Sound — 8
Let me kick off this review with a startling revelation. This is only bassist Robert Trujillo's second full-length studio album with the band (he joined prior to the release of "St. Anger," but was not involved in the recording process), and third if you count "Lulu." Having joined in February 2003, this means he's been a member of the band nearly as long (as of this writing) as former bassist Jason Newsted, who joined mere months after this author was born, and featured on four studio albums of original material along with a double-album of covers ("Garage Inc.") and a critically-acclaimed live album with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra ("S&M"), as well as an EP and a few B-sides and soundtrack tunes. That's not to diminish Trujillo's contributions to the band (who have been on tour for nearly the entirety of the eight-year gap since 2008's "Death Magnetic," visiting all seven continents in that time), but it does quite a bit to highlight how slow the band has gotten at releasing new albums.
Eight years is a very long wait.
Let's back up a bit to "Death Magnetic," veteran newcomer (that's a thing, right?) Trujillo's first studio album with the band. Hot on the heels of 2003's "St. Anger," a highly divisive album that saw the band return to heavier music but by way of downtuning, removing guitar solos, and adopting a new memetic snare drum sound, this album was touted as a "return to form" for Metallica, and for the most part, delivered on this promise. Thrashy guitar riffs, pounding double-bass drums, the return of Kirk Hammett's guitar solos, and some of the best thrash-inspired Metallica work since at least the early 1990s. The only issues I took with the album were, more obviously, the mastering, which caused me to go through many a pair of cheap headphones due to how clipped everything was, and secondly, Kirk Hammett's guitar solos, which sounded like the palest attempts to reinvent his guitar playing he could have mustered. But still, on the whole, a slight return to form. An EP of leftovers, "Beyond Magnetic," would prove to have better production, but musically is just a continuation from the full album.
In the eight years since Metallica released "Death Magnetic," one would have expected a lot of musical evolution, but on first listen, "Hardwired...To Self-Destruct" mostly follows in its predecessor's footsteps. Opening with the track "Hardwired," it's maybe the album's biggest deviation from the form, as it's a punchy, short high-tempo, high-energy blazing metal track. Clocking in at three minutes, it may be one of the shortest Metallica songs since their self-titled 1991 album (known as "The Black Album"), and it's full of thrashy punk-rock attitude. Its blistering tempo, short and punchy structure, and near-shouted vocals give it a feel unlike anything in Metallica's catalogue in decades (yes, that's a plural), and it's the perfect way to open the album. Ironically, this was the final song written and recorded for the album. "Atlas, Rise!" brings in some NWOBHM-esque harmony guitar parts, and chugs along at a nice steady pace, with a sound that would have fit perfectly on "Death Magnetic." Much like "Death Magnetic," there really seems to be a lot of ties to the band's previous albums throughout the album, and there are moments like "Atlas, Rise!" that feel like it could have fit perfectly between "Justice"-era Metallica and "Black Album"-era stuff. "Now That We're Dead" opens with double-bass drumming and a slower, groovy riff that'll certainly please fans of the "Black Album," with a melodicism in the vocals that almost recalls the "Load/Reload" era.
Now, reminiscing about "Load" and "Reload" might seem like a bit of a dangerous thing to Metallica fans who haven't quite gotten over those albums, but to be honest, the qualities from those albums they've picked to represent are some of the more positive ones. Case in point: the really good vocal harmonies in the chorus of "Moth Into Flame." It's a tune that's heavy as anything Metallica's done, but super catchy, and not in a cheesy or contrived way. "Dream No More" is a doomy track that's almost reminiscent of "Sad But True" with a few hints of classic metal like Black Sabbath and some of Pantera's slower material. It's probably the heaviest groove on the album, and feels like the kind of tune that Metallica hasn't tried in a long time. It's definitely the most headbangable tune they've done in a long time. The harmony guitars after the solo are a real highlight, as well, and it's probably the most refreshing song on the album. "Halo on Fire" is the longest track on the album, at just over eight minutes, and feels almost like the most progressive thing on the album, with its heavy and harmonized intro riff morphing into a clean part that's really gorgeous, almost uncharacteristically so for the band. There are powerful chorus vocal harmonies, and big riffs, and one of the more interesting Kirk Hammett solos on the album. In terms of structure and playing, this is probably one of the most progressive on the album, though it's most definitely not in the same vein as "...And Justice For All," being more like a thrashier version of something like "The Outlaw Torn" from "Load."
Disc two opens with the galloping "Confusion," another track which would have fit in perfectly on "Death Magnetic" (are we beginning to sense a theme here?). By this point, tracks like these seem almost kind of unremarkable, though still good. The near-monotony is broken by the intro of "ManUNkind" which is a lovely bass/guitar duet (almost as pretty as the intro to "Damage Inc.") that launches into a shuffle-rhythm tune with a really wicked groove. The song's structure almost seems to lack any identifiable verse-chorus-verse structure, hinting at another sort of progressive feel. "Here Comes Revenge" is another sort of uncharacteristically melodic tune for the band, with a bit of a "Load/Reload"-meets-"Death Magnetic" sound, but still kind of goes back to a bit of that monotonous sound that starts to creep in on the second disc. "Am I Savage?" starts with a deceptively light intro, before launching into a shapeshifting mess of time signatures with a shuffle-rhythm riff. Again, the comparisons to "Black Album" to "Load" are all over this track, but on a rhythmic level, this is probably the band's most interesting song, shifting between a shuffle feel and a straight-8th note feel many times. The band takes the rhythmic shifting to nearly prog-metal levels, and it's a good doomy track much like "Dream No More," and is definitely a highlight of the second disc.
"Murder One" features a riff that's almost straight out of "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" and a good driving riff through the verses. Kirk Hammett opens his solo on the track with a blistering scale run that's unlike anything else he's played on the album. It's a good driving heavy track, but with its slow tempo, it belies its status as second-shortest song on the album and sounds like it's dragging on a bit longer. The final track on the album, "Spit Out the Bone," sort of bookends the album with a fast, almost classic thrash sound and a bit more of that NWOBHM feel. With its tempo and harder vocal parts, it's about as close to "classic" Metallica as they're going to give us on this album, and James' vocals are absolutely amazing on this track. Fans in the private pre-release listening section alluded to the track's unpredictability, and there are a few interesting chord progressions here and even a neat bass solo at one point. The second solo Kirk plays in the song is another highlight of the album, featuring him performing sweep arpeggios for the first time on an album since his playing on the "Master of Puppets" album.
Songwriting and production on the album is pretty much spot-on. The album is not brickwalled to death like "Death Magnetic," though it does get a bit loud and clippy at times. But it is nice to have an album that doesn't cause actual damage to cheap headphones. The songs are not mired in extra layers, and Metallica's bare-bones approach to writing and production is great, sounding like a fresh breath of air in today's synth-infused, Axe-FX clean delayed, sterile production environment. Playing is a bit of a mixed bag. James shows once again why he has the most coveted right hand in the metal scene, with nearly every riff being powerful and hard-hitting. Robert Trujillo has grown into the band quite well, and you can almost hear some of his jazz fusion influence when he plays more prominent parts like the intro of "ManUNkind." Lars has traditionally been the butt of Metallica jokes, but it's hard to really find any fault with his playing here. He's no Neil Peart, Dave Lombardo or Mike Portnoy, but he's not trying to be. His style fits with the band perfectly. The band's weakest link in this case is Kirk Hammett. Nearly every solo on this record sounds like it was merely "phoned-in." While there are moments that wow me like the sweep picking in "Spit Out the Bone" and his note choices that open the solo to "Halo on Fire," almost 100 percent of the rest of his solo work on the album is almost memetic, with wah abuse and sloppy pentatonic scales galore. I say we start a change.org petition to get a restraining order against Kirk for wah pedals from this point on. And I mean nearly ALL of the guitar solos are just plain bad. In fact, it's gotten me to appreciate his work on "Death Magnetic," which wasn't all that creative but at least showed some adventurous tendencies at times, all the more. The idea of Kirk being the weak link is also exemplified by the incident in which he lost a smartphone containing all of his potential writing contributions. For this reason, this is the first album Metallica has ever released (not counting covers albums and "Kill 'Em All") to not feature a single Kirk writing credit.
Of note is the third disc of the special edition, which features the previously released "Lords of Summer," a track which I found better than a lot of the other tracks on the album, "Ronnie Rising Medley," a medley of tunes from Rainbow, and probably one of the few times I've heard "Stargazer" covered better than Dream Theater's version. Also featured are covers of Deep Purple's "When a Blind Man Cries" and Iron Maiden's "Remember Tomorrow," along with the entire live set at Rasputin Music in Berkley, California, for Record Store Day, featuring classic tunes from only the Cliff Burton era, and a live performance of the track "Hardwired".
Lyrics — 8
With so many tracks, going over all of the individual lyrics and themes is a bit of a tough call, but James Hetfield concurs with the idea of the album having a much angrier tone than some past records, and a general lyrical theme of fear and taking action, and how the track "Hardwired" states that we're all fucked, but in a sort of "we're all fucked, and we're in this together" kind of tone. "Atlas, Rise!" tackles the idea of people who burden themselves with stress and almost seems to be about mental illness in general. "Moth Into Flame" was inspired by the death of Amy Winehouse, and carries the theme of the dangers of fame. Lines like "Blacked out/Pop queen, amphetamine/The screams crashed into silence" have been mocked online, but as is usually the case with Metallica, there's a certain genuinity that comes with James Hetfield's lyrics that lets you forgive his few lyrical transgressions. For the most part, his lyrics are dark without being too edgy, and reasonably well-written, such as this passage from "Here Comes Revenge": "Man has made me oh so strong/Blurring lines of right and wrong/Far too late for frail amends/Now it's come to sweet revenge/Desperate hands/That lose control/Have no mercy on your soul."
James Hetfield's vocals have been a positive point of focus throughout the album, with moments where he almost sounds like he's singing on "Master of Puppets" again, especially on the first and last songs on the album, but he also has a very varied approach to his vocals on the album with a lot of dynamics and harmonies and melodies that remind one of the "Load/Reload" era. If there's one thing from those albums that I enjoyed a lot, it was James' vocals, and they actually mix quite well with the newer sort of thrash instrumental sound.
Overall Impression — 8
It's been eight years since "Death Magnetic," and that's a really long time for an album by any standard, so the question a lot of people are asking is "was the wait worth it?" Well, if you were a fan of "Death Magnetic," the answer to this is undoubtedly, unambigiously, unequivocally "YES!" In many respects, it's a big improvement over the previous record, with more varied songwriting, better riffs and vocals, and in many ways it feels kind of like a summary of the band's entire career. The only real complaint on the album that I have is Kirk Hammett's guitar solos, but that's becoming a far less important part of Metallica's sound as far as I'm concerned. His solos still do absolutely nothing to captivate me, though, and it is a bit of a black mark on what's otherwise a really good album.
If you weren't too sure about anything Metallica's done since the "Black Album," this is also sure to be something you're going to want to check out, as it almost seems to be a bit of a spiritual successor of sorts to the album. In fact, if "Death Magnetic" was described as "the album that could have come between 'Justice' and the 'Black Album,'" this one would be the best fit between the "Black Album" and the "Load/Reload" albums. There's a thread of melodicism from the latter records that's present on this album, but a sense of experimentation that the band was hinting at on their popular 1991 release, and slower, groovier, heavier tempos on some tracks that are really captivating.
If you belong to the camp of "Metallica hasn't done anything good since 'Justice'/'Master of Puppets'"... well, this might not do anything to change your mind. There are moments that hark back to their earliest days ("Hardwired" and "Spit Out the Bone" are probably the best contenders), but most of the album is steeped in the sort of post-"Justice" sound, and especially the sound the band has established on "Death Magnetic," to the point where it does feel a bit like Metallica found a sound they liked and decided to stick with it.
Is it a perfect album? No. Kirk's solos are pretty bad all around and the second disc does tend to drag on a bit. But all around, this is probably the most well-rounded, well-executed album in Metallica's career since the "Black Album," and there are just so many great headbanging moments on the album that it's hard to really say too much else negative about this album.
Now, Metallica, please don't make us wait eight years for the next one, but not before you send Kirk back to Satch for a refresher. Other than that, good job on this one, guys!