Thursday, 29 December 2016

Metallica's 'Hardwired...to Self-Destruct' - Album Review

It may come as a surprise as readers of this blog, especially given the sheer amount of hard rock and metal loving that goes on here, that I have never really been the biggest fan of Metallica. It pains me to say that, as it has become something of a trendy opinion for metal fans to have, but I can honestly say that Metallica have never really resonated with me. There are caveats to this of course. There are few out there who will seriously deny that both 1984's Ride the Lightning or 1986's Master of Puppets are absolute stone cold classic metal albums, and these are the two Metallica albums that I reach for when I feel like a dose of the thrash titans. I have heard every Metallica album at least once too, with the exception of 2003's St. Anger although judging by the vast majority of the reviews for it I am not missing out on much, so I have a good understanding of what the band have been about during their 35 year career so far. 2016 is the band's 35th anniversary since forming in 1981, and in that time they have managed to become one of the biggest bands in the world. Their popularity and recognition transcends the metal world, and they are one of the few bands from this world that have become truly mainstream (in a commercial sense at least, not the meaningless way the word is used in a negative way to describe music you do not like). In recent years however, it seems like Metallica have going out of their way to not release any new music, despite endless interviews online claiming the contrary. 2008 was the last time the world saw a Metallica album (ignoring Lulu, the collaboration album with Lou Reed that was released in 2011 which is, by all accounts, truly horrible) when Death Magnetic was released. This album was heralded as a return to form by large sections of the band's fanbase, but received a lot of criticism for it's harsh production style. Death Magnetic showed that Metallica were happy to play good old fashioned heavy metal again, but since then the band had been procrastinating hugely, seemingly doing anything if it means they did not have to enter the studio and record something new. Earlier this year however this all changed when the band's tenth studio album, Hardwired...to Self-Destruct, would be released in November. A new Metallica album is always an event in the metal world, and the accompanying lead single Hardwired certainly did a lot to pique fans' interests. The news that the album was going to be a double album pleased a lot of people, but it did also trigger some alarm bells. Metallica have never been good at self-editing, with most of their albums clocking in at well over an hour. Hardwired...to Self-Destruct is over 77 minutes long, but is still a little shorter than 1996's Load. I am not sure why the album needed to be a double album really, as Load fits nicely on one disc, but it does make it a bit more listenable as you can play it in two smaller chunks if you wish. This is easily the best-sounding Metallica album for sometime too, with none of the weird production quirks that plagued Death Magnetic. Hardwired...to Self-Destruct sounds huge, so producer Greg Fidelman should be applauded on the job he has done here.

Disc one, which is easily the strongest of the two, gets underway with a bang with lead single Hardwired. The song is only just over three minutes long, and it is a great slab of old-fashioned punky thrash metal. The star of the song is frontman James Hetfield who has not sounded this furious and angsty in years! The snarl that filled the band's first few albums is back in force here, and fits in well with the fast riffing and the double bass drumming from Lars Ulrich, who also turns in his best drumming performance for quite sometime. This is the only song on the album that clocks in at under five minutes, but is a real statement of intent and shows Metallica can still thrash out with the best of them. Atlas, Rise! is next and this is more typical to the sound found throughout the rest of the album. While not up to the same speeds as Hardwired, the song still steams along at a decent pace with a classic Hetfield riff to drive everything. Classic Metallica was always packed with plenty of groove, and this song sees this return. Rob Trujillo's bass rumbles away beneath the riffs, really adding to the groove, and the much-maligned (in recent years anyway) Kirk Hammett adds plenty of melodic, shredding bursts of lead guitar throughout. The chorus is a strong, anthemic section and sees Ulrich's marching drum beat and Hammett and Hetfield's dual guitar leads weaving around each other as Hetfield barks out the lyrics. There is more than a big hint of the band's classic sound here, and the modern-sounding production really brings the best out of everyone involved. Those who like their metal with a lot of groove will love Now That We're Dead, a great mid-paced rocker that would have sat quite comfortably on 1991's self-titled album. Hetfield uses the more melodic end of his vocals, something that has been more prevalent in recent years, which works well over the restrained chug of the song. It is not as riff-heavy as many Metallica songs, but instead just sits back on a great groove as Ulrich's metronome-like drumming holds court. The chorus has a bit of an modern alt-rock vibe to it, but it works well and is a pretty catchy and memorable moment. Hammett's solo is a bit of let down however, and relies too heavily on the wah-pedal and tuneless shredded sections that he has often resorted to in recent years. Moth into Flame is easily my favourite song on the album, and from the ominous guitar lead in the intro to the melodic chorus, this song contains everything that made those early Metallica albums so classic. Hetfield has a unique was of phrasing his vocal melodies, and this is on display here with his staccato delivery dominating the verses, even as they speed up with some surprisingly tight drumming (Ulrich is also famously much-maligned these days). The chorus is where the song is at it's strongest however, with subtle vocal harmonies to bring the best out of the strong melodies before it all leads back into the pacey main riff. Hammett's solo here is great. The firsts section is wah-heavy, and then it explodes into a melodic shred-fest that goes through many distinct phases - all with great effect. With the Cthulhu mythos returning to the band's lyrical canon again, it seems fitting that the song it is used in, Dream no More, is a slow, heavy, lumbering beast. There is something of Alice in Chains in the song's verses, with subtle grungy vocal harmonies and a grinding main riff. The song never really picks up pace, but this only makes it heavier and more effective. The chorus is very memorable, with a slight anthemic vibe, but the real star of the song is Hammett who includes some of his most restrained and tasteful playing in years throughout. The solo in particular is great, with ominous phrasing and tone. The disc comes to a close with the album's longest song, Halo on Fire, which is probably the least interesting song on the disc. It is not a bad song at all, the chorus in particular is very strong and memorable, but it just fails to make the impact the rest of the songs so far have. That being said, the last third of the song is great. It begins with an atmospheric clean guitar section before leading into a lengthy outro section built around a folky guitar lead that Hetfield sings over before Hammett takes over with a solo that sees the disc end strongly.

The second disc, which is overall much less interesting than the first, starts with Confusion. The song is built on some great riffing, but Hetfield's vocals sound really strange throughout. The grit and angst he used throughout most of the first disc is largely absent, and he even sounds a little auto-tuned during the verses here as his voice has an odd synthetic quality. The song is another that is fairly slow, but there are some great riffs throughout that have Hetfield's classic stamp all over them. The band have done better however, and this ends up being on the album's weaker moments. ManUNkind is the only song on the album with a writing contribution from Trujillo. Much has been made of the total lack of songwriting credits from Hammett (something which he has not even bothered to hide his disappointment about) and Trujillo (apart from this song), but Metallica's songwriting has always been driven by Hetfield and Ulrich since day one. Hetfield's riffs are what Metallica are all about, so I would prefer the songwriting to be more focused, as is largely the case here, than more diverse and disjointed as on other more recent Metallica albums. The melodic, Sabbathy bass intro is clearly Trujillo's doing however, and it does work well, but the rest of the song is a classic Metallica mid-pace chug. Again however, it fails to live up to the stronger material on the first disc as the melodies are just not as memorable. All the ingredients are there for a good Metallica song, they have just been done better elsewhere. Here Comes Revenge is better, and includes a really great riff that mixes thrashy chords and tight guitar leads together perfectly for a strong opening melody. The song has quite a few murky sections, with grungy clean guitar melodies that fit well with Hetfield's slightly fragile delivery. I tend to prefer his gruffer vocal style, but this cleaner feel works well here with the atmospheric music. The song is just overall much more memorable than the previous two, with an anthemic chorus and a decent guitar solo from Hammett and speeds up as it goes along. Am I Savage? is a bit of a plodder and never really seems to get going, despite some decent riffs that evoke early Black Sabbath's sound. Hetfield's howls in the chorus are pretty great, but overall the rest of the song just seems to lacking in any solid ideas. A few strong sections creep through, like a lumbering heavy section towards the end that leads in a decent guitar solo, but these are few and far between and the song ends up feeling a little bland. Murder One is the band's tribute to Lemmy, and it starts off sounding like it might be a bit of a ballad (something this album is sorely lacking), but it turns out being another fairly decent mid-paced rocker. This seems a strange choice for a tribute to Lemmy, should it not be fast, furious, and to the point - something Lemmy built his career on? That being said, the song is clearly heartfelt, with lots of gambling clich├ęs thrown in other lyrical tributes to many of Lemmy's classic songs and ethoses. A decent song, but not a classic. Disc two, and the album, really does end strongly with Spit Out the Bone which is a proper thrash song that recaptures some of the energy of the early songs on the album. This song is pure venom, and easily the best song on the second disc. It is one of the album's fastest too, and sees a great angsty vocal display from Hetfield. About half way through Trujillo has a chance to shine with a great bass-led section that allows him to riff away and show us what a great player he is, before Hetfield and Hammett lock in well for an intricate section of tight riffing that is the best the band have sounded for years. The album ends with a bang, and the memories of some of the lesser moments during disc two are well and truly banished. Overall, Hardwired...to Self-Destruct sees Metallica sounding as fresh and inspired as they did in their early days. Despite a long running time that could have been solved by cutting some of the weaker moments from disc two, this is the band's best album for quite some time and sees them embracing their thrash roots once again.

The album was released on 18th November 2016 via Blackened Recordings. Below is the band's promotional video for Moth into Flame.


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