Album: Hardwired… to Self-Destruct
Genre: Thrash metal
Is “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” a glorious return to form for the leaders of the Big Four of Thrash?
Unbelievably, the answer is yes. Holy shit, this album is actually really good! In fact, it’s the best Metallica album in two decades and a remarkable mesh of the band’s thrash roots and their latter day mainstream appeal and squeaky clean polish.
Admit it, this is all fairly shocking. Aside from 2008’s solid but shamelessly self-plagarizing “Death Magnetic,” Metallica has been a fairly abominable outfit since releasing their self-titled record way back in 1991. The atrocity that was “St. Anger” has already been widely discussed, but the band’s ghastly 2011 collaboration with the late Lou Reed, unarguably one of the worst albums released by a major artist(s) in rock history, still gives a bitter aftertaste.
So yeah, expectations were understandably tame. One minute in, said expectations are met, raised and met again.
“Hardwired” kicks off the album with a blistering riff, punchy vocals and … that’s it. Don’t worry, though. That’s a good thing! Three minutes of frantic, blunt, in-your-face thrash metal. This is the kind of music that made Metallica a household name.
“Death Magnetic” was fast, too. But “Hardwired” — both the opener and the album as a whole — doesn’t sound like its desperately trying to outdo the band’s earlier works. It’s original, aggressive yet accessible, and most importantly, it’s just fun.
The opener gives way to “Atlas, Rise!,” one of the better tracks in the band’s storied discography. It’s about six and a half minutes long — about the average length here — and every second is classic Metallica thrash. Mid-paced but suitably intense, “Atlas, Rise!” has the engaging riffage, great soloing and shouty vocals of yesteryear’s Metallica, but it’s wrapped up in clean production and is just accessible enough to warrant mainstream appeal.
Did I mention the vocals? They’re definitely a mixed bag on the record as a whole, but when they work, as they do on “Atlas, Rise!” they’re a pleasure. This is James Hetfield at his best, yelling about suitably straightforward metal topics with just enough melody and bite to supplement the instrumentation, the true star of the show.
Simple lyrics, but thank God for that. Asinine tirades about feasting on minority genitalia and Hetfield’s bold proclamations about being common furniture are mercifully absent. Lyrical themes include addition, Lovecraft mythos and emotional struggle. Par for the heavy metal course, but they serve their purpose.
As stated, it’s all about the guitar thrashing, anyway. “Moth into Flame” is another standout, carried by excellent and infectiously catchy guitar riffs and a commendable drumming performance by Lars Ulrich. The solos, both on “Moth into Flame” and elsewhere, aren’t as sizzlingly fast or technical as those on the band’s earliest records, but they’re plentiful, memorable and help to keep things varied.
“Dream No More” and “Halo on Fire” are slower, but show that Metallica can craft more melodic traditional heavy metal just as well as they do thrash. Vocals are conservatively placed, giving ample room for sweeping guitar melodies and broader song structures. They’re placed at the end of the first disc, changing up the pace before the nonstop thrashing has a chance to invite fatigue
So is “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” the highly-awaited proper thrash sequel to “Master of Puppets?” At times, such on the aforementioned tracks, Metallica’s latest comes relatively close. The record’s high points are many and at its best, offers demonstrative proof that Metallica is the most celebrated thrash metal band for good reason.
But savvy readers will note, every preceding example is from the record’s first disc. This is a double album, and “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct’s” strongest material is undeniably front-loaded.
First, the album as a whole is just way too long. It’s a staggering 77 minutes, about half of which could’ve been cut out, or at least trimmed down. Yes, there’s diversity, but not even remotely enough to justify the runtime.
Taken individually, even the weaker songs are largely agreeable, but the album nonetheless teeters on the line of becoming white noise well before its conclusion. Like, 30 minutes before. That’s unacceptable.
The second disc places a great emphasis on the band’s hard rocking “Load” and “Reload” era. The songs here aren’t quite as dull as the mention of those albums would suggest, but at best, they’re inoffensive radio-friendly filler. A nice riff here and there doesn’t excuse the fact that you’ll be hard pressed to remember even half of what’s going on here.
Unfortunately, one of the latter disc’s standouts is Hetfield, and not in a good way. When songs demand fast, aggressive vocals, Hetfield’s shouting is perfectly suitable. But Metallica didn’t rise to rock fame because of their vocals, and Hetfield’s range leaves much to be desired.
“Confusion,” “Here Comes Revenge” and “Murder One” wouldn’t have made good instrumentals — bland “heavy” radio rock comes to mind — but are made actually unpleasant by Hetfield’s singing. Earlier songs bring back memories of “Master of Puppets” and “Ride the Lightning.” That’s a good thing. Reminiscing about “Load” and “Reload,” not so much.
I’m not convinced that faster, thrashier tracks on the second disc would have been an improvement. Though the aforementioned disc one highlights are great, they’re far from the awe-inspiring quality of “Battery” or “Creeping Death.” Thrash metal or otherwise, the material is generally solid but isn’t consistently impressive enough to warrant a double album, much less one that runs this long.
Thankfully, the record ends on a remarkably high note. “Spit Out the Bone” is the record’s fastest piece and easily compares to past album closers such as “Damage Inc.” and “Dyers Eye.” Its furious pace and single-minded intensity are in stark contrast to the rest of the second disc and never feels overlong, despite its seven-minute runtime.
If the album as a whole was similarly succinct, this would be one of the year’s standout records. But this is still a good record and far better than anyone could’ve reasonably expected. “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” has already enjoyed obscene commercial success. Lowest points duly noted, that success is justified and there’s enough quality content here to satisfy casual metal listeners and seasoned thrashers alike.
If that’s not a minor miracle, I don’t know what is.