“I only like the first four Metallica albums” is the most boring opinion a metalhead can express. Primarily heard from men in their 40s, it’s the kind of self-owning idiocy that should be greeted with ridicule, but is instead all too frequently treated as the wisdom of an elder. The first four Metallica albums—1983’s Kill ‘Em All, 1984’s Ride the Lightning, 1986’s Master of Puppets, and 1988’s …And Justice for All—are great. But if you stop listening there, you don’t just ignore the admittedly inconsistent, but often good-to-great work the band has done in the three decades since. You display a larger unwillingness to grow. And unlike a disturbing number of their fans, Metallica have been about growth since the beginning.

The last three Metallica albums—2003’s St. Anger, 2008’s Death Magnetic, and now Hardwired…to Self-Destruct—can be understood as a trilogy, documenting their re-emergence following a period of aesthetic wandering and personal turmoil. Despite being written and released over a span of 13 years, they are strongly connected, and work sequentially, charting frontman James Hetfield‘s personal development.

St. Anger was a howl of pain, from a band that was completely turned inwards; the lyrics are all “I, me, my,” and tracks have titles like “My World” and “All Within My Hands.” They worked with producer Bob Rock for the fourth and final time, and it was like they were exorcising all their previous recordings with him. The music was deliberately noisy and ugly, the radio-ready choruses and Southern rock melodies of the self-titled album, Load and ReLoad replaced with rusty-sounding guitars, an infamous trash-can snare drum sound, and riffs that constantly twitched into new shapes, with Hetfield’s and Kirk Hammett as far apart within the stereo field as possible.

For all the therapy-speak in St. Anger‘s lyrics, Death Magnetic was a much more emotionally and sonically open record. Hetfield was addressing “you” as often as “me,” and the music was produced by Rick Rubin with a dry but organic sound that emphasized group interplay—the band sounded like a unit again, instead of four guys tracking riffs into Pro Tools. The riffs were simpler than those on St. Anger, and didn’t work as hard to wrong-foot the listener. The overall effect was of Metallica consolidating their strengths, taking the best elements of their previous work (the crisp metal riffs of their 1980s albums, the sheer whomping power of the self-titled album, the groove of Load and ReLoad) and combining them into something that could be called a mature artistic style, if the very thought wasn’t guaranteed to make metal fans—who pride themselves on remaining permanently 14—break out in hives.

Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is the culmination of the path Metallica‘s been on for 13 years. If their first creative phase took them from street-level thrashers to arty progressive metal icons, and their second streamlined their sound for radio and to fill arenas, then added elements of other, non-metal styles (boogie, country, Southern rock, and even dashes of Goth), their third phase has been marked by this gradual artistic consolidation. In some ways, they’re more conservative now than they’ve ever been. Thrash was a radical innovation in 1983, and the Load and ReLoad albums, for all their failings, were certainly experimental (as was Lulu, their collaboration with Lou Reed, of which we will never speak again), but Death Magnetic and Hardwired, coming in the wake of St. Anger‘s bloodletting, are the work of a band who know who they are, and don’t need to please anyone but themselves.

Hardwired… is split across two discs, despite being shorter than Load and only a minute or two longer than ReLoad, St. Anger, or Death Magnetic. (Since Load, Metallica albums have actually been getting shorter, a minute or so at a time; this is the first one in 20 years to be longer than its predecessor.) This, then, is an aesthetic decision, not a data storage-based one; the band views each set of six songs as a discrete unit, meant to be considered as a sequence.

The first disc comes sprinting out of the gate. At 3:09, the title track is exactly one second longer than the shortest song they’ve ever written—”Motorbreath,” from Kill ‘Em All. It’s primitive and pounding; Lars Ulrich is basically playing a D-beat. But just as the transition from St. Anger to Death Magnetic was from “I” to “You,” the transition here is to “Us.” The chorus to “Hardwired” is “We’re so fucked/Shit out of luck/Hardwired to self-destruct.” We’re being told right away that this is an album that is engaged with the world outside the borders of Metallica-land.

The rest of the songs are all in the six- to eight-minute range, and while some, like “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth Into Flame” (all the Hardwired… tracks released in advance of the album are found on the first disc), gallop along, with Iron Maiden-esque dual guitars and screaming Hammett solos, others are more mid-paced, and just as powerful. “Now That We’re Dead” is particularly impressive; it may be the best thing on the album. Seven minutes long, built on a chugging riff and some surprising drum fills from Lars Ulrich—whose militaristic style really suits the material—it also showcases an amazingly melodic Hetfield vocal, particularly on the chorus.

“Dream No More” is another standout. It’s a slow, almost doomy stomp that could sound like a rewrite of “Sad But True,” but bassist Rob Trujillo, a much jazzier and more groove-oriented player than his predecessor, Jason Newsted, turns it into something closer to Black Sabbath or Down. The lyrics are maybe the biggest surprise; delivered at the top of Hetfield’s range, they’re about Cthulhu, the subject of two previous Metallica songs: the instrumental “The Call of Ktulu,” from Ride the Lightning, and “The Thing That Should Not Be,” from Master of Puppets.

Hardwired… isn’t a perfect album, and the seams start to show on the second disc. Too many songs begin with variations on the slam-bang introduction to “Leper Messiah,” from Master of Puppets, and just as many are built on chugging riffs that are very similar to each other. But it could also be argued that that’s called having a style, and all 12 of these songs sound like Metallica songs. And there are plenty of unexpected moments. Trujillo gets some spotlight time as “ManUNkind” begins, laying down a finger-picked bass line, as either Hammett or Hetfield plays a delicate, quite pretty guitar figure…which the rest of the band proceeds to stomp into the dirt after less than a minute, kicking into the song’s primary riff, which is almost Southern metal in the vein of Corrosion of Conformity.

The next two songs, “Here Comes Revenge” and “Am I Savage?”, are a little patchier. “Here Comes Revenge” has a bunch of good elements, including a chorus meant to be screamed in an arena (“Revenge!”) and a big, hard-charging riff, but they never quite fit together; the song feels at several moments like it’s stopping to consider its next move. “Am I Savage?” has the same problem, only worse—it’s a collection of moments, not a song, and none of the moments are as good as those on other tracks.

“Murder One” is a tribute to the band’s longtime friend and inspiration, Lemmy, but he deserves better—another three-minute sprint would have been more in keeping with Motörhead‘s spirit. The album ends on an incredibly strong note, though. “Spit Out the Bone” is a seven-minute thrasher so fast and furious it’s hard to believe four dudes in their fifties can sustain that kind of energy, but they do, Ulrich in particular. His drumming has always been criticized for its crudity, but his assaultive style, and his affinity for throwing in weird, off-time fills and sudden shifts, are perfect for this track. Also worth noting: About three minutes into the song, Trujillo steps on a distortion pedal and cuts loose with a world-destroyingly noisy bass break that’s an even better Motörhead tribute than “Murder One.”

Even if you don’t think Metallica should have frozen themselves in amber, creatively speaking, in 1988 (or even 1986), Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is the closest Metallica have come to their Cliff Burton-era albums. There are no ballads; there are shredtastic guitar solos splattered everywhere; there’s a song about Cthulhu; all that’s missing is an instrumental. And no disrespect to Rick Rubin, but this is an even better-produced album than Death Magnetic. Greg Fidelman, who engineered Death Magnetic and has previously produced Slayer‘s World Painted Blood and High On Fire‘s Snakes for the Divine, has given Hardwired… a thick, full sound with plenty of room in the mix for everyone to be heard, but they all sound like they’re playing together. Subtle doubling gives Hetfield’s vocals extra impact where needed, and he’s given up some of the redneck “yeah”-ing that had him drifting into Rob Zombie territory in the past. With veteran bands, it’s sometimes worth considering whether their latest album would be a good introduction for a new listener. After all, Load was someone’s first experience of Metallica. Hardwired…to Self-Destruct starts strong, ends just as strong, and features some of the best songs the band’s written in the last 30 years in between. If this is some teenager’s first Metallica album, grumbly old fucks who insist it’s been all downhill since Master of Puppets are gonna have a tough time making the argument.

Phil Freeman

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