The Wait: Metallica’s Hardwired To Self Destruct
It’s difficult to know where to begin in reviewing a new Metallica album. I’ve listened to Hardwired…To Self Destruct many dozens of times, and have watched the album wide collection of music videos that the band released (in one of the more interesting and expensive promotional stunts in metal history). I’ve read a plethora of reviews across a variety of metal and non-metal sites, and the comments sections under them as well. As expected with such a polarizing band, opinions seem to range across a spectrum, but I think that the underlying problem in reviewing a new Metallica album is that we’re all a little clueless on what a new Metallica album is supposed to sound like. This isn’t our fault obviously, it’s Metallica’s —- which is what naturally happens when a band takes half decade to near decade long gaps in between studio albums. The trouble has been though, that this affected not only the public and fan perception of new Metallica music, but the band’s creative process as well.
Over two years ago, I wrote about my frustration with Metallica’s continuing new album delay as that spring marked the beginning of the longest gap of time between proper studio albums in the band’s history. They were on the cusp of passing their seemingly standard 5 years, 3-6 months n’ change gaps between albums (with slight deviations, that was the amount of time between ReLoad to St. Anger to Death Magnetic). The time span from the release date of Death Magnetic to Hardwired is a staggering 8 years, 2 months, and 6 days. There’s never really been an official reason given for why the band allowed such a lapse of time to occur, even though they’ve at times questioned it in the press themselves. The answer seems obvious enough however: too much touring, too many ancillary band projects (3d movie, an ill-conceived experimental album with Lou Reed, a financially disastrous festival that required more touring to make up the losses), and we can probably tack on weeks upon weeks of time off to recover from all these activities, and pretty soon five years spirals into eight. These were the choices Metallica made. Fine, fair enough, but as I explained in my piece two years ago, they came with consequences. Artistic ones.
How does a band who takes so long in reconvening for songwriting collaborations, let alone releasing albums, expect to maintain anything in the way of artistic continuity within their own relationships with each other? In Bill Flanagan’s excellent biography U2 At The End of the World, he depicts how that band’s extra long gap of time between their monumental 1987 blockbuster The Joshua Tree and 1991’s artistic rebirth of Achtung Baby almost threatened the band’s very existence as a functioning creative unit. On The Joshua Tree, the band tempered their arty arena rock with Americana musical and literary influences. Achtung Baby saw them reinventing their sound by embracing European dance textures and rhythms. But in between those studio albums, the band had spent time working on, releasing, and promoting their Rattle and Hum concert film and its accompanying soundtrack, a mix of live cuts and a few originals that further focused on American roots music. That process left them physically and mentally exhausted as well as at an artistic dead end. U2 took a year plus break from each other through 1989 and 1990, after which they reconvened to find that their aim to launch a new musical direction was at odds with one another.
Singer and guitarist Bono and Edge, respectively, found themselves exploring then cutting edge dance and house music, the Manchester scene, and other new forms of popular music sprouting up around the time. Drummer and traditionalist Larry Mullen Jr however went back to Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and a load of other bands he missed in the late 70s while he and his bandmates were knee deep in post-punk. The former pair came into the studio talking in the abstract about textures, deconstructing their sound, and incorporating new production techniques that were making traditional rock music sound antiquated by comparison. This was to bassist Adam Clayton’s irritation, who at one point wondered where the songs were and whether or not Bono and Edge had written any. Each faction expressed surprise at their bandmates’ differing perspectives. Tensions boiled and nearly split the band up before they were able to work things out. The point of this non-metal anecdote is to point out how easy it is for a band to jeopardize its creative momentum when they cease communication about artistic matters —- and that’s from a case where the end result turned out pretty well (to say the least).
In Metallica’s case over the past twenty five years, every new album (counting Load and ReLoad as one big songwriting session for the most part) has been a complete revision of their sound, often to murky or embarrassing ends. I personally thought Load was (and remains) a fine experimental album, full of songwriting depth and Hetfield’s most personal, poetic lyrics to date. It was too long and had filler, and its best songs should’ve been combined with ReLoad’s to make one really excellent album (a problem that rears its ugly head twenty years later, more on that below). But St. Anger was a travesty, not only for its tin can production but for its awful, group-therapy produced lyrics and neanderthal approach to metal. It was the very opposite of the impressive artistic heights they achieved with “Until It Sleeps” and “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn”. Then there was Death Magnetic, where the band brought in another therapist-like outsider in the form of Rick Rubin to tell them to write music like the old days, a recommendation that failed because of its inherent shortsightedness. It was a dismal album, full of songs that sounded like they were impersonating Metallica. And if we must talk about the time sink of Lulu, well, lets just say it sounded like Lou Reed was holding Metallica hostage at gunpoint forcing them to be the backing band for his terrible songs.
What outsiders such as Rubin failed to realize was that the secret to Metallica’s success during their classic first five albums era was exactly what sustained a band like U2 through its glory years —- a regular frequency of writing new music and communication between band members about music and direction. By frequency I mean treating the creative process as a muscle that needed to be worked consistently rather than allowed to wither from disuse. The 80s-early 90s were a prolific time for Metallica, mostly because they were a new band on the rise and they simply had to be, but it strengthened them creatively. And by communication, I’m thinking back to all those anecdotes by Hetfield of how Cliff Burton would always recommend new music to him, even non-metal stuff —- a cumulative effect that produced huge changes in his songwriting approach. Its easy to see in retrospect just how much that could have played into the musical leap into maturity from Kill Em’ All to Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. That was simply a band that worked hard at being creative, as opposed to the Metallica of the last twenty years, who’s seemingly allergic to the very concept.
Okay, enough pontificating. What I have realized right now however is that this isn’t really going to be a review in the traditional sense. Everyone of you already has listened to and dissected this album in your own fashion, and your opinions aren’t going to be swayed by anything I say here. That might not be the case with other bands where I could persuade you to give an album a second chance, or the benefit of extra listens. Nope, you already know what you personally want from a new Metallica album. In fact, me writing anything about this album is largely for my own edifice, to put myself through a process where I gave the album (and the band) the respect of time and attention. I do think its worth keeping in mind that all of our wants and expectations regarding Hardwired are likely to be different, so I’ll lay out mine here. What I always loved most about Metallica was Hetfield’s songwriting and his pure, impassioned, and often poetic manner of conveying darkness or inner turmoil. Whether that came in the form of aggressive, up-tempo thrash metal or mid-tempoed, epics such as “The Unforgiven” or “Until It Sleeps”, or beautiful, aching balladry ala “Nothing Else Matters”, “Hero of the Day”, or “Low Man’s Lyric”. He was one of the original poets in metal as a whole, standing shoulder to shoulder with Dio in my book for lyricism that at times for me was far more intriguing than the riffs he played under them.
I can’t express how surprised I was that I didn’t completely dislike this album. I say this with full acknowledgement of my inclination to not like it beforehand just due to how annoyed I was with the delays and their past two offerings (three if we count most of ReLoad). Don’t get me wrong, this is a severely flawed album, in dire need of an editor —- in fact, allow me to play one right now. Let’s grab this tracklisting here… okay, we’ll keep all of the first disc, and then from disc two let’s keep “Spit Out The Bone” and scrap the other five songs. That’s only seven tracks? Eh, who cares, its still a 43 minute tracklisting. Seriously, that second disc sans the last track should never have made the final tracklisting, everything from “Confusion” to “Murder One” is meandering, with riffs that lead nowhere interesting and choruses that seem half-baked. “Am I Savage” is head shakingly terrible, and an unfortunate assault on a Diamond Head classic made popular by Metallica’s own cover version (only Megadeth’s “When” was a worse Diamond Head re-appropriation). I applaud Metallica’s thinly veiled attempt at making up for the lengthy delays in giving their fans a double disc album, a sort of make up offering along with the third disc found on the limited edition where they unload some pretty fun covers of classic metal (Dio, Maiden, Purple). Interestingly enough, they fell into the same trap Iron Maiden did with their last album, also a double disc —- the misguided notion that they don’t need someone that serves as an editor in their recording process.
But those seven tracks we just isolated? Not too shabby, in fact, downright fun at moments and hinting at the genius of old in small, fleeting moments. Regarding the latter, Metallica come really close to delivering a home run with “Moth Into Flame”, Hetfield’s morbid musing on the life of departed singer Amy Winehouse. His barked vocals sound like they were lifted straight from 1991, sharp, angular and full of vigor, and simply put, few in metal are as good at syncopating their lyrical delivery to match the rhythm of chugging riffs underneath as Hetfield is. Its the song I’ve kept coming back to, even when not listening to the album, those verses stuck in my head long after. Its also Kirk Hammett’s best solo, a small thing, but complementary to the song, a rarity on an album where he is really the weakest link throughout (whether its attributed to him losing his song ideas on his lost phone years ago or not… his solos seem phoned in for the most part, whatever happened to the guitarist we once knew?). Everyone’s fawning over “Spit Out The Bone”, and it certainly is very fun, though I reject the notion that its the best song the band has done since Justice (as I’ve seen many declare), that’s a lame opinion from people who can’t get past the populism of the black album nor acknowledge the artistry of Load (both have phenomenal songs, just not thrash metal songs… get over it).
I really enjoy “Atlas, Rise!”, and it features one of Hetfield’s most intriguing lyrics in quite a long time, with mythical imagery possibly serving as a greater metaphor for something else (and open enough to allow everyone to fill in their own blanks). The riffing here is imaginative, clean and concise and full of memorable hints of melody, and the dual lead guitar solo is inspired. Kudos must be given to Lars on our seven song tracklisting too —- he’s good when he wants to be, nowhere near as awful as many claim. I’d argue that his groove based, almost swinging approach to most of these songs works in their favor, particularly on “Now That We’re Dead”, a song that took a few spins to grow on me but has a swagger to it that I find appealing. I will say that as much as I like “Dream No More” on a musical level, I find Lovecraft based lyrics from Hetfield at this point in his life a bit unconvincing, sort of as if he was just dishing out a bit of fan service. Maybe I’m wrong and he really is reading the stuff at home even now, but it seemed far more genuine when he was in his early twenties and was writing songs about it because it was on his brain. Oh well, nitpicking, we could do that for a lot of things but its still a decent song, if not in need of a slight tempo increase. I’ll keep these seven songs though, and Metallica should too —- as building blocks for another album. Don’t allow five years further to elapse (you don’t have that luxury anymore!), simply put, build on the chunk of artistic success you carved out of nothing here, and get momentum going for another album in two or three years.