Metallica may be ready to cast off the burden of being a legacy act in favor of reclaiming its place at the top of the metal mainstream.
The peaks and troughs of Metallica’s career are well-documented, and its present-day status as the dads of thrash metal is at once a limiting lens through which to view its legacy and perhaps the best that it can hope for given its long road back into fans’ good graces. The band’s last album, 2008’s Death Magnetic, shook off a decade of trend-chasing to return to its thrash roots, and the results were mostly positive. Despite absurdly over-compressed and EQ-boosted production, as well as lyrics that erred on the easily accessible over thought-provokingly intelligent, the album was easily the most solid Metallica record since 1991’s self-titled LP, re-introducing complex structures, pummeling riffs and an invigorated sense of constructively directed anger.
Produced nearly a decade later, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is the product of a subsequent eight years of touring regularly off of the renewed interest spawned by Death Magnetic. In that time the band had recaptured much of the energy of earlier albums, energy that had been lost with lineup changes and age. Hardwired is if anything even stronger than its predecessor, not an unsure attempt to capture the glory days but a confident barrage of the band’s classic thrash-prog.
The opening title track sets the tone with galloping snares and a chugging riff that erupts into Kill ‘Em All-era ferocity. “Moth Into Flame” incorporates the Thin-Lizzy-on-speed dual guitar interplay that dotted Master of Puppets, the mid-tempo churn making space for angry trills and asides that the band used to be able to toss off without a moment’s hesitation. “Here Comes Revenge” could have easily come from the …And Justice for All sessions, pushing the riffs to orchestral heights as the rhythm section stabs ferociously at a gap in the guitar assault. James Hetfield even regains some of his old, barking militancy when he snarls “I’ve been here since dawn of time/ Countless hatreds built my shrine/ I was born in anger’s flame/ He was Abel, I was Cain.” Not to be outdone, Kirk Hammett throws in one of those perfectly timed solos that used to be his forte: not too short, but not excessively, wearingly long.
As good as the band is at dredging up its classic sound, it goes even deeper into the past to explore many of the sounds that influenced Metallica in the first place. The title “Am I Savage?” naturally recalls Diamond Head’s epochal New Wave of British Heavy Metal “Am I Evil?” (which the band covered in 1988), but the track’s musical point of reference is the doomy stomp of Black Sabbath. Standout track “Atlas, Rise!” has the sprinting, not-quite-thrash intensity of Iron Maiden, with the guitars cascading over Lars Ulrich’s surprisingly strong drumming. It’s ones of the band’s strongest songs in decades, maybe ever. There are also moments where the group draws from the bands that followed in its wake, as in the sludgy, Pantera-esque groove of “Dream No More,” which also marks the first instance in decades that Hetfield’s softened, gruff croon returns to its early, nasty rasp.
As thoroughly listenable as the material is, there are some noticeable issues. Ulrich’s drums have always sounded like garbage, and apparently there’s no use hoping this will change. At times, his kick drum sounds like he’s thwacking a rug with a carpet beater. There’s also the matter of the lyrics, which long ago lost the savage emotion of the classic era material. “Hardwired” may sound like a trademark opening, but the chorus of “We’re all fucked/ Shit out of luck” sounds ironically more childish than their youthful work. What happened to the band that could toss off lines like “Life planned out before my birth, nothing could I say/ Had no chance to see myself, molded day by day/ Looking back I realize, nothing have I done”? Once upon a time, Hetfield sang lyrics as if he lived them, embodied the fears and furies of the songs; now, he stands outside the content of the music, an objective commentator who sounds as if he can only understand social anxiety in the abstract.
Nonetheless, Hardwired is the first time in ages that one can honestly praise a Metallica record without throwing out mitigating caveats about it being great “all things considered.” A double-record could have brought out the worst in the group, but apart from one too many extended intros, the songs are exceptionally crafted and ready to set heads banging. Before this album, it was hard to imagine that the band could ever make a song like “Spit Out the Bone,” by far their best closer since “Damage, Inc.” The two songs have a lot in common: breakneck tempo, outraged vocal deliveries and a sound of the world caving in from the power of the band’s fury. This isn’t a throwback; it’s an assured demonstration of the strengths that Metallica never lost, only buried. If this is the group stripped free of its self-imposed limitations, Metallica may be ready to cast off the burden of being a legacy act in favor of reclaiming its place at the top of the metal mainstream.