I have been, let’s say rather vocal about Metallica’s output over the last 15 years. In other words I think it has been extremely sub-par in almost all areas for a band at their level so is this new offering going to change anything?
Metallica are basically the band that got me in to metal. The Black Album was my “gateway drug” and as such I’ll always keep an eye on their releases out of sheer loyalty. As mentioned the last two offerings have pretty much failed to live up to my expectations. St Anger was (in my opinion) an unlistenable mess by the band who in a desperately cringeworthy attempt tried to emulate the “young” sound of the time. What they ended up doing is producing a bunch of ‘jammed’ songs with a deliberately bad production using modern gear. I do understand “why” they did it but I also understand “why” I have to take a jobby every day, but the end result is still a jobby. Now don’t get me wrong, raw is good. Burzum is raw, early Slayer is raw and I’ve made a couple of black metal albums which copy the raw sound of a vintage black metal era production but Metallica weren’t trying to emulate a pre-established sound which has proven to work within a specific genre. They were at a mental low point and were trying too hard to be relevant in a quickly changing world of Nu-Metal and Metalcore. Guess what? It sounded like shit.
2008’s Death Magnetic was without a doubt a step in the right direction. The album featured some cracking “Justice” type riffing and a good vocal performance but it was unfortunately buried under bloated and over repetitious songs and literally one of the worst productions I’ve ever heard from a band at that level. Scratchy, fizzy guitar tones and demo like dull drums all brickwalled to within an inch of their life becasue just as “raw” was cool back in the St Anger days, in 2008 “loud is cool” was the new thing and so they had to have it all and then push it some more.
So is Metallica’s new album “Hardwired…To Self Destruct” any good then?
In a word, yes! It’s really good in fact.
To start with the entire package feels much tighter. Gone is the hefty bloat that plagued the previous two albums and the songs are much more lean, streamlined and hence listenable although the riffs and sections can still repeat a bit too many times often resulting in overlong intros. Next to Death Magnetic the structures have been trimmed and each song has a nice feeling too it. A spoon if you will. One which is not so small as to leave you disappointed but also not too big as to make you stuffed and sick.
The flow of the album is something to mention as well. Each song works extremely well one after the other although I’d say it’s a little top heavy with the first half of the album having songs with similar and more thrashy vibes with the latter half being a bit more dreamy, slow and experimental.
The production is certainly something to talk about. Metallica from about 1984 onward were considered pioneers in the fields of Metal production. This was solidified with 1991’s “Black Album” which featured the most pristine and ground breaking metal sound yet seen in terms of guitar and drum tone. It’s sad then that after Garage Inc. they seemed to turn into one of the worst offenders for having terrible production with their amazing ear seemingly going out the window. HTSD is I’d say a vast improvement over the previous two albums and the production for the most part is acceptable. The bass guitar, drum sound and vocals are massive improvements over Death Magnetic with some….ok mastering this time around too. It’s still quite sub-par and a little boring compared to a typical current metal production and unfortunately the rather bland guitar tone is the main culprit in bringing the whole thing down. It’s far too undergained for this type of music and has a very unappealing high mid scratchiness to it combined with a dull and boxy quality all topped off with that horrible “Load Twang” which to be fair worked on Load but here it’s just super annoying. If they had the Black Album guitar tone here or even just a modern metal tone in general it would have been great.
For a band at Metallica’s level they should be seeking out the very, very best that the industry has to offer and the only two names I can think of are Mr Andy Sneap and Mr Scott Atkins. These two producer/engineers are without a doubt at the top of their game in the world of metal production and it’s scary to think that Metallica have never heard of them or never have had either one recommended to them. It’s also even more scary to think that they have and have chosen against it.
A special mention must go to the star of the show and that is Mr James Hetfield himself. The vocal work on this album is truly some of the best and more diverse I’ve ever heard from him as he effortlessly slips from rhythmic, syncopated snarls on tracks like ‘Hardwired’ to acrobatic melodies like ‘Halo On Fire’ and even some Alice In Chains inspire tones on the beginning of “Dream No More”. This alone would be enough but Papa Het delivers some cake for the fans in the form of throwback vocal styles to albums like Master of Puppets and The Black Album with a noticeable similarity in the heavier part of ‘Dream No More’ to the Puppets Bulldozer ‘The Thing That Should not Be‘. Similarly, one listen to ‘Spit out the Bone‘ and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they took an old isolated vocal track from The Black Album and just put new music under it. Add to this Hetfield’s absolutely thunderous palm mutes and the man is without a doubt one of the, if not the highlight of the album. Rob Trujillo keeps the backbone solid and there’s very little I can fault him on. The occasional hitting of the distortion pedal brought back shades of the mighty Cliff Burton which I was pleasantly surprised to hear. Apart from that he does what any good bass player outside of Steve Harris should do and that’s keep the music unnoticeably glued together.
Musically there are a few down points. Lars’ drumming is I’d say on the whole, solid and perfectly workable but it’s as vanilla as you can get, and although he does display some very nice double bass work, it is relegated largely to closing songs with some other points absolutely crying out for a bit of twin kick which sadly doesn’t happen. Some of his pattern choices are also incredibly strange and often stuttery to the song flow (Check out the chorus to Atlas Rise and then compare it with the video of “If Atlas Rise was on …and Justice For All” which features a more straightforward beat and works FAR better). Kirk Hammet’s soloing is a weird mix of “Hey that’s cool” and “Oooo that sucked” so it’s hard to get a grip on his thought process. Solos are usually the icing on the cake and they aren’t necessary but it’s certainly not his best work despite some nice sweep picking here and there.
There are also definitely a couple of filler songs on the album. ‘ManUNkind’ is pretty dull and feels like something off ‘ReLoad’ which itself was mainly unexciting fillers bar one or two great tunes. ‘Am I Savage?’ isn’t a bad song but it feels like a drudgy dip in in otherwise free flowing river.
‘Murder One’ has come under some fire for apparently being quite a cheesy tribute to Motorhead’s Lemmy but I can’t see how they could do the song without making a few references here and there. It’s a shame then that musically the track itself is a rather clunky and boring mid-paced affair and I’d have preferred it if they had done the song “in the style” of Motorhead as imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. The Dave Grohl written ‘Shake Your Blood’ (which featured Lemmy himself) for the band ‘Probot’ is a far better example of how to tribute an icon through mimicry. In the end, although I commend Metallica for honouring one of their idols the actual musical quality of the song chosen just isn’t that great.
As for my final point about fillers over killers, why in the almighty hell ‘Lords Of Summer’ was relegated to the 3rd bonus disc is beyond me? It’s a great song and actually better than quite a few on the main discs, plus it features possibly the best drum work from Lars.
That brings me to my next point. I fail to see why Metallica decided to split their album into 2 CDs at 6 songs each? Physically changing the CDs in between a listening session will separate the two into separate entities in the mind of the listener and in my view the album works much better as one continuous flow.
If I were producing the album (God forbid) aside from sending it to get mixed and mastered by Andy Sneap or Scott Atkins I’d do my own custom trimmed down tracklist (on 1 CD) consisting of 8 solid and superior tracks with no ‘ok’ or ‘half decent’ songs on there, which would be:
1. Lords Of Summer
2. Atlas, Rise!
3. Now That We’re Dead
4. Moth Into Flame
5. Dream No More
6. Halo On Fire
8. Spit Out The Bone
– Murder One (Nice tribute but it’s kind of a plodding song)
– Am I Savage?
– Here Comes The Revenge
If 8 tracks was good enough for Master of Puppets then its good enough for any album.
So there we have it. If I had to describe Metallica’s new album in one word it would be “Solid”. It has the same rock hard foundations that “Load” had and that’s not a bad place to begin building. Some great riffing, some stupendous vocal work and nothing gratuitously hangs around for too long.
An interesting point was raised by a friend when we were listening to the album together and it’s totally true: HTSD would have been the perfect bridge between the Black Album and Load. With the Black Album Metallica seemed to hit gold with that particular sound and style and of course everyone was expecting a follow up so it’s a shame they chose to relegate it to just one album. The genre change between the groove laden and darkly themed Black Album to the bluesy heavy rock style of Load was very abrupt for a lot of people to take but if you slot HTSD in between the two albums it’s an absolutely spot on mix of styles and would have been the perfect transition buffer.
‘Hardwired…To Self Destruct’ won’t win any awards for originality or innovation and compared to some of their thrash peers like Exodus or Testament it’s incredibly tame. It’s bloated by having too many boring filler songs but one can always make their own playlist out of the favourites. As stated earlier, the off target guitar tone (and the lower tier hard rock like production in general) is probably the biggest sore point but regardless, it’s a fun and highly enjoyable rock/metal album that’s worth buying for sure!
A solid and well deserved 7/10.
Highlights – James Hetfield’s vocals and palm mutes, tight songwriting, a “better” production than the last two disasters.
Low points – Bland and unsuitable guitar tone, drumming is occasionally a bit stuttery and erratic, a few filler songs.
One final point I want to make is about the album artwork. I really didn’t care for the overly colourful, bare and quite frankly bizarre cover and theme so I took 15 minutes in Paint Shop Pro and did my own version below which is a bit more “Metal”.