When most acts of their vintage would consider slowing down, Metallica are back in 2016 with an exhaustive double album, world tours, and a work ethic which defies all odds. Following on from 2008’s heavy, riffy, but overbearingly loud effort Death Magnetic, and 3D concert film Through The Never (2013), which was well-reviewed but sold poorly, Hardwired … To Self-Destruct finds the metal giants on homecoming form, building on past successes while expanding on their hallmarks; lengthy compositions, wah-driven guitar solos, and powered, biting vocals.
Metallica’s career to date has been lengthy enough to encompass just as many setbacks as it has dizzying highs – albums such as Ride The Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986) helped to define the thrash metal genre and took Metallica to the highest exposure a metal band could ever dream of. But in their 30-odd years, Metallica have suffered the tragic loss of luminary bassist Cliff Burton, criticism over a Napster court case, as well as dismal reviews for their 2003 album St Anger and a poorly-received Lou Reed collaboration titled Lulu (2011). Unable to rest on Metallica’s still-considerable laurels, “Hardwired…” has a record to set straight.
The album’s opener, “Hardwired”, was offered as the album’s first teaser in August, and is an assault of artillery-tier drums, midrange-heavy tremolo-picked guitars, and uncomplicated, intense lyrics – “we’re so f*cked, sh*t out of luck, hardwired to self-destruct”. The track’s unstoppable pace harks back to “Battery”, the opener of Master of Puppets, a song revered for helping to solidify Metallica’s grasp on the thrash metal throne during the mid-‘80s, while “Hardwired” has a more immediate appeal than its predecessor, at just over 3 minutes in runtime.
From there, “Atlas, Rise!” brings another of Metallica’s celebrated sounds to the fore, subtly calling back to 1991’s Metallica, while dual harmonised lead guitars courtesy of axemen James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett are a welcome, familiar staple. The song delivers a series of searing riffs, each more bombastic and epic than the last, in the tradition of each Metallica song sounding like several songs put together, end-to-end. On record, Hetfield’s vocals appear to retain their biting, abrasive strength, while Hammett’s solos (found in almost every song) are just as indulgently lengthy and chaotic as ever. “Now That We’re Dead” is the album’s third E-minor song in a row, but when a formula is as comprehensively tried-and-tested to work as Metallica’s, fault is hard to find.
“[“Atlas, Rise!”] delivers a series of searing riffs, each more bombastic and epic than the last, in the tradition of each Metallica song sounding like several songs put together, end-to-end”
Lyrically, Hardwired … gets through a number of topics in its 77-minute runtime. Whenever the guitars fade to allow Hetfield’s voice to cut through, it’s with thoughts of destruction that we’re confronted. Of the album’s overall tone, Hetfield said in the band’s official fanzine “So What!” that the album’s title came from his own thoughts on modern life and human nature: “Are we phasing ourselves out with electronics? … Are we gonna self-destruct because of our egos and all of the stuff that makes humans human?” Track 7, “Confusion”, confronts the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans (“Leave the battlefield / Yet its horrors never heal / Coming home from war / Pieces don’t fit anymore”), while “Moth Into Flame” goes after modern celebrity culture, declaring “Same rise and fall / Who cares at all? / Seduced by fame / A moth into the flame”. Prosaic at worst, punchy and satisfying at best.
Any release that has to follow the kind of world-beating albums Metallica can boast by this point is doomed to comparison with its predecessors, but Hardwired… stands on its own, refreshing the band’s classically aggressive, straightforward sound while bringing influence from almost every stage of Metallica’s career. Continuity from previous albums is notable in the contributions of Lars Ulrich, founding member and drummer, who has been criticised for his ability in the past, yet brings more than enough heavy-hitting tenacity on Hardwired … to power each song with double-kick stomps, open hi-hat slurries, and offbeat cymbal crashes. Bassist Robert Trujilo, technically-gifted successor to Jason Newsted (who famously quit the band in 2001), is the invaluable growl which pins each composition together, and also submits some stellar backing vocals.
The album’s closer, “Spit Out The Bone”, opens with a series of staccato snare rolls which could easily be a tribute to “One”, the fan-favourite monster from 1988’s … And Justice For All. The song includes a bass solo, a late-section key change, numerous jagged-edge guitar riffs, and some extended guitarmanship from Hammett, while Hetfield strains out choice titbits such as “Remove your heart, it’s only good for bleeding / Bleeding through your fragile skin”. “Spit Out The Bone” remains uptempo and energised throughout its 7 minutes, and captures (like riding lightning into a bottle, if you will) the kind of unencumbered, badass raucousness that built Metallica a generation of diehard fans. The song’s overall meaning, while interesting, is irrelevant, as its main selling-point is its immediate appeal to all who’ve ever worn a black t-shirt on a sunny day, or thrown up a sign of the horns in a situation which didn’t really call for it.
Hardwired … To Self-Destruct isn’t for anybody trying to find 2016’s most innovative or game-changing release – it’s as reassuring as a torn-up denim vest covered in Mayhem patches, and it should be played loud, REALLY loud, from a car stereo on a hot summer’s afternoon. This almost makes its November release an oversight.
Josh Will Eden