Friday, December 9, 2016

Metallica – Hardwired… To Self Destruct

Though it has been 8 years since the last Metallica full-length, the narrative that the band hasn’t done much since is simply untrue. After multiple world tours, hosting the Orion festival for a couple of years, 30th anniversary shows, Big 4 shows, hitting every single continent and so on, Metallica just had other priorities. The reality is that being the biggest metal band in the world comes with privileges beyond simply recording new studio albums, but since most fans can’t experience a lot of what Metallica has done since 2008, a new studio album is welcome.

Hardwired… To Self Destruct” is the result of the band’s recent efforts and is certainly not lacking in material. At 77 minutes, this is yet another lengthy effort by a band that has never been able to write succinct songs. Whereas “Death Magnetic” was meant to be a pure return to form (with varying degrees of success) after “St. Anger”, this record has more intrigue because it wasn’t clear if the band would stay the course or not. To Metallica’s credit, “Hardwired… To Self Destruct” is by far the most natural sounding Metallica release in at least 2 decades. In other words, this is the album they wanted to make, rather than one they felt compelled to write.

This means that though there are some decent thrashers on this album, it ultimately is not a thrash record. This is the biggest difference between Metallica in 2016 and Metallica in 2008. In retrospect, “Death Magnetic” was actually a pretty aggressive record compared to the mid-paced tempos that dominate this record. Nearly the entirety of disc 2 (excepting “Spit Out the Bone” and parts of “Here Comes Revenge”) plod along at the same pace, led by Lars Ulrich’s simplistic drum beats. One or two of these types of songs really isn’t bad, but a whole slew of them placed at the end of the record makes for major fatigue.

The good news is that there are a couple of really killer mid-tempo songs. “Now That We’re Dead” is among the band’s heavier, groovier, and catchier tunes that they’ve done in a while. “Halo On Fire”, which is the longest song, shows some legitimate progressive tendencies towards the end as the band delves into Iron Maiden worship with their usage of harmonies. In general, this album contains far more harmonized lead guitar work than many of Metallica’s previous records. Both “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth Into Flame” are overflowing with these types of sections (even if the chorus of the former song does use them somewhat awkwardly), and a number of other songs use them to varying levels of success.

You may have noticed that most of the nameworthy songs so far are contained on disc 1, and this is easily one of the biggest legitimate criticisms of “Hardwired… To Self Destruct”. There are about 7 worthwhile songs on this album, and 5 of them are on the first disc (“Dream No More” being the lone weak track). Again, it’s not even that the songs sound the same, but rather that most of the other songs are the same tempo. It’s a low bar to beat, but as soon as Metallica injects speed into their music, it instantly becomes brilliant. It’s no surprise that the fastest, thrashiest song on this album (“Spit Out the Bone”) is being widely hailed as the band’s best song since the first 5 records. It also brings to light how ripping tracks like “That Was Just Your Life”, “All Nightmare Long”, “The Judas Kiss”, and “My Apocalypse” from “Death Magnetic” were. Production aside, that album absolutely smokes this one.

To be fair though, we can’t just throw production differences aside. “Hardwired… To Self Destruct” is easily the best sounding Metallica album other than the self-titled. There are more appropriately produced records (“…And Justice For All” comes to mind as my favourite Metallica production), but in terms of sheer quality, this album is near perfect. The only weak point is the sound of Lars’ snare. Put simply, his abuse of snare drum fills puts a damper on an otherwise brilliant sounding record.

From a songwriting standpoint, there is a lot to like here. “Moth Into Flame” is easily the most well written song the band has done in a long time. One of the things that always made Metallica stand out amongst other bands is that their music had perfect transitions between riffs. It never felt like they were stringing random riffs together, and “Moth Into Flame” is the best example of this in some time. It moves from section to section seamlessly, and incorporates a significant amount of speed, despite much of the song chugging along at a slightly upbeat pace. It has some riffs that are reminiscent of “End of the Line”, but ultimately is a very unique addition to the band’s catalogue.

Other highlights include the two fastest songs: “Hardwired” and “Spit Out the Bone”. Both show that James Hetfield is nowhere near out of riffs, and the latter track shows that he still has some fire in his voice. James’ vocal performance seems to vary on almost a daily basis, but he redeems any past misfirings on this release because he sounds impeccable. Whether he is barking venom out, or hitting softer lines, James’ range and tone are both excellent. This also brings up an excellent point: despite some mellower moments, there is no outright ballad on this album. This is commendable given that “Death Magnetic’s” ballad was the lead single and obvious attempt at commerciality on that record.

Little has been said in this review about the deeper cuts, but that’s because they aren’t worthy of much discussion. Most of them attempt to sound like classic songs like “The God That Failed” or “Sad But True”, but fall incredibly short. “Confusion” kicks off as a rip-off of Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?”, yet it can’t rival the NWOBHM classic. “ManUNkind” is perhaps the biggest offender when it comes to boring groove riffs, and one of the weakest cuts on the record (despite the intriguing music video). Perhaps the lone highlight of these later tracks is “Here Comes Revenge”, which gets some decent alternate picking going in the chorus (once again evidencing that speed is all Metallica needs to rule).  

By unleashing 3 of the 4 best songs on this album before its release date Metallica set expectations just a bit too high. There is a lot of truly great music on this album (and that isn’t just by “modern Metallica” standards). Both “Moth Into Flame” and “Spit Out the Bone” can stand up to almost any of the band’s previous works, but this album as a whole is just too inconsistent and too slow to be worth the 8-year wait. The best part about “Hardwired… To Self Destruct” is that it makes me appreciate “Death Magnetic” so much more. Even if that record wasn’t as genuine and was made because everybody else was returning to thrash in 2008, it was still a stronger release. Overall, if you cut Metallica’s new album in half, it would be a truly great album. As it stands, it is an enjoyable, but overlong release.
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"Moth Into Flame"
"Spit Out the Bone"

Final Rating
3.6/5 or 72%. 

Written by Scott

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