Further thoughts on Metallica’s Hardwired… to Self-Destruct

This morning, an article about the history of links between Metallica and Cthulhu was posted over at Black Gate; you can see it here: https://www.blackgate.com/2017/05/01/cthulhu-in-metallica/

If you’re here from Black Gate, welcome! I had a few thoughts on the latest Metallica album beyond the scope of the Black Gate article that I thought I’d share here.

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Hardwired… to Self Destruct is, in a nutshell, an excellent Metallica album. The band is even more comfortable and natural than on 2008’s Death Magnetic. Death Magnetic was a good Metallica album, but somewhat forgettable; it was a joy to listen to, but did not have the stick-with-you-ness of previous Metallica efforts. The single “Hardwired” does not have this problem. It smashes out of the gate with a slab of pure thrash, “Hardwired” is just over three minutes long, and is a definite throwback to the speed metal/punk of Kill ‘Em All, all while still squeezing in a fantastic Kirk Hammett solo. The song was supposedly written last when the band decided it needed a fast single after the rest of the album was already completed.

If that’s the result, someone needs to keep putting James Hetfield in a pressure cooker and making him put out songs in a hurry. In addition to being a great opener, Hardwired is damn near the best song on the album.

The issue with the album, and it’s a larger issue Metallica is going to continue struggling with, is that they are entering into what I call “Stephen King territory”. Both Metallica and Stephen King have decades honing their craft, and both have been considered masters for a very long time. But with that, they’re both being granted the freedom to explore whatever little nook and cranny they want, and there’s little oversight to rein them in and tell them no, cut that part. Both artists have seen a little bloat creeping into their works. I loved King in high school, and eagerly devoured some of his re-issued works that were “now unedited” on the premise that more King is better. After reading some of them, I realized there was a reason some of those bits were left on cutting room floor the first time around.

The result is songs like “Halo on Fire”, my favorite on the album. It’s a fantastic song playing off the alternating fury of heavy riffs with delicate picked melodies and Hetfield’s surprisingly soulful singing. And it’s great for the first 5:30, but the song drags on to an over eight-minute playing time.

Musically, Hetfield’s fingerprints are all over the album even more than usual. The album is built entirely around riffs he wrote. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett was reportedly recording riffs on his iPhone, but it was subsequently lost and he had not backed it up, leaving him with no riffs for the band to consider building songs around. (This is a great opportunity to remind the creatives out there: back your shit up right now. Go ahead and start that DropBox or GoogleDrive account you’ve been meaning to, and put your stuff in it.)

The closer the album sticks to the thrash, the better it is. The other standout, “Spit Out the Bone”, starts with a similar staccato tone of “Hardwired” but it most reminded me of “Damage, Inc.” from Master of Puppets. Although a longer tune at over seven minutes, it holds its focus on the riffs and intricate solos and variations.

The bloat is frustrating in other places, too. “Here Comes Revenge” has a great moment exactly once a verse, when Hetfield sings “I was born in anger’s flame / he was Abel, I was Cain” while the guitars trip over into a mid-tempo groove Metallica excels at but does not revisit that often. And then, it meanders off into more mediocre territory. Still, I listen to the song just for those moments because they’re that good.

Overall, I’d give it a B+. They perhaps got lost a bit with 2003’s St. Anger, and clawed back towards equilibrium on Death Magnetic, before they finally hit it here.

Essential cuts: “Hardwired”, “Spit Out the Bone” and “Halo on Fire”
Optional, but still good: “Man Unkind”, “Atlas Rise” and “Dream No More”

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