Metallica is a very polarizing band. When I was 12 it was unquestionably cool to be a Metallica fan. Then…Napster. Almost overnight it became severely uncool to like Metallica. In the public consciousness they quickly became the rich guys that were past their prime, complaining that they’d only make 10 instead of 100 million. Former loyal fans were less likely to come to their defense perhaps because many felt betrayed by their evolving sound, which was a significant departure from what made them famous to begin with. And although it’s almost unfathomable upon reflection, they caught a lot of shit for cutting their hair. Seriously, it was a big deal in the 90s.
I think there’s at least one more reason that helps explain the vitriol seen in the comment section of every article pertaining to Metallica. The band has been around so long, many original fans are now much older with tastes that have significantly changed. They got real jobs, had kids and just don’t listen to metal. That’s fine, but they mistake their nostalgia of youth as evidence that Metallica has significantly changed. Is Death Magnetic‘s “My Apocalypse” really that different from Master of Puppet‘s “Battery”? Sure, there are differences, but it’s definitely in the ballpark. People seem to get really creative in finding reasons to hate Metallica. The big criticism for the totally excellent Death Magnetic was that they used too much compression in the mix. That was the first and last time I had heard anyone except recording engineers even talk about compression, much less use it as a reason to not like a record. Exhausting.
But despite the band being able to do no right in the public’s eye, they’ve continued to deliver uncompromising, excellent material and Hardwired …To Self-Destruct is no exception. Similar to Death Magnetic, they have cherry-picked the best aspects of the many sonic eras the band has created to result in a highly polished behemoth of creative output. Although there are many examples of high speed thrash metal riffs and guitar harmonies that define their early material, they have brought in more elements from their later material in this album.
Specifically, the slower groove that is perhaps unique to 90’s Metallica. Think Load‘s “2 x 4”, Reload‘s “Carpe Diem Baby”, or the black album’s “Sad But True”. “Now That We’re Dead” would be at home on any of those albums, but the punctuation of the more complex prog parts would have made it stand out. “Dream No More” and “Am I Savage?” are perfect examples of dropping into the groove of that era and making the most of Hetfield’s singing ability that didn’t seem to appear until Load.
Another album I find myself making many connections to is Disc 1 of their cover album, Garage Inc. The sort of Irish-inspired sound of “Whiskey In the Jar” shows up in a few places. Riffs similar to their Mercyful Fate tribute are sprinkled throughout. And most pleasing to me, the Sabbath groove of “Sabbra Cadabra” is front and center on my favorite album track: ManUNkind.
I love riffs that are both in an odd time signature and can still groove hard. This song hangs in a time signature I still haven’t figured out, but is executed with a skill that allows the listener to bob their head uninterrupted. Like Clutch, Isis, or Tool at their best, on this track in particular Metallica strikes that elusive balance of technically challenging and extremely listenable.
Aside from this song having all the elements I personally like, I think it also represents something very important: a truly original sound. It is incredibly difficult to create an original vibe. Metallica did it in the 80’s with their combination of orchestral melodies and punishing riffs that came to be known as the best example of thrash. They miraculously did it again in the 90’s by creating a sound that I don’t think has ever been coherently named or recreated by any band since. I don’t know what genre “Ain’t My Bitch” is, but it’s not thrash and I’ve never heard anything like it before or since. And while you can argue that putting together these elements in different combinations is original, I think the accomplishment of “ManUNkind” is something different. It would not fit any other album in their catalog, which is a hallmark to its originality.
But generally, Death Magnetic sounded like a backlash against those saying they didn’t have the technical chops that helped define their legendary albums. It’s as if much of the 90’s was spent trying to convince themselves that they could do more than just thrash, but then a decade later they had to remind themselves that they still could. Death Magnetic sounded like the answer to the question, “Remind me again why we’re avoiding our thrash history?”
Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, on the other hand, sounds like the band has finally gotten comfortable with what they created in the 90’s. They seem at peace with not only living in the shadow of their own legend, but with the various twists and turns they made trying to escape it. Instead of being confined by their legend from feeling pressure to either recreate or avoid it, they are finally able to just ignore it and make the best album they can, by their own definition. Hardwired sounds like an album created without the burden of constraint. It marks a new chapter in the long, awesome book of Metallica and I’m already looking forward to the next one…