Despite my usual lack of empathy for the rich, famous and successful (this whole thing with Kanye supporting Trump has been like schadenfreude Christmas) , I’m fully willing to buy into the fact that it ain’t easy being Metallica. Being around as long as they have, serving as an influence for multiple generations of up-in-coming musicians and shifting styles with the times under intense scrutinization, not to mention highly publicized personal and professional tragedies that would’ve spelled doom for bands made of any less stern stuff. Metallica, warts and all, deserves our respect and reverence, especially in an age where the widespread availability and disposability of popular culture at large means that the next Metallica is never coming, so we’d better appreciate this one while, almost 35 years on, they’re miraculously still alive and kicking.
Which makes my failure to connect with their new record “Hardwired… To Self-Destruct” all the more disappointing. 2008’s “Death Magnetic” had its detractors but was seen by many, including myself, as a course correction over 20 years in the making, bringing the speed and complexity of 1987’s “…And Justice For All” roaring back to life after the band’s mainstream baiting 90’s aspirations towards groove and grunge, and the myriad of sonic sins committed by 2003’s “St. Anger”.
“Hardwired…” feels like a huge step backward, a calculated and uninspired experiment in taking a heavy groove style somewhere in between 1991’s “Black Album” and 1996’s “Load”, and bloating the song lengths to near double what they should be. You look at this track listing and see it dominated by seven and eight minute songs, and you expect “Master of Puppets” style operatic epics, but it’s really just a Trojan horse disguising the simplicity and repetition found in the songs at hand. Even the undeniable, stone cold classics of the “Load” era like “Until It Sleeps” or “Hero Of The Day” wouldn’t be able to stand up to this kind of scrutiny, and the material on “Hardwired…” falters under the weight of its own lack of ambition as a result.
It’s a shortsighted and bone headed decision that calls to mind the lack of guitar solos on “St. Anger”, and sticks out even further when you learn that resident mad genius Kirk Hammett has no songwriting credit on any of these 12 tracks. You would also expect veteran Slipknot and Slayer collaborator Greg Fidelman to get something a little bit more avant-garde and esoteric out of these guys too, but it’s probably hard to tell Metallica how to be Metallica, especially after how going full fucking weird on their 2011 collaboration with Lou Reed “LuLu”, also produced by Fidelman, made them the butt of countless internet jokes to this day.
Still, this is Metallica, and just like pizza (and Marvel), bad Metallica is still pretty good. There are flashes of brilliance here, just as there were under the lack of guitar gymnastics and “tin can” drum sound on “St. Anger”. “Here Comes Revenge” and “Murder One” (the band’s tribute to fallen metal hero Lemmy Kilmeister) almost reach the somber “Sanitarium” or “Unforgiven” tone that the band achieved with “The Day That Never Comes” on “Death Magnetic”, but fall short, again due to repetitive structures and far too ambiguous lyrics that fail to plumb the depths of Hetfield’s pain in the way that heart wrenching classics like “Fade To Black” and “Dyers Eve” did in the past. “Atlas Rise” most closely nails what the band seemed to be going for here, subtle tempo changes and clever lyrical interplay avoiding the morass of same-y ness found on the rest of the double album’s interminable 74 minute length.
The fact that most mainstream journalists have been referring to this as a thrash record (if they heard the new Ghoul they’d probably piss their pants) is pretty laughable considering that there’s really only two tracks that come anything close to thrash on it. Lead track and single “Hardwired” thunders in like a miniature version of “Master of Puppets” classic “Damage Inc”, it’s bite size, “Kill ‘Em All” era-esque 3:18 run time making it hard to grow tired of. No wonder it and “Atlas Rise” have already become live staples. The record’s crown jewel though, has to be epic closer “Spit Out The Bone”, pound for pound just as much of an ass kicker as the aforementioned “Dyers Eve” or “Damage Inc”, and it even finds time to fold in the type of harmonic dual guitar interplay employed by many of the modern melodeath giants that wouldn’t be here if not for “Puppets” or “Justice”. It’s awesome, but it makes me even more sad that “Hardwired…” lacks any other tracks that come even close to its brilliance.
In the end, Metallica is such an institution and cottage industry that I’m sure there’s people out there who only listen to Metallica, and will welcome this more even keeled change of pace from the more breakneck “Death Magnetic”. I may not believe in “Hardwired…” but I still believe in Metallica, and the fact that the band seems emotionally reinvigorated by the creation of this material (as opposed to the well documented turmoil surrounding “St. Anger”) is a good sign that it won’t be another 8 years before we hear more Metallica, and maybe at that time the band will be willing to take more chances, as opposed to the deafening aura of playing it safe heard here on “Hardwired…”.