When your first decade of music not only sells by the tens of millions but permanently leaves an indelible impact on an entire genre of music, it is expected that the rest of your work will forever be judged against that early output. It’s not fair, but that’s what every major artist has to deal with and especially in heavy metal. Every major sea change the metal genre has experienced was instigated by young, brash phenoms — Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Slayer, Death, Napalm Death, and Emperor to name but a few — and consequently metal fans latch on to a band’s early work and cling to it for dear life, no matter how long a band will keep going.
Dealing with their highly influential past is something Metallica has had to come to terms with in the last decade. They’ve always been an ambitious band, and the clout they’ve earned over the past 34 years affords them the extraordinary freedom to do whatever the heck they want, to follow whatever muse that inspires them. The experiments don’t often work — 2013’s Through the Never film flopped, and 2011’s collaboration with Lou Reed Lulu remains a fascinating mess — but if that’s what the band needs to get their self-indulgence out of their system, then so be it, as long as the next “proper” album sticks to their biggest strengths.
As gigantic as Metallica is, as huge as the concerts have become, when the foursome strip away all the frills and just play in a small space together, the power and chemistry are still there. Now in their 50s, it was something the foursome of James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Robert Trujillo had to re-learn after the shambolic recording process of 2003’s St. Anger. After making a conscious effort to simplify, to rediscover what made Metallica so vital from 1982 to 1991, they regained that footing on 2008’s imperfect but pleasing Death Magnetic. Although that album had its share of bloat – a trouble spot on their post-Black Album output – its strong moments were convincing enough to make one feel a little more optimistic about the band’s future than, say, a few years prior.
Eight years, one movie, two Orion Fests, an “all-request” world tour, and one Lulu later, the foursome have finally, finally gotten back to making new music, and tenth album Hardwired… to Self Destruct shows audiences a side of Metallica that’s been sorely missing for the last 29 years: fiery, focused, aggressive, disciplined.
Yes, disciplined. Metallica has always crammed its albums to the gills with content — at 47 minutes the epochal Ride the Lightning is the shortest album in the discography — but starting with side two of the Black Album the sharp focus slipped to the point where every subsequent album would be bogged down by filler, partially a product of the CD era. This time, and perhaps following the lead of Iron Maiden, whose 2015 double album The Book of Souls is a late-career peak, the 77-minute Hardwired has been split into two distinctly sequenced halves, which in turn allows the listener to ease into the large volume of music instead of taking it in all at once. Best of all, though, the songwriting is concise, and considering Metallica’s habit for not knowing when to say when it’s a rather pleasant surprise.
Bursting out of the gate at a trim 3:09, “Hardwired” is a glorious return to the thrash metal sound the band helped create. Propelled by Ulrich’s loose-but-steady double-time beats and held together by Hetfield’s trademark muscular rhythm riffs, the song’s angry sentiment (“We’re so fucked, shit out of luck”) feels, unfortunately, relevant considering the tumultuous year the world had endured. In direct contrast, “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth Into Flame” exuberantly revisit Hetfield’s and Ulrich’s early ‘80s metal fandom, channeling Diamond Head, Mercyful Fate, and Killers-era Iron Maiden by adding melodic flourishes to a strong sense of groove, yielding a pair of the band’s catchiest fist-bangers in ages.
Speaking of hooks, though, the mid-paced chugger “Now That We’re Dead” is built around a brilliant, crisp little marching riff and rides that groove for a full seven minutes. Its simplicity echoes the Black Album at its best and features some of Hetfield’s strongest vocal work on the entire album. “Halo on Fire” starts off melancholic but builds to a wonderful climax, featuring an up-tempo coda built around a blessedly simple riff and an expressive solo by Hammett that echoes Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi. And in an inspired touch, Master of Puppets’ colossal Lovecraftian epic “The Thing That Should Not Be” is alluded to on the stomping, crushing “Dream No More”.
The second half of the album is more of a mixed bag. “Confusion” bears a strong similarity to Death Magnetic, in how it tries to find an even ground between atonality and melody, but it succeeds mightily thanks to the very strong interplay between the lead riff and vocal melody. Despite its unfortunate title, “ManUNkind” is a wicked Southern rock jam that features Trujillo’s finest bass work, and echoes the better deep cuts from Load and Reload two decades ago. “Here Comes Revenge” swings hard, alternating between creeping menace and anthemic vitriol, while “Am I Savage” neatly releases its building tension with a clever ascending riff in its chorus. “Murder One” is arguably the album’s weakest moment, as the band’s heartfelt tribute to the late Lemmy Kilmister falls slightly flat, but the ship is righted immediately after as the dystopian “Spit Out the Bone” closes things with another ferocious, angry blast of speed.
With no ballads, no meandering instrumentals, a renewed focus on honest-to-goodness heavy metal, and a keen focus on songwriting restraint, Hardwired… to Self Destruct is strong enough for longtime fans to ask, “What took you so long?” As much time as it took for Metallica to rediscover that old magic, though, upon hearing the end result it was well worth the wait. More than anything, Metallica sounds like they’re having fun again. You hear it in those little touches throughout the record that pays homage to their old favorites, and even in those extended passages where they keep going just a little longer because the groove feels too good. The subject matter might be bleak, but there’s a lust for life on this album that will leave a smile on the faces of their millions of fans, and even on a few of those grumpy old ones.