Metallica, “Hardwired…to Self-Destruct”
If you’ve seen Some Kind of Monster, the 2004 documentary detailing the life of Metallica after the departure of bassist Jason Newsted and the rehabilitation of singer/guitarist James Hetfield, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct feels like the most apt album title the band has ever come up with. The film also sees Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich butting heads constantly and a “performance enhancement coach” whose intentions are dubious at best. Yet here they are, releasing an album with a title like this with characteristically low self-awareness.
Hardwired debuted at number one, which means nothing, because every Metallica studio album since their 1991 self-titled massive success (a.k.a. The Black Album) has, too. This one’s a double album, with each half containing six songs that are an average of around six minutes each. At its worst, it’s a long, familiar slog; there are drum fills and guitar lines lifted nearly verbatim from their older, better material. What that means, though, is that this album at its very worst is merely boring. Nothing here is even close to jaw-droppingly awful (lest we forget Lulu) because old Metallica is good Metallica. Historically, they’ve suffered the most when they try something new.
Not much has changed thematically, either. In “Dream No More,” Hetfield sings, “Cthulhu, awaken / He sways in abyss returning / Inhaling black skies / He shakes with a torture burning / All lost in his eyes.” This is just a reworking of 1986’s “The Thing That Should Not Be,” which was also lyrically silly but harmless; it’s not even their first song about Cthulu. “Halo on Fire” harkens back to their excessively histrionic ’90s material. Even the cover art looks like something out of Aphex Twin’s garbage can.
I saw Metallica at Lollapalooza in 2015, and they weren’t exactly on. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which is nowhere near as complicated as some of their other stuff, was weirdly imprecise. They started songs, stopped them, and restarted them. Hetfield snapped at Ulrich more than once. Wisely, they didn’t even attempt “Battery,” from 1986’s Master of Puppets—one of their more technically demanding songs. (If you’ve forgotten how good this band can be, watch them play “Battery” live in Seattle in 1989. It’s enough to make you sweat. It’s impossible to keep up with, yet they hit every note. Roll your eyes at their self-seriousness as much as you want—then try to play that song.)
But despite the bickering and sloppiness, Metallica seemed happy to be there—Hetfield’s showmanship hasn’t dwindled, at least—and they were happy to see us there. Is it silly to be considering them in 2016? Maybe, but their hearts are in the right place on this album. We keep making them number one, and they dutifully keep putting music out. It’s hard to be mad at them for that. Regardless of what drives them to march on (money; fans; money; above all, time), if you’re the type of person who still looks forward to a new Metallica release, you’ll enjoy Hardwired…to Self-Destruct. It’s immediately recognizable, it’s comfortably familiar, and it’s leagues better than St. Anger.