Is there any more pertinent way to end the worst calendar year of the millennium than with a new Metallica album? Now, I could mean that two ways. One: Except for Nickelback and possibly the Red Hot Chili Peppers, no continuously successful superstar band has been more reviled over the last 25 years than the band who brought thrash to metal’s center stage. Since and possibly including their 1991 “Black Album” every single Metallica album has been measured in terms of its disappointment, from disillusionment to outright disgust. The holding pattern of Load, the bland orchestrations of S&M, the curious doddering of St. Anger, the exhausted maintenance of Death Magnetic. Let’s not even talk about Lulu; I just ate.
No band has amassed more stirs about the impending failures of their upcoming product than Metallica. It’s sort of bullshit in a way, since a lot of the adverse reaction comes from diehards who will never forgive Metallica for trying to grow up and move beyond their initial roots, and cashing in on the kind of success we don’t hold against newer bands. That said, their music of the last 20 years hasn’t been inspiring either.
Or, Two: After a year that started in anguish, proceeded through black comedy, wound up in exhaustion and finally closes in the worst case of existential dread this country has ever experienced without a natural or terroristic catastrophe to blame, maybe a half-decent Metallica album could at least focus our rage in a healthy way. God knows it’s a great time for exceeding lowered expectations, maybe Metallica could slip in unnoticed and do something we won’t want to send them to Guantanamo for.
I’m exactly not the person for whom Metallica is a major touchstone or personal reference point, so I’m a little surprised and heartened to say I’m leaning more Option Two. Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, with its sloppy title and cover art that looks like Queen’s The Miracle combined with a Tourette’s attack and a Whirly Pop, contains nothing surprising and probably will not win back indignant former fans. I’m probably done with it myself.
But it’s pretty good. In fact its bookends are the best Metallica songs I’ve heard in decades. “Hardwired,” the only song shorter than five and a half minutes, is a great dumb punk song for a time that can only be explained by great dumb punk songs: “We’re fucked/Shit outta luck/Hardwired to self-destruct!” spits James Hetfield, in a cranky bleat that fondly recalls the similarly deep thoughts expressed by Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies, with whom current Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo cut his teeth. “Spit Out the Bone” is a seven-minute thrash blockbuster in which the machines have once again taken over. The clean technological bursts of Kirk Hammett’s lead guitar and Lars Ulrich’s drums sound exactly like the calculated, adrenalized robots that teem throughout senior citizens’ nightmares.
If nothing else Hardwired is sonically focused. After many years of what sounded like coerced wheel reinvention, Metallica at least sounds like they’ve accepted that their real gift is telescopic execution. Across its two discs (nice way to pretend Napster never happened, right Lars? Ha-ha-ha, j/k), Hardwired very loosely plants the more straight-ahead rants on the first half, and the more end-around tracks on the second. There’s a gratifying reassurance in the stuttering introduction to “Atlas, Rise!” and the Judas Priest creeping pounce of “Now That We’re Dead,” and the song structures don’t fall apart after their brawny lead-ins. The rumbling “Here Comes Revenge” and the jagged “Confusion” pace their detonating payoffs well. Hatfield and Ulrich learned their lessons from the muted St. Anger session: that their signature guitar-and-snare sync-ups are best when turned up and reliably situated.
Lyrically, well, it’s an unforgiving, unchecked bloodletting in which the worst enemies are often within ourselves, and there are also werewolves and Cthulhu. But Metallica gets some unexpected increases in their citizenship grades. “Moth Into Flame” takes on the druggy tailspin of unprepared pop music divas (it’s basically a retelling of the Britney Spears meltdown of 2007, I remember where I was), but even though Hetfield’s issuing a challenge he realizes the external forces are really to blame:“Twisting, backstabbing wicked/The delusion absolution/Perjurer, fame is the murderer/Seduce you into ruin.” “Now That We’re Dead” echoes junior Metallica influence Nick Cave in its depiction of death as relief, and “Confusion” resurrects the soldier theme of “One” into what could pass for a poignant PTSD message: “War is never done/Rub the patch and battle on.” “Dream No More” is the Cthulhu song, “Am I Savage?” is the werewolf song with some parenting guidelines thrown in, and “Murder One” is a sweet tribute to the late Lemmy Kilmister drawn from snipped Motörhead song titles.
Subtlety’s not on the offal menu, and that’s probably the wise move. There are no extended detours into power ballads that expose Hetfield’s awkward emotionalism, no attempts to layer extra-metal coatings to simulate depth, and no meaningful let-up in the assault department. So Hardwired most likely constitutes the proverbial “return to form” for Metallica fans who have patiently grit their teeth for the last couple of decades, though I doubt its ability to call the first-four-albums faithful back home. Its place in this shitty year is unheralded and outranked by the human condition and eight years of rapidly changing music technology. Maybe its just-beneath-the-radar release strategy favors Metallica. They’re in a weird bind: calling Hardwired their best album in 30 years is as underwhelming a sweeping statement as one slovenly critic can make. But for the record, that’s what it is.
Paul Pearson is a writer, journalist, and interviewer who has written for Treble since 2013. His music writing has also appeared in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Olympian, and MSN Music.