It is extremely difficult to review contemporary Metallica. Is it a comeback, or a cheap rip-off of their glory days in the 80s? Is it an artistic experiment, or just pure garbage? Is it metal enough? Are they just a bunch of sellouts? It seems like nobody knows how to talk about the world’s biggest metal band. The past 25 years haven’t exactly been easy for Metallica. Following 1991’s seminal Black Album, one of the most commercially successful albums of all time, the band cut their hair, put on eyeliner and released the more blues and hard rock-inspired Load and Reload.
Although these albums sold well, fans of the more aggressive Metallica were mortified. Ever since then, Metallica has faced a nearly two decade losing streak: the infamous Napster controversy, the migraine-inducing mess of 2003’s disastrous St. Anger, the deafeningly poor mixing of 2008’s Death Magnetic, the pretentious tediousness of 2011’s Lulu and the box office failure of 2013’s confusing IMAX concert film Through the Never. Any chance of Metallica recapturing the old magic they once had was almost entirely diminished.
So how is it that people still care about a band as polarizing and frustrating as Metallica? To be frank, it is because Metallica, at one point in time, was the most brilliant, sophisticated, face-meltingly badass heavy metal band the world had ever seen. To accomplish this at such a young age, and with a drummer as musically graceless as Lars Ulrich makes the feat even more impressive. They ignited a spark of musical vitality, chemistry and flexibility that completely restructured the DNA of heavy metal. On 2016’s Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, it feels like Metallica, for the first time in a quarter-century, have finally rediscovered that spark.
The album, a copious 77 minutes of music divided into two discs, is not so much a musical reinvention but an amalgamation and reinvigoration of ground Metallica has tread before. The more aggressive, melodic and progressive side of Metallica dominates the first disc, while the band’s more mid-tempo, bluesy hard rock tendencies fill the second. The album is bookended by two heavy metal bangers, “Hardwired” and “Spit Out the Bone,” both restorations of the glorious thrash that defined the band’s early days. The former is simple, fast and direct with its shredding riffs and loose double-time drumbeat. The latter is a modern heavy metal masterpiece filled with machine-gun drum rolls, fat, shredding riffs, multiple guitar solos and even a bass solo. “Stop breathing and dedicate to me / stop dreaming and terminate for me,” lead singer James Hetfield roars. Both songs detail the destruction of the world and of human nature. In a tumultuous year like 2016, such sentiment is not so out of place.
“Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth Into Flame,” are two other standout tracks with a slightly more melodic edge. With their soaring vocals, memorable guitar leads and harmonies, both songs channel Metallica’s early inspirations—namely Iron Maiden and Diamond Head. Drummer Lars Ulrich, who is often derided for his mediocre drumming, snuggles comfortably within these songs by playing simple but tasteful grooves. Most notably, his tight tom rolls in the chugging “Now That We’re Dead” gives the song an infectious swing and pairs perfectly with Hetfield’s rhythm guitar. Disc one ends strongly with the epic “Halo on Fire.” Although not exactly a power ballad, the song is structured like a classic Metallica progressive instrumental in the vein of “The Call of Ktulu” and “Orion.” The song’s multiple sections range from clean verses to distorted choruses all way to a head-banging breakdown and guitar solo. It is easily one of the most gloriously epic songs Metallica has ever done.
Unfortunately, the album is still plagued by a common problem of post-1991 Metallica: It’s too damn long. While the album’s first disc is a pulsing adventure through Metallica’s newfound energy, the second disc tends to meander and drags the album beyond exhaustion. “Confusion” is chock full of amazing riffs, guitar layering and lyrical ideas but is poorly arranged. “Am I Savage?” feels like a dead body being dragged across mud and glass. Despite its dirty guitar tones and evocative vocals, it’s ultimately just tedious. “Here Comes Revenge” and “Murder One” both suffer from horrendous songwriting choices that sound like try-hard seventh grade poetry. The flat guitar licks and drumming don’t help either. “ManUNkind” manages to stand out from the crowd however, mostly due to the contributions of bassist Robert Trujillo, who has a background in funk metal. The song opens with a beautiful, tranquil bass and guitar melody before blasting into funky, distorted guitar juiciness.
The most valuable player on this record is lead singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield. This is easily the best work he has done in years. His vocals, which struggled on Death Magnetic, now growl with unrestrained ferocity. From the staccato fire-spitting of “Spit Out the Bone” to the swampy drone of “Dream No More,” Hetfield injects a strong sense of urgency into his music. Contrasting the one-dimensional wah-caked noodling of lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, Hetfield shreds away at his timeless riffs with precision, rendering in each chord a strong sense of catchiness. He is, along with Tony Iommi, still heavy metal’s holy riff master.
Without a doubt, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is the year’s biggest comeback, at least for a rock band. The album is focused, heavy and groovy as hell. More importantly, it is clear that Metallica has finally realized its own brilliance. Deep inside under the fame, they are still that classic metal band, sweating and screaming in the garage, feeding off of each other’s energy and playing like their life depended on it. Despite the dark and doom-mongering lyrics, it is the album’s irresistible vitality that will recruit millions of fans across the world to once again bang their head and throw up the devil horns. Even those who gave up on the band decades ago will find themselves smiling. B