A year after the release of 2008’s Death Magnetic, Metallica were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The two things weren’t necessarily connected: Death Magnetic had its moments, but mostly got by on grade inflation. Even then, the album was enthusiastically touted as a “return to form” because it wasn’t as terrible as 2003’s St. Anger, and hinged on familiarity–this was older Metallica playing old Metallica, with uninspired songwriting and Rick Rubin’s compressed production. It passed. Really, the Rock Hall honor should’ve arguably been nullified after their 2011 Lou Reed collaboration, Lulu, a record that’s become bearable with age, but still sounds like two different open-mic acts fighting for air at separate ends of a coffeehouse.
It’s not surprising that fans might not expect much from Metallica’s new album, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct. In fact, it’s hard not to wonder why they decided to make new music at all. Over the past few years, Metallica started (then shuttered) the Orion Music + More festival, released a confusing action/adventure concert film called Through the Never, and went on a tour during which they played one new song–“Lords of Summer,” which shows up on the Hardwired deluxe edition, in case two discs isn’t enough–but allowed fans to pick the rest of the set list. These are the moves of a band that doesn’t want to get around to writing something new. And, really, nobody even buys music these days– they could probably make more money off Ride the Lightning Hot Sauce.
But here they are, with a 78-minute double album released on their own Blackened imprint. It was produced by Greg Fidelman (who also worked on Death Magnetic and Lulu), with James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, and it sounds great. It’s warmer, fuller, and more assured than Death Magnetic. Despite the ponderous ellipses in the title, as well as the fact that the record could stand to be 25-minutes slimmer, there’s nothing tentative about Hardwired’s best material.
That’s especially true of the three-minute opener, “Hardwired,” a punked-up thrash gallop that may remind you of …And Justice For All’s “Blackened” or Master of Puppets’ “Battery,” and grinds into its finale before the band has time to mess it up. Hetfield’s voice is aging gracefully and sounds excellent across these songs, largely because he sticks to what he’s good at, and doesn’t experiment with actually trying to sing. He’s especially convincing on “Hardwired” with his rabid bumper-sticker sloganeering: “We’re so fucked / Shit out of luck / Hardwired to self-destruct.” There’s an energy on the song that would’ve been useful toward the record’s latter part, when the group loses their breath and slides into mid-tempo exhaustion.
I’m not sure if Metallica, or metal in general, needs another song about H.P. Lovecraft, but Hardwired features one of those, too–the tepid, “Sad But True”-echoing “Dream No More,” whose smeared vocals invoke some of Mastodon’s flirtations with psychedelia. And, while we’re on callbacks, the plodding “Am I Savage?” is no “Am I Evil?” (The answer to both questions is obviously “no,” for what it’s worth.) The quiet-loud-quiet-loud “epic” that is “Murder One” pays homage to Lemmy, referencing “Ace of Spades” and the like, but would have benefitted from Motörhead’s coiled concision.
Most of these songs have good parts–they’re just lost in long, boring stretches of the band faintly nodding off to their distant, better work. The Iron Maiden-esque “Atlas, Rise!” is stadium-worthy, as is the soulful, melodic, and frantically time-shifting “Moth Into Flame,” which is maybe the best song here. The surprisingly doom-y (albeit awfully titled) “ManUNkind,” co-written with bassist Robert Trujillo, introduces a darker atmosphere—even if its cheesy black-metal video confuses its history. Meanwhile, the deep, dual classic-guitar sound on the mildly balladic “Halo on Fire” brings to mind High on Fire’s Matt Pike; the muscular, revved-up closer, “Spit out the Bone,” ends the record with a speaker-imploding blitzkrieg.
The best of these tracks mix the unexpected pop melodicism of 1991’s self-titled Black Album without sacrificing any of the grit from Metallica’s earliest years. There’s no songwriting from Kirk Hammett on Hardwired because he lost his riff-filled iPhone in an airport in Copenhagen, but his solos are great—instead of going for pure technique, his parts feel heartfelt, even moving. There are moments that would make perfect sense on a Profound Lore album–a.k.a., a much cooler underground record.
The sequencing, though, does this album no favors. Highlights arrive and depart early, and even though we haven’t heard from these guys in close to a decade, and you’d think we have a lot to catch up on, Hardwired overstays its welcome. If they’d kept the first four songs, and closed out with “ManUNkind,” “Halo,” and “Spit,” you’d have yourself a minor masterpiece. As is, it devolves into a slog. Maybe they should’ve brought Lars Ulrich’s dad on as executive editor.