Metallica Hardwired... to Self-Destruct
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02. Atlas, Rise!
03. Now That We’re Dead
04. Moth Into Flame
05. Dream No More
06. Halo On Fire
09. Here Comes Revenge
10. Am I Savage?
11. Murder One
12. Spit Out the Bone
It is hard to think of a heavy metal band more divisive or with greater baggage than Metallica. The most commercially successful of the Big 4 to emerge from the 1980s thrash metal scene, Metallica have been, at different times throughout their career, greatly admired and notoriously reviled by musicians and fans alike. It is as impossible to find a metalhead who isn't intimately acquainted with Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and …And Justice for All, as it is to find one doesn't at least have reservations about much of their later catalog, which include critical bombs like Reload and St. Anger.
All of this is to highlight the fact that for most people who consider themselves more than casual fans, listening to a new Metallica record nowadays often comes with a fair amount of skepticism, trepidation, and potential prejudice from the listener. This ill-will has been further compounded by the band's off-stage behavior, which has included suing their own fans for illegally downloading their music and producing a feature-length documentary that addressed the turmoil faced by aging millionaires when they're forced to make heart-wrenching decisions (like whether to part with their multi-million dollar modern art collection). As a result, Metallica, more than most bands, often release music that garners widely varied responses from fans and critics alike. This release will likely be no different, for reasons to be discussed.
Before discussing specific tracks, some general elements of Hardwired... to Self-Destruct need to be noted. First, the production value has greatly improved compared to St. Anger, and to a lesser extent, Death Magnetic. Overall, producer Greg Fidelman did an excellent job ensuring that both rapid-fire thrash riffs and layered, atmospheric sections alike came through warm and crisp sounding. Secondly, singer James Hetfield, while once an astute and insightful lyricist by the standards of the genre, has continued producing embarrassingly hackneyed and cliché-filled lyrics. While nothing on this record quite matches the cringe-worthiness of past offerings like "Frantic-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick tock," his ham-fisted attempts at insight on this album have resulted in a song being un-ironically titled "ManUNkind." Thirdly, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett seems to have a wah-pedal permanently grafted to his foot, because the solos on this album are overwhelmingly drenched in the modulating tones of this effect, regardless of whether its inclusion is warranted in the song or not. Finally, and this will be discussed at greater length in the track-by track analysis, this record would have benefitted from some serious paring down. At over 77 minutes in length, Hardwired... to Self-Destruct's twelve tracks are arguably three or four songs too many. If the group had of cut some of the album's weaker tracks it would've helped reduce listener fatigue and let some of the incredibly well-crafted songs that this record has to offer stand out to a greater degree.
The album begins with the lead single, "Hardwired," which does provide die-hard fans with the quickened, staccato instrumental attack that had been hoped for, but largely fails to realize the potential of the same people that wrote "Battery" and "Fight Fire With Fire." All of the elements of a ferocious metallic onslaught are present in this opener, but the execution still seems stilted and somewhat forced. It very much seems like Metallica is trying to dust off their old song-writing chops, while still dealing with the odd misstep of treading into this long-abandoned territory. Nevertheless, the song remains largely enjoyable and many of the riffs, taken individually, impressively hint at what this band is still capable of. Fortunately, any lingering doubts about Metallica's current potency are quickly removed with "Atlas, Rise!." Blending Kill 'em All and …And Justice for All influences, this track expertly blends precise thrash riffs with melodic overtures to support Hetfield's vocals, which sound better than they have in years. Despite clocking in at over six minutes, the dynamics and variety in the song's composition ensure that it never gets tiresome or monotonous.
Any idea that this record was going to universally favor speed and intensity over mood and rhythm is dismissed during "Now That We're Dead." Starting with a trudging, palm-muted intro, the song highlights some of the better elements of the 'Black Album' and Load eras, building an evolving arrangement around a crisp, well-written, mid-tempo riff and Hetfield's penchant for rising, melodic choruses. It helps establish that not only are Metallica going to explore many of the diverse styles that they've employed in the past on this album, but that they are able to do so in an effective and engaging manner.
This initial foray into hard rock is short-lived though, as "Moth Into Flame" emerges as one of the record's fastest and strongest offerings. Proving that Metallica is at their best when combining breakneck speed, impeccable precision, and well-placed melodies, this song blends layered guitars, galloping drums, and harmonized choruses in such a way that there isn't a single note out of place in this well-crafted thrash anthem.
Next, "Dream No More" has a lumbering, atmospheric feel to it, reminiscent of "The Thing That Should Not Be," but with far more Load-influenced swagger than anything from the Master of Puppets era. Regardless of its influences, the song provides a dynamic shift from "Moth Into Flame" that further makes each style stand out in beneficial contrast.
While the first fives tracks of this album are each strong in their own way, especially compared to much of the group's recent output, this momentum unfortunately proves to be unsustainable. Beginning the middle section of this record, "Halo on Fire" interchanges soft, almost quiet verses with layered, soaring choruses, but at over eight minutes in length, there is little stopping this song from being incredibly repetitious and plainly uninteresting at times. "Confusion" fares better, using militaristic drumming and a variety of well-written metallic riffs to help along unimposing verses. While it is by no means a short song, every note sounds purposeful thanks to a direct and precise arrangement.
The dive into increasingly indulgent mid-tempo filler speeds up with "ManUNkind." Organized around a riff that didn't seem to make the cut on Reload, this track blandly plods along, interrupted only by transitions between riffs that often feel forced and ill-conceived. Furthermore, despite having little to work with from the start, like many on this album, this punishing listen also comes in at just shy of seven minutes. "Here Comes Revenge" and "Am I Savage?" aren't nearly as disappointing, but they are still just stock, middle-of-the-road, hard rock offerings, neither of which provide the intensity or sonic depth of the album's better tracks.
As the album nears its end, "Murder One," written as an ode to the late, great Lemmy Kilmister, is a particularly big let-down. Why Metallica would save a song that is clearly built on a remarkably uninspired riff (which distinctly sounds like something the band would've discarded while recording Reload for sounding too nu-metal) to celebrate one of metal's most legendary figures is baffling. Not even the noble subject matter or rousing chorus can save this disappointing song.
Until this point, the latter half of this album has been mediocre at best, but that all changes with the final track, "Spit Out the Bone." Like "Damage, Inc." And "Dyers Eve" before it, Metallica has ensured that the record ends on one of its highest notes. Resurrecting the thrashing, biting style that was so dominant at the start of the album, this track perfects the galloping drums, monstrous riffs, frantic tempo, and precise song-writing that Metallica was so praised for throughout much of their career. Furthermore, Hetfield's vocals are delivered with a growl that drips of vitriol and contempt unlike anything he's done in decades. There couldn't have been a better way to end this album, which helps the band to declare that they still deserve their place among thrash metal's elite.
Bottom Line: If Metallica had taken a note from their early works and pared this album down to its eight best songs, Hardwired... to Self-Destruct would have been spoken about in far more reverent tones. While likely the best thing the group has produced in at least twenty years, their inability or unwillingness to cut filler songs drags down the entire album and leaves listeners with a somewhat muddled collection of both the best and the worst Metallica has to offer.
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