Album Review: Metallica- Hardwired…To Self-Destruct

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A quick introduction by Mike Marlinski:

I am floored by this album. In my opinion, it’s the best thing Metallica has put out since the black album in ’91. The styles of the songs seem to span the band’s entire discography. It’s truly an emotional roller coaster, taking me all the way back to the beginning of my love for metal. All that being said, when it came time to review Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, I knew I couldn’t do it justice. I gave up on Metallica for years (almost 16), but for The Long Cold Dark‘s own Drew Celestino, that was never the case. Aside from Lawrence Duran Gomez, I don’t know anyone who loves Metallica more than Drew. He’s been a fan through thick and thin- never fickle about it in the slightest. The Buffalo Bills wish they had fans as dedicated to them as this man is to Metallica. So, without further ado, here’s the only proper way I could think of to post a review of Hardwired…To Self-Destruct-  giving it to Drew Celestino:

Album Review: Metallica – Hardwired… to Self Destruct

By Drew Celestino

Greetings, Metal faithful. If you don’t know me, my name is Drew and I sing and play guitar in The Long Cold Dark. I’m also an unabashed Metallica fanboy and have been for what feels like my entire life. I’m about to review a record I’m pretty sure you already have an opinion about just because it’s a Metallica record. Well, dare I say, heavy is the crown. When you’re the kings, you’re the biggest targets for criticism. The only thing we (and by “we,” I mean metal fans) love more than our heroes is to see those heroes fall when they get a little too big for our liking. Metallica is a band who has endured being called sellouts as far back as their second record, Ride the Lightning. They’ve endured the death of their bass player and creative and spiritual muse, Cliff Burton. They’ve endured the grind of non-stop multi-year tours in support of arguably the biggest record of all time. They’ve endured public backlash for staunchly defending creative control of their own music. They’ve endured internal strife and turmoil the likes of which has ended other bands and killed other musicians. And they’ve endured every nitpick and criticism to every creative decision they’ve ever made as a band. As a Metallica fan, I’ve heard every argument and criticism leveled at them, both fair and (much more often) unfair, over the years. This has made being a fan of Metallica both inspiring and exhausting. Metal is a genre built on rebellion, but when Metallica dares to defy the rebellion’s rules, they are vilified. By extension, I often feel vilified for defending them. But they don’t give a fuck, and neither do I. Through it all, Metallica still stands. They still stand in large part because they refuse to sit still. They refuse to bend to anyone’s will but their own. And 34 years after the release of their first record, Kill ‘Em All, they are putting out a long-awaited new one. And while I suspect many of your minds are already made up about this record, I am damn grateful for it.

Hardwired… to Self- Destruct is not the album I expected it to be. 8 years ago, Metallica released Death  Magnetic, a record designed to recapture the spirit and energy of what many consider to be their prime years. It did its job well. Death Magnetic was almost the missing link between …And Justice For All and the self-titled Black album. You got the sense that parts of it were directly inspired by Metallica’s own past works, right down to the pseudo-“Justice” production sound. It was almost exactly what the metal critics had been asking them to do for years. And yet it didn’t seem to win those critics back. If a record practically designed to be a quintessential “classic” Metallica record doesn’t turn heads, what more can they really do?

I suspected that Metallica would settle into that familiar sound. I thought that Death Magnetic might be their creative endpoint, and that while I would surely enjoy whatever they did, they were done surprising me. Years ticking by without new material certainly didn’t help. A new song called “Lords of Summer” was premiered live a couple of years ago and it started to confirm that feeling. Well friends, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct has proven my assumption wrong. Metallica has crafted a record that is both fresh and familiar at the same time. Instead of trying to capture any one period of their career, they seem to have instead rediscovered their New Wave of British Heavy Metal influences, taken what they’ve learned from recent cover songs such as Iron Maiden’s “Remember Tomorrow” and the incredible Ronnie James Dio Rainbow medley “Ronnie Rising,” and combine it with their own unmistakable style to forge something new. They emerge here a band supremely confident in who and what they are, and make no apologies. There’s thrash. There’s melody. There’s hooks. Some songs even recall the darker cuts from Load and Reload, such as “The House Jack Built,” “Thorn Within,” “Carpe Diem Baby,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “Fixxxer.” That was more than a welcome surprise to me. It seems the punks in the garage have met the seasoned Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and the result is Hardwired… to Self- Destruct.

Sound-wise, the record is fantastic. The guitars have the signature Metallica crunch. The bass rumbles more than ever. The drums absolutely slam. And unlike the dry vocal production of Death Magnetic, this record features stellar harmonies and richness. James Hetfield is in top form here. While he may not have the uncompromising bark of the “Justice” days, the signature Hetfield snarl is in full effect, and his range and ability to deliver memorable melodies has perhaps never been better. And it goes without saying that the god of riffs delivers here. Lars Ulrich will never, ever satisfy his detractors. Lars may not be a technical dynamo the likes of Tomas Haake or Mario Duplantier, but he does not have to be. Few, if any, drummers can match Lars’ intensity behind a kit. He has a feel that is unmatched and that no other drummer could replace in Metallica. He is rock solid here, and there’s even double-bass work, in case you were wondering. And his ability to arrange a song is staggering. Songs on Hardwired… to Self- Destruct are more straightforward than those of Death Magnetic, but have some unexpected twists and turns, making them anything but predictable. Robert Trujillo’s bass is quite prevalent in the mix and the record sounds better for it. Kirk Hammett delivers his solos as only he can, full of bravado and yes, often drenched in wah. But even the fanboy in me will concede that he is not quite what he once was, and that his more wild, stream of consciousness style found here leaves me wanting more. I miss the signature licks that stood out as much as any vocal part. Those parts seem to be few and far between here. But still, it’s Kirk. And he does his job well.  Lyrically, James tackles themes of mankind’s seemingly instinctive and inevitable nature to destroy itself, be it through sheer ego, technology, vapid pursuits of fame at all costs, revenge, the destruction of our environment, and how we can possibly make sense of it all. For a devout family man in a much happier and healthier place than he’s ever been, James Hetfield is clearly not blind to the darker aspects of the world in which we now live.

But let’s get into the nitty-gritty, shall we? Let’s go track by track and dissect this beast.

Hardwired

We’ve all heard this song by now, I’m sure. Upon first listen, my initial reaction was that this song wasn’t too far removed from something that might appear on Death Magnetic. It’s a thrasher in the vein of “My Apocalypse” or “That Was Just Your Life”, but distilled down to a blistering 3 minutes and 9 seconds. This being most people’s first taste of a record 8 years in the making set up an expectation in my mind that this is the comfort zone where Metallica had settled.

Atlas, Rise!

The second song on the record proves how wrong that expectation is. Metallica seem to have instead embraced their NWOBHM roots perhaps more than they ever have before. Joining the signature James Hetfield right-hand driven riffs are melodic Iron Maiden-esque guitar harmonies in the chorus and the post-chorus sections. For Metallica, this feels totally fresh and new. And right when you think the song is over, there’s one more driving riff section to bang your head home.

Now That We’re Dead

“Now That We’re Dead” is a mid-tempo chugger that starts off unassuming enough, but don’t be fooled. This has become one of my favorite songs on the album. Metallica have made a career not just out of sheer metal intensity, but also hooks and melodies that stick in your head. That has not been forgotten on “Now That We’re Dead.” A welcome return on this song that has been missing from Metallica’s production in recent years is that of vocal harmonies. James Hetfield does them better than almost anyone, and that extra layer of production shines. Parts of this song remind me of Prong’s “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck” crashing into “The Outlaw Torn” from Load. Who would have seen that coming?

Moth Into Flame

The second song released from this record took everyone by surprise, myself included. That aforementioned expectation that “Hardwired” formed was challenged by this song. You could almost hear this song appearing on Ride the Lightning, but the chorus is something that could only be born of a band far more experienced. Once again, this is Metallica both familiar and entirely fresh. Hetfield lays down a chugging riff like no other. Kirk’s signature wah-drenched sound is on full display in the solo, which is one of the best on the record. And yes, that is Lars throwing some double-kick at you.

Dream No More

Once again, this record takes you by surprise. For all the things said about Load and Reload, one thing that doesn’t seem to get mentioned much is how much of an Alice in Chains influence there was on them, particularly in the vocal production. Once again, those Layne Staley-inspired vocal harmonies are on display here, and they sound incredible and eerie – fitting for a song steeped in HP Lovecraft and Metallica’s old friend, Cthulu. The pre-chorus and chorus of this song show just how mammoth and heavy Metallica can be when they back off the tempo and let James’ right hand do the talking. The subtle slow-down on the chorus combined with a simple chugging open-D string, with James vocal delivery make for an ugly and beautiful chunk of metal whose weight will not be denied.

Halo on Fire

Big chords and harmonies in the intro give way to a haunting clean verse with some of James’ best vocal work on the record, both clean and dirty. I can’t help but think Metallica really enjoyed covering “Remember Tomorrow” and decided to use it as inspiration. And once again, the chorus delivers. The mid-section guitar crunch and harmonies almost recall something from …And Justice for All, but the James Hetfield of 1988 could not handle the vocal melody and delivery on display here. And after all that, an album highlight reveals itself. Everything after the first guitar solo to the ending is hauntingly beautiful, a real standout on the album. Honestly, it gives me chills. And again, familiar, yet totally fresh.

Confusion

If you think that this intro sounds like Metallica’s seminal cover of “Am I Evil?”, you’re not alone. Again, Metallica is showcasing their NWOBHM roots. But what comes after is my vote for “Riff of the Album”. I love this riff to death. It makes me immediately put on my metal face and bang my head. James Hetfield, man. What else can you say? The man can fucking riff. The verses are in a different key than the beginning and choruses, and speaking as a musician, the fact that Metallica can do this so seamlessly is just mind-bending. The dark chorus reminds me of those unheralded tracks from Load and Reload I mentioned earlier.

Manunkind

One can’t possibly hear this song and not think that it is unabashedly paying homage to Black Sabbath. And as such, it could have also fit in quite nicely on Load or Reload, though the mid-section has a bit more chug than you might have found on those records. But the majority of this song feels like James channeling his inner Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne. Taken on its own, I dig this song. But I concede that it is my least favorite on the record.

Here Comes Revenge

We have an ominous intro that almost recalls (gasp!) Megadeth, to my ears anyway. And am I wrong for even hearing a hint of Pantera too? But don’t be alarmed, James is back to his right-handed tricks in good order. Once again, there’s a verse key change that Metallica makes effortless. This song has yet another chorus that will stick with you. As is the theme of this review, I can’t quite place this song on any of Metallica’s previous records, yet it’s thoroughly Metallica.

Am I Savage?

A gritty clean intro that wouldn’t be out of place on Load transitions into something quite unexpected- basically a Countdown to Extinction/Youthanasia-era Megadeth song, complete with palm-muted arpeggio with spoken vocal delivery. Oh sure, the main riff is very Black Sabbath, but the rest? Somewhere Dave Mustaine is rolling a tear over that side-project he talked up before even asking James, who promptly shot it down. And yet, with this song, you can’t help but wonder what such a collaboration might have sounded like in 2016. Kirk’s solo on this track is also one of his standouts on this record. That outro riff though… Chug on, James. Chug the fuck on.

Murder One

An absolutely classic and pristine Metallica clean tone opens this tribute to the one and only Lemmy Kilmister. Metallica’s admiration for Motorhead and its inimitable frontman are no secret, and they’ve assembled a fitting tribute. Rather than just writing a pastiche of a Motorhead song, Metallica offers a headbanging main riff with a bombastic chorus, presenting their metal offering to the immortal Lemmy.

Spit Out the Bone

And we’ve come full circle. “Holy shit this sounds like Carcass” is not something I ever thought I’d write about Metallica, much less Metallica in 2016, but here we are. I defy you to tell me that the riff in question doesn’t sound like “This Mortal Coil.” That’s fucking awesome. From there, we enter a “Dyer’s Eve” for a new era. Metallica has never given a shit what you thought of them, but if you thought they couldn’t play fast, thrashing metal anymore, here Metallica kindly says “Fuck you buddy, we helped invent this shit.” While Hardwired” was the last song written for this record and bears some similarities to “Spit Out the Bone”, “Hardwired” was a tight 3 minutes, whereas “Spit Out the Bone” takes you on a journey. Not content to just give you whiplash, melodic harmony sections breath new life, along with James delivering yet another memorable vocal melody. But why stop there?! Here, take some more right hand of doom chugs with you! Kirk seals the deal with another standout solo.

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Hardwired… to Self Destruct is not the album I expected. It’s in fact, even better. Metallica once again prove that you cannot predict where they are going to go. As a fan, and as a musician, that’s perhaps the thing I respect and love about them more than anything. They are never content. They have absolutely nothing to prove to anyone anymore, but press onward, creating music on their own terms, doing what they want to do, just like they always have.

If you checked out on Metallica in the ’90s, at this point, I have to believe almost nothing will ever change your mind. But if you’re open to it, Metallica have delivered something honestly new and exciting and absolutely worth your attention. And hell, it may even make you second guess yourself about those records you dismissed so easily since then.

On the Dave Meltzer Five Star Scale, I grade Hardwired… to Self Destruct 4.75 stars.

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