Monday, November 21, 2016

album review: 'hardwired... to self destruct' by metallica

They are a name that is in the public consciousness synonymous with metal. Of the big four in thrash, they are the one that probably leaps to mind the most. The most recognizable, arguably one of the most successful, and one that I've never really talked about in great detail... mostly because the band has not released a lot of quality throughout my entire lifetime.

Yeah, we're talking about Metallica, the second of the big four that I've covered this year. And even though I'm no big fan of thrash metal - which probably didn't help that Megadeth review, I do tend to take a more forgiving picture of Metallica. For one, on a pure compositional and writing level I found them a more consistent and enjoyable group for a longer period of time than Megadeth. And even though I do have some individual issues with their 80s output, I can definitely hold up records like Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and ...And Justice For All as iconic in the genre, with Ride The Lightning probably being my favourite.

But here's the unfortunate truth of it: those were all in the 80s. I don't have the aversion to The Black Album that some Metallica fans do, but it really was a sign of the records to come. On some level I appreciated Metallica venturing out of thrash for Load and Reload, but they seemed to lose a lot of the interesting virtuoso musicianship and melodic chops that helped their 80s work stand out. And St. Anger was even worse - plagued with production issues, sloppy writing, and no solos, it just hit a really sour note with me. Death Magnetic was a return to form on some level in 2008 - there were still production issues, courtesy of an abuse of compression, which did nothing to highlight the melodies, but it was a Metallica sound I could get behind. But they followed that by working with Lou Reed on Lulu... and really, that album is a video in and of itself, but let me say this: it's not a good record, at all, but especially lyrically it's the sort of fascinating failure that's extremely entertaining to dissect. But the broader point of all of this is that since I was born in 1990, the vast majority of music Metallica has released has been decent at best, and that's dispiriting going into a new record. And really, I had no clue what to expect: Metallica has been all over the map throughout their career, and given they had now put together a double album of material with no songwriting contributions from Kirk Hammett - and I hadn't heard any new singles - I figured this would be my big chance to dig in deep - so what did we get?

Well, I'm of a few minds on this. On the one hand, you could make the very credible argument it's some of their strongest work since the 80s, not quite as consistently vicious and energetic as their best but definitely showing the closest thing to a return to form, especially in comparison to the work since The Black Album. On the other hand, there are still elements that have carried into Metallica's later work that hold back this album from being great - indulgence, frustrating production choices, and the uneasy feeling that if Metallica had a little more oversight or pressure, they could have put together a far tighter project. Of course that was never going to happen - they're on their own label now, and they have more than enough money and control to ignore everyone else - but that indulgence does take away from a thrash project that could have been great instead of merely pretty good.

So let me start by saying that the fundamentals of Metallica are mostly coming through true here. The rhythm guitar is swamped with fuzz and crunch - really has been the consistent unsung hero of Metallica - Kirk Hammett's guitar solos can be impressive if a little interchangeable at points, and the rhythm section... well, we'll get to that. Hell, while I won't say James Hetfield brings as much visceral presence as he could outside of moments like 'Spit Out The Bone', with some careful overdubs on songs like 'Halo On Fire' he does have some potent presence. Hell, 'Halo On Fire' also holds up on its songcraft as well - the melodic shifts are well-executed, we get one of the better solos, and it's one of the few songs on this record that uses its time well, the others being the fuzzy jagged grind of 'Now That We're Dead' and the frenetic 'Spit Out The Bone', which is easily the most fast-paced and wild thrash songs Metallica has made in years, and easily one of their best. Hell, even though I wouldn't say this record ever consistently hits that pace, melodically it does hit solid moments like the synchronized guitarwork on 'Atlas Rise!' and 'Dream No More', or the more controlled melodies that drive 'Confusion'. 

But right out of the gate, we run into production issues - and to precisely nobody's surprise the majority of them are with the bass and drums. I know Lars Ulrich is a contentious drummer in some circles, but my larger issues come in how his kit is miced and processed - who the hell thought that flat, tapping kickdrum tone had anywhere close to enough presence to balance the rhythm guitar? And it's not like the drums are buried either - that kickdrum often sticks out like a sore thumb, and compared to the fainter cymbals or much sharper snares, it's a baffling choice, especially when the songs aren't at a fast enough tempo to obscure or blur the hits. This could have been alleviated by giving Robert Trujillo's bass a little more presence... which is so inconsistent it's barely there, which ends up leaving many first disc songs lacking some of that lower foundation. Bizarrely the bass does get a little more volume on the second disc on songs like 'Here Comes Revenge' and 'Am I Savage'... which are both some of the weakest tracks on the project, the former which opens a guitar line that sounds like a screaming cat and the latter switching into a gummy midsection that sounds way clunkier than it should. What's frustrating is that a song later on 'Murder One' - a tribute to Motorhead that sounds nothing like Motorhead and is in fact named after Lemmy's bass amp - the low end is painfully inadequate. But that's only peripheral to the bigger issue, namely that the songs on the second disc can drag pretty hard - I get trying for experimentation, but not only are the tones and shifts chosen not all that far removed from typical modern Metallica, the melodies aren't nearly as dynamic. Take 'ManUNkind', a song intended as a tribute to the black metal band Mayhem - there's some groove to it, but it feels awkwardly constructed especially with the solo and this was a prime place for Metallica to touch into black metal if only for a flourish... and they don't bother. No blast beats, no tremolo riffs, not even screamed or growled vocals - strikes me as blown potential.

But maybe that was too much to hope for - this is Metallica, after all, and I wasn't expecting them to push that hard... and if you want proof of that assertion, look at the lyrics and themes. The title isn't kidding, as thematically this record looks to explore the reasons why humanity has the instinct to implode or destroy oneself, mostly settling on succumbing to our various vices. 'Moth To Flame' targets obsession with fame and social media - because of course Metallica would have an issue with that - 'Dream No More' focuses on the summoning of Cthullu - which James Hetfield pronounces as 'Ctullu', which considering this is Metallica's fourth song about the subject you'd think he'd have the name right by now - and 'Halo On Fire' plays a little more abstractly, playing in fallen angel motifs that fear retribution and don't seek forgiveness. More intriguingly we get songs like 'Now That We're Dead', about the reunion with a loved one after passing, or 'Spit Out The Bone', which focuses on literally succumbing to the machine. Hell, 'Am I Savage' might use pretty basic werewolf symbolism and 'Here Comes Revenge' takes the abstract song structures of Load and Reload for the abstract concept of vengeance, but it holds together in a baseline sort of way. But then you have songs like 'Confusion', which is about PTSD - and yeah, on a broad level PTSD can trigger suicidal impulses, but tonally the fit feels questionable as it raises some murky questions of agency. And the inclusion of 'Murder One'... yeah, it doesn't fit with the themes at all, unless Metallica is trying to making a statement about how Lemmy's lifestyle led to his death, which I sincerely hope they weren't trying to do. The larger issue is... well, I've already alluded to it, most of this subject matter isn't far removed from Metallica's usual material - not bad, but nothing surprising either. And this would be fine enough enough - the writing has a rough-edged basic wallop that has always worked for the band - but Metallica is over thirty-five years in and they had a prime opportunity to push more on the second disc... and they didn't.

But really, that's nitpicking - overall, Hardwired... To Self-Destruct is fine enough - it's got some standout tracks, a few great solos, some good writing, and really is the best we could expect from them at this point. But at the same time, maybe it's my own ambivalence towards thrash, but for a band with this much longevity you'd think they'd bring more to the table over the course of two discs! As it is, many of the songs we get run long or run short of ideas, and the fact that the bass and drums production doesn't flesh out the low end nearly as well as it should isn't a good sign - these guys have been making thrash longer than I've been alive, this shouldn't be an issue at this point. As such, for me it's a very strong 6/10, and if you're going to check it out, I'd take the first disc, 'Spit Out The Bone', and throw out the rest - it would have made for a stronger project overall. But fans of Metallica, you have a new album - hope you enjoy it more than I did.

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