If ever an album title accurately described Metallica’s past two decades, there it is…
There’s no need to rehash in any significant depth those past twenty years, of course – if you’re here now, you’ve likely been paying attention, and if you haven’t, then there’s enough written about it elsewhere. Suffice it to say: In less than a decade, Metallica built themselves up from nothing to be the biggest metal band in history, and then they’ve spent twenty years systematically dismantling their own legacy in a slow parade of misfires, public relations disasters, and failed experiments. And through it all, the fans have been waiting, their excitement chipped away with each new stumble.
It’s been eight years of waiting since the decent Death Magnetic, and five years of waiting since the abysmal Lulu, with only the “Lords Of Summer” single for new Metallica since. I’ll readily admit that, when the title track from this double album debuted a few months back, its short-and-sweet return toward thrash was enough to thoroughly pique my interest again. Sure, the lyrics are damned stupid – Hetfield says he was going for “punk rock” directness, and direct it is, but what he achieved is closer to illiterate clichéd “rebellion.” “We’re so fucked / shit out of luck” may accurately describe the state of the world these days, but it’s about as lunk-headed a way to say it as possible. Lyrical stumbles aside, the track itself rides a “Damage Inc.”-ish drive to some margin of success, and Lars even manages some double bass… for about four bars.
All of that was at least pointed in the direction of what I wanted to hear from Metallica – a recapturing of that which made them great so long ago. Then came “Moth To The Flame,” which improved upon “Hardwired” twenty-fold (at least), with some actual catchy thrash riffs and some melodic moments that nod to Iron Maiden. And then came “Atlas, Rise!,” the best of the three preview tracks and the Metallica song that sounds most like vintage Metallica since… well, vintage Metallica, the same vintage Metallica I’ve been awaiting for twenty years, since “the black album,” at the latest, but really since even before then. All that came to this: The wait had been long, and my expectations were now raised – would Hardwired be The Return, The Answer, The One?
Now, this wait is over, and here it is. So, is Hardwired all of that?
No. No, it’s not. It’s a modern Metallica album.
(Technically, I guess it’s two of them – it’s a double album. But it’s three whole minutes longer than Death Magnetic, and a minute or so shorter than the bloated expanse of Load. By the band’s own admission, there’s no thematic separation between the two discs – “we just had so much music,” they said, except that previously, they put as much or more music on one disc. View it how you want: two albums; or one album, split in two halves. If you get the expanded edition available from the band’s website, you do get a third disc with “Lords Of Summer,” plus an entire live set from Rasputin’s on Record Store Day, the stellar Rainbow medley, and covers of Iron Maiden‘s “Remember Tomorrow” and Deep Purple‘s “When A Blind Man Cries.” None of that is essential, but it’s all strong.)
Parts of Hardwired certainly show that Metallica is at least trying to recapture the past glories that their loudest-shouting fans-turned-detractors want to hear. In addition to the directness of that title track, there’s at least superficial nods to old Metallica in a song that literally calls to Cthulu, or in a song titled “Am I Savage?” (I am man, so… yes, I am. That’s not news to anyone.) “Confusion” furthers the soldiers’ tales of “One” and “Disposable Heroes,” but now covering the aftermath, the warrior’s return to the home front, broken and scarred. There’s a Lemmy tribute in “Murder One,” but it’s the weakest song on the album, a tribute clearly far less effective than any of Metallica’s excellent covers of Motorhead songs.
Of all Hardwired’s 77 minutes, the three songs you’ve heard are the best ones on hand, and if you haven’t heard them, you should. Unfortunately, most of the rest of this is the same sort of half-thrash decency that Metallica trotted out on Death Magnetic, or worse. To the best of it, besides “Atlas” and “Moth,” “Confusion” is solid enough, and closing number “Spit Out The Bone” overcomes its dreadful title with some spirited thrashing. Lars pounds away like he hasn’t in ages – there’s that kick drum again, and for longer now – and James spits the lyrics (about the rise of machines over man) with a fiery venom that, eight years ago, we worried he’d left behind. The melodic middle section of “Halo On Fire” shows some solid riffing, albeit some that harks heavily to both Scorpions and The Cult, and Trujillo steps out from behind Hetfield’s rhythms in the intro to the otherwise acceptable-but-not-profound “ManUNkind.” (The capitalization is added by the band, in case you didn’t catch the pun without it.)
On the downside, “Now That We’re Dead” is a midtempo melodic rock number that never takes flight, and another one saddled with an embarrassing chorus. “Now that we’re dead, my dear / we can be together / now that we’re dead, my dear / we can live, we can live forever,” Hetfield croons in the kind of shiny radio metal hook that the likes of Avenged Sevenfold molded from the rubble of Metallica’s own post-Black decline. The chunky Cthulu-themed “Dream No More” does little to stand out, and aside from that middle section, the ballad “Halo” is just another variation of Death Magnetic’s mostly boring “The Day That Never Comes.”
Production-wise, at least the sonic failures of the previous two full-lengths have been corrected. Hardwired sounds tight, punchy – no godawful snare crack/ping and no weird faux-raw guitar tones. Hetfield’s growling bark is stronger, or at least, used to better effect, and Lars appears to be actually trying to play like a metal drummer again. Kirk’s solos are typically Hammett-ian – no surprise there; he’s been the least of Metallica’s problems, musically. With a few exceptions, Trujillo’s bass does what Metallica bass usually does, which is support Hetfield’s guitar and otherwise remain out of the way.
So after all that: Is Hardwired a terrible album? I wouldn’t say that. Is Hardwired a good album? No, I definitely can’t say that, either. And really, what you want to know is this: Is Hardwired the Metallica album that we wanted, the new Metallica that feels like old Metallica? No, I can tell you it’s not, though it shows promise.
In the end, Hardwired is an album that may not even be as strong as Death Magnetic, though it has some higher highs and certainly its share of lows. (It’s clearly better than Lulu because almost everything is.) When it works, it works better than Metallica has since 1994 or so, but when it doesn’t, which is more often than not, it’s more of the same water-treading lite-thrash, just with better sonics.
Metallica appeared to be back, but Metallica isn’t back. Enjoy the good songs; ignore the bad ones as best you can. We’ve been here before, for quite a long time now.
The wait begins anew…