Album: Hardwired… To Self-Destruct
Like many of our dear readers, my courtship with heavy metal music started in my early teens with no doubt the same two or three bands as everyone else. It was back in the early 2000s when not every kid had access to a fast enough internet connection to even think about downloading whole discographies and so one had to blindly pick out albums at the record store. It was due to this want of information that I managed to remain blissfully unaware that Metallica had given up their crown as the flagship of thrash metal for a more modest, MTV-friendly style. That was, of course, until their newest album, St. Anger, came out and scarred my adolescent heart for life. A great divide happened to Metallica in and after the so called Black Album. I personally find it a well balanced work, even if I don’t fully appreciate songs like “Wherever I May Roam”, “Nothing Else Matters”, or “Unforgiven.” Consider this a warning, I will be reviewing this album with the notion that Metallica is indeed a thrash metal band and will subsequently not be granting any special allowances for improvement over the last 25 years of debauchery.
That being said, Hardwired…To Self-Destruct is the closest the band has gotten to what I would consider ‘the Metallica sound’ since the eighties. I had been cautiously optimistic about it since I’d heard the three previously released tracks: “Hardwired”, “Moth into Flame”, and “Atlas, Rise!” “Hardwired” is the simplest of the bunch and works perfectly as the opening track. It’s high-paced but also classic – a great way to signal that they’ve gone back to basics. In these dark times (both in terms of political climate and actual climate), a straight-forward visceral catharsis such as this is more than welcome.
The next song, “Atlas, Rise!”, has an air of nostalgia to it as well. It showcases the band’s roots better than they’ve let them show since perhaps Ride the Lighting. The harmonized guitars and musical breaks in the bridge bring to mind early Iron Maiden and by extension the new wave of British heavy metal. Lars Ulrich‘s drumming seems heavily edited and unnatural. His reputation for precision and technique is less than stellar. Ulrich seems to coast on the one or two hooks he knows for the entire length of the album. This is a constant annoyance as practically every drum break is the same.
“Now That We’re Dead” is a mid-paced, very basic song. It’s one of the weaker points on the album and they wisely hid it between two good songs so it doesn’t have enough time to drag the whole record down with it. It’s more akin to their usual motif as modern rock than the old-school stuff I have been praising so far. It’s high point is the short mid-section. The guitar solo has a nice groove to it. If it wasn’t for those pesky drums it could be pretty interesting.
The zenith comes as “Moth Into Flame” picks up the slack. From the first time I heard this one I knew this would be a modern classic. It’s high-octane action all the way through. Its melodic charms ensnare the listener. The lead guitars especially have a classic, almost seventies-like style to them. Even the simplistic drums don’t bring it down. They still manage a great dynamic sound. It takes such audacious joy in its sneering contempt that you can’t help but get sucked in.
Guitarist and singer James Hetfield has done H.P. Lovecraft -inspired songs before. These include: “Call of Ktulu”, “The Thing that Should Not Be”, “All Nightmare Long”, and now, “Dream No More.” The early 20th century Gothic horror aesthetic of the Cthulhu mythos can easily lend itself to the dark and brooding sounds of heavy metal and this is no exception. Its minimalist, slow approach is a clear nod to its predecessor, “The Thing that Should Not Be” from Master of Puppets. A surprisingly subdued and airy sound invokes the maddening horrors the lie beneath the sea. Cthulhu fhtang!
Continuing the trend of slow and eerie songs is “Halo on Fire.” At an impressive length of 8:15, it settles into a good groove and stays there for the majority of the song. It starts out almost like a Black Sabbath song and lets Hetfield showcase his emotional range. The slow groove starts to escalate halfway through and makes way for the guitars to really shine. At the 6 minute mark, an excellent guitar riff sounds and builds to a full-blown epic solo. This may well be the best groove Metallica has gotten into since “Orion” from Master of Puppets. I’d be willing to call this the best song on the album.
Kicking off the second disc is “Confusion”, another mid-paced song. In terms of the main riff and breakdowns, it would feel well at home with …And Justice for All. However, Hetfield’s vocals are a bit more of the modern persuasion. It’s not just the lack of rasp in his voice… it’s due in large part to the lyrics. It has one of the strangest lines I’ve heard all year: “My life, the war that never ends.” You do realize one day your life and by extension the war will end? It’s no, “Couldn’t be much more from the heart,” or, “Love is a four letter word,” in terms of silliness, but remains an annoyance nonetheless.
“ManUNkind” starts off with a calm Iron Maiden-esque intro with Robert Trujillo‘s bass in rare prominence. This lasts roughly 34 seconds before the main riff begins and destroys all semblance of serenity. This appears to have been intentional, because the song has a cynical, even misanthropic view. It’s definitely a classic Metallica sound with a very 70s groove to it. The title is a cute pun which, coming from a band in this age group, is practically a dad-joke.
Following the trend of slow-to-mid-paced songs is “Here Comes Revenge.” Ulrich’s beat has a nice jungle drum effect in the verses, which also lend more focus to Hetfield’s vocals. Aside from the verses, this 7:18 track is pretty much business as usual. It becomes apparent that this album has been drawn out some.
“Am I Savage?” is a bit more interesting. It has an ominous horror theme which seems to be a werewolf story. My interpretation is that the monster movie stuff is merely a thinly veiled metaphor to talk about the conflict within us all regarding whether we are beasts or beings of intellect. This alone should keep the listener engaged but the song itself has a few good hooks to it in order to keep your attention.
Speaking of concepts for songs, “Murder One” is an obvious nod to the late Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister from Motörhead. Named for his signature amp, it’s written as an homage to a man they notably considered an idol and a friend. As a Motörhead fan myself, I find it interesting to try and guess how many of the lyrics were intended as references. There probably isn’t one right answer to that as many of them are unmistakable, such as, “Born to lose, living to win,” but then whether or not, “One fist, hammers through the mist,” is any reference to “Iron Wrist” or the album, Hammered, is best left to the interpreter. This is actually a great tribute as it’s still clearly a Metallica song; they didn’t try to change their sound to be anything other than themselves. It’s also not a cheesy ballad or a maudlin display. It’s perfectly in-line with Lemmy’s philosophy that we shouldn’t mourn his passing but celebrate the great music he’s made and just play rock n’ roll.
Concluding the album is “Spit Out the Bone.” Right away I notice it’s the most energetic piece since “Hardwired” or “Moth into Flame.” If most of this record is meant to sound like classic thrash metal, then these three would be the only ones with enough speed to actually reach that goal. This is achieved with a creative use of breakdowns as cool-down periods; however, Ulrich’s blastbeat still doesn’t sound real. The song is very angry and in-your-face. It’s enough to invoke a need to grab a denim vest and bang one’s head vigorously.
As for packaging, the standard version comes with the album on two discs with a total playtime of 1h 17min. A 3-disc Deluxe Edition is also available for those with an extra €7 in their pockets. The third disc contains the 2014 single “Lords of Summer” as well as some of the covers Metallica have contributed to various collections over the last few years. These are well worth the investment, especially “Ronnie Rising”, which is a medley of Rainbow songs as a tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio, and of course, their versions of Iron Maiden’s “Remember Tomorrow” and Deep Purple’s “When a Blind Man Cries.” Also included are a bunch of live tracks recorded earlier this year. They are very focused on Metallica’s earlier material, which I find fitting for this release. The deluxe version is well worth the extra just for the covers, but the live tracks are also serviceable.
In the end, Hardwired…To Self-Destruct is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s entirely too long. It could easily fit on one disc if you took out all the filler, such as “Now that We’re Dead”, “Confusion”, “ManUNkind”, and “Here Comes Revenge.” Then there’s the issue of the drums. Compared to any of the great thrash bands still active, such as Testament, Anthrax, or Kreator, they just don’t hold up. Fans are of course used to this, but we can’t review albums with handicaps. All that said, overall the record does have a great feel and sound to it. For me personally, it feels as if the last 25 years have been wiped out and this is the long-awaited follow up to the Black Album. By no means can I call it a fantastic album, but by its own standards, it’s the best new Metallica album I could have ever hoped to hear. I recommend it to fans of the band and to fans of eighties thrash metal.
Rating: 7/10, 3.5 Stars.
2. Atlas, Rise!
3. Now That We’re Dead
4. Moth Into Flame
5. Dream No More
6. Halo on Fire
3. Here Comes Revenge
4. Am I Savage?
5. Murder One
6. Spit Out the Bone
1. Lords of Summer
2. Ronnie Rising Medley (A Light in the Black/Tarot Woman/Stargazer/Kill the King)
3. When a Blind Man Cries (Deep Purple cover)
4. Remember Tomorrow (Iron Maiden cover)
5. Helpless (Live at Rasputin Music)
6. Hit the Lights (Live at Rasputin Music)
7. The Four Horsemen (Live at Rasputin Music)
8. Ride the Lightning (Live at Rasputin Music)
9. Fade to Black (Live at Rasputin Music)
10. Jump in the Fire (Live at Rasputin Music)
11. For Whom the Bell Tolls (Live at Rasputin Music)
12. Creeping Death (Live at Rasputin Music)
13. Metal Militia (Live at Rasputin Music)
14. Hardwired (Live in Minneapolis)