Kerry Packer was Australia’s richest man, and he didn’t care who knew it. It was dangerous to mention your own wealth in his company. Once, at a baccarat table in Vegas, a Texas oilman bragged that he was worth sixty million. Kerry didn’t miss a beat. “Toss you for it.”
Metallica’s like that. It’s all or nothing. Once they decide on a direction, they take that direction to its full or logical conclusion. Sometimes that conclusion is “Ride the Lightning”. Sometimes it’s “Lulu.” And now we’re here, with an album that’s average, but strangely intense in its averageness, if that makes sense. Imagine pouring a mug of tapwater, that’s utterly uncompromising in its 50C-ness. The definitive mug of lukewarm water, that all mugs of lukewarm water aspire to be.
Hardwired tries to merge their 80s thrash metal sound with various hard rock influences, with somewhat good results. I was hoping for more, but it’s listenable and well put together. Greg Fiedelman’s earthy production job stops things from sounding too modern, but the album doesn’t have a sonic “center”. There’s not a single track you can point to as a summary of the album’s thesis. It jumps around in style a lot, and also in quality.
The performances shocked me. James’s voice sounds…good. No more “GIMME FUE GIMME FAI GIMME DABAJABAZA” enunciation. And he’s backing it up live, too. Lars’s drumming is basic but sounds pretty decent now that he’s mixed in a non-asinine fashion. The band probably pulls of its best rhythm tone to date, with the guitars like a scorching streak of red war paint against the dry skin of the bass and drums. Everything works, everything makes sense.
The weak performer on the album is obviously Kirk Hammett. His bad habits are now incredibly pronounced, turning songs like “Confusion” into your one stop shop for bad Jimi Hendrix imitations. Sloppily played pentatonic runs, drenched in masturbatory wah pedal noise, written with no thought, no technique, and no ability to “ride” the feel of the song. On 2008’s Death Magnetic, he didn’t stand out at all. Now, he’s actively making the band worse.
If you agree, take heart from my suspicion that he won’t be in Metallica much longer. Note that he has zero writing credits on the album, and my reading of Blabbermouth reveals a dog-ate-my-homework level excuse about losing the phone that had all his riff ideas (should have lost the phone that had his shitty guitar solos, instead). I don’t buy it. There’s kids on Youtube who can play every riff Metallica ever recorded, but Kirk Hammett needs a phone to remember his own material? His heart is obviously no longer in this band and I predict he will be the next member to leave.
But he keeps his noodling down to a few seconds per song, leaving us with Hetfield’s amazing left hand and surprisingly decent voice to carry the album, and they both do…to an extent. “Hardwired” doesn’t stand out to me as excellent material, but “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth into Flame” are incredible, capturing everything that was good about the Black album and marrying with a greater sense of musical adventure. If the whole album had sounded like this, a renaissance would be underway.
“Now That We’re Dead” and “Confusion” sound like efforts at arena rock. I can tolerate them, if not love them. Much of the second album is skipworthy, with the big exception being “Spit Out the Bone”, which brings back the riffs and speed and evokes memories of “Damage Inc” and “Dyers Eve”.
The pace of the album is fairly staid: I could have used more speed and energy. And this is one of those single albums turned into a double disc for no reason at all: I suspect you can make a far superior version of Hardwired…to Self Destruct by deleting/rearranging some of the tracks. Nothing like having to perform emergency triage surgery on an album, but there’s enough good material here that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Being a Metallica fan is exhausting. Some think they should have retired in 1991. Some think they should have retired in 1988. Some think they should have retired in 1981. No matter where you stand, this might be the closest to a return to form we’ll ever get, and I know not to look a gift Horseman in the mouth. Metallica tossed for it, and I don’t know if they beat the house, but they’re still here doing what they do.