for many years. The doom-laden and sludgy Dream No More comes across as the bastard offspring of Sad But True, The Thing That Should Not Be or Devil’s Dance, its colossal and swinging riffs will knock you off your feet while vocally – with it’s multiple layering throughout the verses – possesses a sinister quality that harks to the dark grunge of Alice In Chains. Disc One concludes with the closest the record comes to a ballad, Halo On Fire. A cut in the same vein as classics such as Fade To Black, One or The Day That Never Comes – it starts heavy, before relaxing into a more somber timbre for the verses though all throughout continues to build and develop itself before releasing into an enormous crescendo. If you have heard the band’s cover of Iron Maiden’s Remember Tomorrow (one of the three cover tracks available on the Special Edition of HWTSD) you may hear more than a little of its influence in this track. The track, and Disc One, conclude with a slice of music that is truly one of the most epic moments on the record, like the ‘no one but me’ outro at the end of Fade To Black, Halo concludes with the refrain ‘Hello Darkness, Say Goodbye’ while the accompanying music that drives along with it is simply enormous; When Hammett’s wonderfully memorable and tasteful solos conclude proceedings it highlights, truly, everything that is great about Metallica.
Disc Two is the more divisive offering with a number of tracks that occupy the mid-tempo space typical of recent Metallica offerings. The ode to PTSD, Confusion, opens with riffing that echoes ‘Am I Evil?’ before relaxing into another trademark Hetfield bruising riff. The greasy biker rock of ManUNKind has a swing and bounce to it that is unique amongst this collection, while the sinister hymn of vengeance Here Comes Revenge is both creepy and unsettling. Am I Savage? sonically references both Black Sabbath and Gojira while also featuring some of the more personal lyrics from Hetfield’s pen on the record. The penultimate track, a fantastic tribute to the dearly departed Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, Murder One is both genuine and heartfelt. As a huge fan of both bands, it sincerely pulls on the heartstrings; “Hear your thunder, still feeding back, Still hear your thunder, the man in black, Born to lose, Living to win”. It’s a fitting tribute from one of the world’s biggest bands to one of the most important figures in both their lives, but also in the lives of millions of fans the world over. Hardwired to Self Destruct then concludes on a track that is, quite frankly, a revelation. A track that – if you had believed the Metallica that wrote Blackened, Battery, Dyers Eve, or Whiplash were gone forever never to re-create that magic again – is a straight up punch the throat of that notion. Spit Out The Bone is one of the best thrash tracks the band has written. Ever. It is a thunderous track that is the equal of every one of their classic ragers. A post-apocalyptic, man vs. machine, Terminator-referenced beast of a track that is a text book example of how to compose dynamic and engaging heavy metal music. It is a modern metal classic from one of the innovators of the music that has more twists and turns than a race track and hurtles along at breakneck pace.
What is gloriously apparent from Hardwired through to Spit Out The Bone is that – finally – Metallica have produced a record that SOUNDS like Metallica. Everything is mighty in the mix; no Death Magnetic sonic compression, No St Anger snare, no Lou Reed, no symphony and definitely no hurdy gurdy. The wall of guitars is there in full effect; the bass sound is thick, crisp and clear, while Ulrich’s tribal drums sound massive. Greg Fidelman has done a stand up job and more than makes up for the mistakes (whether his or not) of Death Magnetic. In both sonic terms, and by way of the songwriting, this is the natural album to sit between Justice and the Black album.
There are a couple of final pieces to add here. Firstly, this is James Hetfield’s album. The frontman is on his best form since the early 1990’s; whether it’s his vocal delivery, his riffing or his lyrics, it is his strongest showing for decades. Hetfield, for many, is the best thing about Metallica and here he proves why he is not only the most important focal point in this band but, more broadly, within metal itself. When he’s on form … no one can touch him. The second is that Metallica are best when they are a dictatorship; when the writing is restricted to Hetfield and Ulrich that’s where the magic happens. It’s like Lennon and McCartney, trying to expand it only serves to dilute its potency. That is no diss to either Hammett or Trujillo, both are phenomenal musicians instrumental in making HWTSD the fantastic record that it is, however the creative nucleus to get the best out the band is the pairing of Hetfield and Ulrich. It’s unarguable and HWTSD sees the pairing grab the reins again… and it shows.
In conclusion, is Hardwired to Self-Destruct as pioneering and innovative as Master of Puppets? No… don’t be mental. How could it be? If you expect that then you’re quite simply deluded. Metallica are no longer the wildly innovative and pioneering band that they were when they left everyone in their wake through the eighties and nineties, to expect them to be is simply folly. Is HWTSD a blistering balls out thrash metal record? No*. Metallica are – and have always been – far more than that. Is it the best Metallica record in years and a fantastic hard rock and metal album? Abso-fucking-lutely. It expertly encapsulates everything that makes this band so beloved by millions into one concise package and it will, in all likelihood, see them reclaim their spot at the very head of the hard rock table.
THE KINGS ARE BACK! WELCOME HOME.
*If that’s what you’re looking for then I recommend you check out the new Testament record, Brotherhood of the Snake because it is a modern thrash classic.