Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, the 10th studio album by Metallica has finally dropped. For the last 13 years, over the course of 3 different albums we have been hearing how the band is finally “back”. Truth be told, we are not likely getting another pure thrash album from these guys and should make our peace with that fact. Having said that, this is the closest we’ve come. With songs that span a variety of styles and influences, this record almost feels like a tour of the band’s 35 year history.
The opening track, “Hardwired” sets the pace for the album with a triplet laden intro that’s reminiscent of any number of old school metal songs. Being the title track and first single for the record, it has the responsibility of setting the bar. Musically, the song delivers. Coming at you like a freightliner with no intention of stopping, the track has everything you could ask for. Lyrically though, you can tell how lax Hetfield has become. Listen, I drop f bombs like they’re going out of style. I can curse with the best of them. But when half your chorus consists of “We’re so fucked! Shit outta luck!” well, that’s just lazy. When you are the scribe behind an angst filled opus like “Fade to Black”, we have come to expect better things from you.
The next track is probably my favorite out of the whole bunch. “Atlas, Rise!” feels like it would be right at home in the middle of …And Justice for All if they mixed it differently and removed all traces of bass. The twin guitars in the chorus further cement this feeling. The harmonies in the bridge just before the last verse are incredibly satisfying and overall,the song is damn near flawless.
“Now That We’re Dead” is the first track to deviate from the “return to form” everyone had been hoping for. There is a lot of Load/Re-Load on this record, this song being the first example but hell if that chorus isn’t catchy. Personally, I’m not really crazy about the hard rock vibe of Metallica’s most vilified records until St. Anger, but this song takes some of the best elements of that era and puts them front and center.
“Moth into Flame” the second single of the record displays more of the back-to-their-roots metal for which the fans have been clamoring. Pulling no punches, the song gives us more of those twin leads right from the get-go and delivers chugging riffs that don’t stop to catch their breath.
“Dream No More” is a spiritual successor to “The Thing Thing That Should Not Be” from the band’s 1986 classic, Master of Puppets lyrically, if not musically. The 3rd song dealing with the subject matter of Cthulu, 4th to tackle Lovecraft themes overall, it fails to capture the same sense of dread that The Call of Ktulu[sic] does from 1984’s Ride the Lightning or the aforementioned “Thing”.
The closing track of the first album is “Halo on Fire”. The song is new territory for the band, touting a modern sound that is actually quite fitting for the band. The problem is that by this point in the record, the lack of a producer is starting to show. Individually, each riff is sonically satisfying, but they never seem to form a cohesive whole. After the second chorus, ideas just seem to start and stop haphazardly. It’s a damn shame, too, because when all is said and done, the song is actually very fun to sing along to.
I was hard pressed to figure out why the band opted to release their latest effort as a double album. There are 12 tracks total, which is normal for an LP; the album clocks in at just over 77 minutes, which is well within the limitations of the compact disc format. There is no set concept that divides the two albums from a lyrical standpoint. The only way this division makes sense is that most of the songs that sound like they belong on a record with semen on the cover are on the second album.
The opening track of the second half, “Confusion” treads similar territory for James Hetfield, taking on the subject of a soldier as a casualty of war. I couldn’t help but be reminded of “Am I Evil” upon hearing the intro to this one.
Then we get to “Manunkind”. This song, the only one on which bassist Rob Trujillo has a writing credit has made me give up hope that his presence would take the band in a more creative direction, what with his funk background. The song is without a doubt the one you will end up skipping. The lyrical content comes off as whiny and you can almost see Hetfield patting himself on the back over how clever it was to come up with a title like that.
Thankfully, the record takes us in a more interesting direction with “Here Comes Revenge”. With an opening riff that reminds me of “Leper Messiah” this song has the ebb and flow to keep you hooked and it sounds not unlike something you would hear on The Black Album.
Speaking of which, in keeping with the theme of revisiting similar lyrical territory, “Am I Savage?” comes off as “Of Wolf an Man” redux. While the former delivers the expected musical ambiance for the subject matter, it pales in comparison to the latter. Then again, that happens to be my favorite song off the 1991 eponymous album, so that could just be my bias showing.
“Murder One” is arguably the most forgettable song on this record. There is nothing there that catches the ear; nothing noteworthy. Clocking in at 5:45, it is one of the shortest songs on the record, second only to the title track, however, it seems to drag on forever,giving us no tension, buildup or payoff. It is pure filler, which makes me wonder what the band left on the cutting room floor.
The closing track “Spit Out the Bone” more than makes up for it, though. This song is my other favorite on the album. Not since 1988’s “Dyers Eve” have we had such a strong closer. This track is as close to perfection as the album gets. It pulls out all the stops and leaves you wanting more once it’s done.
Overall, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct delivers. The album is not without its faults. One has to ask what would have happened had Hetfield and Ulrich stuck to songwriting and stayed away from the producer’s chair. While enjoyable, the album feels very disjointed at times. At times riffs continue for a measure or two longer than expected before transitioning into a bridge or a solo. Other times songs just move from one riff to another with no transition or modulation whatsoever, giving them a jerky sensation. All this could have been fixed by having a good producer on board. Not to say that credited producer Greg Fidelman doesn’t bring much needed improvements over his predecessor, Rick Rubin. Ulrich’s snare drum finally sounds dry with a significant reduction in overtones, something Death Magnetic failed to accomplish, and the downpicking of the guitars sounds much cleaner this time around.
At the end of the day, this is the best album Metallica has put out in a quarter of a century. The question remains though: Does this speak the the album’s quality or to the band’s mediocrity over the past several years?