Despite what your Leaving Cert religion teacher would think, to be a Metallica fan in the modern day is to live with constant optimism. The uncharitable would paint followers of the band as entitled and perpetually adolescent, whose main beef with the band would be their gall to move away from the thrash style that made them famous in favour of haircuts and populist hard rock. Though the charge is certainly not without merit (the concept of “selling out” has been getting steadily outdated, thankfully), lovers of heavy music have more open minds than they are given credit for, and the release of a new Metallica album always brings with it a heartening collective finger-cross that this time will be when the band figures it out.
As commendable as trying new things is, a noble failure is still a failure. While … And Justice For All’s unusual production was a risky and petty choice that ultimately paid off in spades, and time has been kind to 1991’s self-titled album, which like it or not remains a cornerstone of metal’s crossover appeal, the same can’t be said for subsequent efforts. Load, Reload, and St. Anger may have tried new things – almost-pop structures, Drop-C tuning, snare drums that sound like it was recorded on your little brother’s GarageBand – but they were overlong, boring, ugly records. I’m all for aiding Lou Reed in his lifelong quest to fuck with people, but that doesn’t mean I ever want to sit through Lulu again.
Hardwired… To Self-Destruct doesn’t reach the same depths those albums did, though it certainly remains interminable and uninspired. The optimism-catalyst this time was the repeated assertions that the album saw a return to the thrash that gave the band instant icon status thirty years ago. This initially scans as promising, but the other reason why Metallica made such waves back then was a keen understanding of dynamics, clever marriage of song structure and narrative, an ambitious drive to avoid anything middle-of-the-road: all qualities missing from this album. It is, of course, silly to compare Metallica in their 50s to the adolescents of over 30 years ago, but it’s hard to imagine the 1983 James Hetfield, even at his most sophomoric, centring a lead single around the remarkably dumb chorus “We’re so fucked / Shit out of luck / Hardwired to self destruct!”
Things do not improve elsewhere. In their heyday, the band would often decide on a catchy name for a song first before Hetfield would write lyrics to suit the title. The mental image of four men in their 50s coming up with “Manunkind” after an intense brainstorming session and sharing ecstatic high-fives at their satirical ingenuity is the most fun related to this album I’ve had yet. ‘Now That We’re Dead’, where the chorus announces that oblivion will bring star-crossed lovers together forever, sounds tailor-made for an ill-advised dark and edgy reboot of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
‘Hardwired’ as it turns out was a red herring, over two-and-a-half minutes shorter than any other track on the album, with the rest stretched out unnecessarily. The band seem to have not learned their lesson from the controversy surrounding Death Magnetic’s mastering job, and the songs here suffer from the combination of their marathon lengths and incessant brickwalling. An album of 3-to-4 minute Metallica songs would be an interesting prospect, and there isn’t a song here that feels like it could benefit from some brevity.
Even then, though, the album doesn’t show much imagination. Guitarist Kirk Hammett lost his phone during the writing sessions with over 250 riff ideas, and the band doesn’t seem to have made much effort to make up for lost time: this is the first Metallica album where Hammett has no writing credits. ‘Halo On Fire’ and ‘Murder One’ seems eager to reprise ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ and ‘One’ respectively, and the rest of the album congeals into a forgettable mesh due to rote writing and overloading production.
At its height, Hardwired… does contain some enjoyable nuggets. Though the payoff of its halfway buildup is underwhelming, closer ‘Spit Out The Bone’ is pleasingly energetic and gory but not puerile. I doubt it was the explicit intention of the band, but it’s a funny circumstance that ‘Moth Into Flame’, with its tale of a character “seduced by fame”, building a “higher wall” and fostering “destruction going viral” sees its release the same month that a narcissistic reality TV star was elected to one of the most powerful positions on earth. Hetfield will probably try to continue claiming that the band are apolitical, but it’s sure to have some resonance to sizeable chunks of the massive audiences they’re to play to for the next few years.
However, largely I see no reason why this album won’t fall prey to what’s become the usual story for a new Metallica album: a forgettable mess that’ll be given some generosity by followers for a little while before serving its main purpose as an excuse to tour some more (if nothing else, they remain excellent performers). Until then, there’s always reason to be optimistic next time.