Hardwired…To Self-Destruct by Metallica

by Michael McKinney
Rating: 5.5/10

It’s kind of strange, really, that Metallica have something to prove. Their initial run of records – Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets – helped to define thrash metal. Then again, just as most bands don’t carve out a sound, most don’t put out records infamous for poor mixing or release spoken-word opuses based on plays from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Metallica, it seems, started out strong and then did as they pleased, to results which run the gamut of quality. Talking with Rolling Stone in 2016, Lars Ulrich said that he wasn’t “a big rule guy generally. A saying from way back in the day was when you make the rules yourself, then you can break them whenever you want.”

This isn’t to say that Hardwired…To Self-Destruct breaks new ground or old rules for the group. It’s clearly, and consciously, a look back by a band that’s earned it: the first disc is, by and large, a collection of odes to their earliest records, while the second slows it down a bit but attempts to keep the same motions. The first half, ultimately, proves more worthwhile: while much of the second disc isn’t terrible, it’s bland compared to the first half, with its best parts dimly echoing far stronger moments from earlier on.

It’s worth noting how great that first half is, though, a half-hour of excellent sonics and id run wild. The best moments here see the band firing on all cylinders, be it interplay between the vocals and rhythm section, meaty guitar chugs, or shockingly nuanced shifts in tempo and mood. Most of the standouts come out of the higher-energy cuts here, with sheer energy and technical skill combining to create an exhilarating product. Yes, many of the tracks rely upon the same iconography, both lyrically and musically: James Hetfield’s lyrics rarely diverge from wild-eyed aggression, the push-pull between solos and verses reveals itself to be a crutch over eighty minutes, and when they try to diverge from that formula, they trip over themselves with ambition. But it’s easy to get caught up in the pyrotechnics on display for that first half-hour, with its flaws pushed into blind spots in favor of spectacle.

The second half, then, is what drags the release down. It’s not without its highlights – when the band doubles down on the slowed pace, making their riffs heavier instead of just slowing down, it’s a sight to behold. Unfortunately, few of the best parts here do anything that rivals the first disc, with its first five tracks turning into a half-hour of uninteresting bravado occasionally punctured with great moments – Hetfield’s bark on “Confusion”; the crushing weight “Am I Savage?” finds in its final third; the riffs driving “Murder One” – but largely filled with material that doesn’t quite nail the highs of the defter, more urgent offerings. The last track on here, “Spit Out the Bone,” is downright exhilarating simply because it ups the tempo, and it’s immediately clear that they’re in their comfort zone again.

But, really, the halves aren’t hugely different: it’s just that the knobs were turned a bit too far, dialing the band’s sprint down to a pained trudge that renders the second half forgettable. Much of what makes the first half great is still present: Kirk Hammett’s guitar solos are thrilling throughout, if not always the most inventive or memorable; Hetfield’s lyrics range from inoffensive sonic wallpaper to well-crafted earworms; the band operates in lock-step, with tracks shifting enough to keep things interesting but never so far as to kill established momentum or feeling. Make no mistake, these are often well-made songs, even if too many of them feel disposable when listening to the whole thing. The real villain here, if anything is to blame, is a combination of poor sequencing and a glut of material relative to quality control.

And that’s the most frustrating thing about Hardwired: there’s a great record in here somewhere; possibly better than anyone should expect, given the band’s recent output. But it’s paired with material that doesn’t do the band justice, and those tracks make up nearly half the release. The fortunate thing about overlong albums, though – as this one certainly is, at double the length it needed to be – is that it’s simple to cut the fat and come out with a better product. All things considered, it’s a solid release – neither great nor genre-defining, but good – that sees the veterans making a case for critical attention even as new groups have picked up their torch and set fire to their guitars once again.

FCC: 1, 4, 6, 11
RIYL: Megadeth, Slayer, Vektor
Favorite Tracks: 2, 3, 5, 12

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