Strange times for Metallica. Right now, there’s a fiery renaissance of burgeoning, fearless, and genre-bending bands currently defining popular metal, all of which begs the question: How can the genre’s most internationally renowned band stay relevant? In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year, drummer Lars Ulrich all but promised his outfit’s immortality. “I think mentally we could do this for another 100 years,” he proudly declared, adding: “I hope we go on making records until the day we fall over.”
But, will there even be a place for Metallica outside of the history books in 20 years? At the rate we’re going — where the definition of the genre continues to rapidly expand and segue off from what it once was back in the ’80s — can Metallica keep up? If their 10th album, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, is any indication, the answer is yes, but not without faltering.
Rather wisely, the album engages listeners quickly by reintroducing the best elements of the Bay Area rockers right from the get-go. “Hardwired” and “Atlas, Rise” are both bestial offerings and burst with vitality. The former is a thrashing good time, a muscular track that captures the band working in tandem just as well as they did way back in 2008 on Death Magnetic — only now with noticeably better mastering. The latter is equally massive, thriving with melody and one of the catchiest choruses in Metallica’s entire catalogue. The riffs carry some serious impact, too, thanks to Ulrich’s militant precision and Kirk Hammett’s victorious solo.
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But then things start falling apart. James Hetfield’s clumsy vocals and uncharacteristic delay effects prevent “Now That We’re Dead” from becoming another creeping classic. The aptly-titled “Confusion” intends to be a hard-hitting and progressive track, only to stumble around its awkward chord progression. “ManUNkind”, the album’s most obvious misfire, careens off the ledge with cheesy burly blues riffs and clumsy time signature shifts. Ulrich’s marching pace is at odds with the rest of the band, who seem to be more invested in a ballad of sorts.
From there, Metallica go through the motions with “Here Comes Revenge”, a sonic sequel to “Enter Sandman” if it weren’t for its poor timing and disappointing crescendos. Speaking of which, both “Am I Savage?” and “Murder One” suffer from tragically slow paces; the former tethers to a Hammett solo that could be great if it weren’t for this dumb hulking beast of a song, and the latter, albeit a Motörhead homage, should have been left to the stage as a special tribute or perhaps relegated to an exclusive single down the road. It wouldn’t have killed them to play it in double time, either.
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At nearly 80 minutes, it’s understandable for an album like Hardwired… to Self-Destruct to have lulls, but the band gets way too comfortable way too early. Which is kind of funny given Ulrich’s recent comments on the band’s enduring physicality. In the same aforementioned interview, he goes on to name drop the Rolling Stones, another aging rock ‘n’ roll outfit, and argues Metallica is a more physically demanding job (which he’s not wrong about, to be fair). “If you can’t play [the song] at the physical demand that it deserves,” he says, “it’s better to not play it than play it half-assed.” Much of Hardwired… to Self-Destruct contradicts that statement, but then there’s the album’s closing secret weapon “Spit Out the Bone”.
Serving as a bookend for “Hardwired”, the seven-minute track takes that opening salvo’s initial chords and speeds them into something melodically violent. Everything’s paced naturally, allowing for some fantastic moments, from Rob Trujillo brief bass solo, to Hammett’s most energetic solo of the record, to the shoebox of sludgy, creeping riffs that keep listeners on their toes. It’s a nice fuck you to those who might have doubted Metallica’s place in metal (this writer included), but more importantly, it’s fuel for the fire that has been burning in the hearts of countless Metallica fans for decades — a zeal that will continue to glow as long as the band’s own hearts keep beating.
Essential Tracks: “Spit Out the Bone”, “Hardwired”, and “Atlas, Rise”