The year is 2016. Brexit. “President-elect Trump” an actual phrase and not the plotline to a dystopian, Mad Max-esque sci-fi. Also, a new album by the world’s cool uncle, Metallica. It is titled “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct”. Unneccessary ellipsis, one might suggest. But it’s weird, dark days. Superfluous grammar might be all we have left. The album’s been touted as a “return to form” following two decades of swings and misses, from the sonic handlebar moustache of Load in 1996, to the shambolic St. Anger. 2008’s just-okay-I-guess Death Magnetic. The glorious shitshow of Lulu, 2011’s collaboration with the late Lou Reed. The years have not been kind to Metallica. So, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that heading back to the aggressive zeal and breakneck riffs that made their first records so damn enjoyable is the best move they’ve made in years.
Listening to ‘Hardwired…’, one asks – in these ominous times, is there still a place in metal for subtly nuanced symbolism and complex, convoluted sound aesthetics? Not if you’re Metallica, who materialise on this record as a grizzly bear riding a surfboard into the sun while playing an electric guitar. On fire. To this end, the chorus of opening track ‘Hardwired’ – “we’re so fucked / shit out of luck, / hardwired to self-destruct” feels like a visceral, anti-anthemic statement of Cool Uncle nihilism. Pounding, machine-gun drumrolls punctuate thrashy riffs that feel lovingly plucked from the Metallica songbook of yesteryear. No convoluted sonic tapestry here.
“While Hardwired… is far from a perfect Metallica record, it’s easily their best album since 1991″
Rather, the tracks on ‘Hardwired…’ are instant-stimulus adrenaline shots that encapsulate the Big Stupid Metal gesture in a way that feels thankfully satisfying rather than embarrassing. The riffs! They’re big. Big ol’ bloody riffos. The album’s whole first half, particularly in songs like ‘Now That We’re Dead’ and ‘Dream No More’ offers punchy, headbang-friendly rhythms catchy, if often cheesy, choruses – an area in which the the band have always excelled. Metallica’s best moments have always been both fierce and accessible in equal measure, and that rings true of Hardwired….
A double album comprising of 12 fairly lengthy tracks, Hardwired… has the tendency to feel occasionally bloated as it heads into its second half. For all its frenetic speed, impulsive riff-work and energy, one can’t help but feel like the latter disc is somewhat lifeless in comparison to the previous one.
That said, closing track ‘Spit Out the Bone’ is an instant classic – the best Metallica song in easily a decade, probably more. Genuinely ferocious in a way the ‘tallica haven’t been for a long minute, it’s the perfect close to an album that feels, finally, like a Metallica that give a damn. While Hardwired… is far from a perfect Metallica record, it’s easily their best album since 1991. Instantly more enjoyable than the laborious drag of Death Magnetic, by returning to their roots, the quartet have finally crafted a record that sounds like they’re having some fun. With big, occasionally overblown riffs, titles like ManUNKind (subtle) and lyrics such as “Now that we’re dead, we can live forever”, Hetfield and co. don’t take themselves too seriously on the album and it’s a welcome relief. With the way the world looks at the moment, a straightforward, thrashy Metallica record feels timely. At its best moments, it feels practically vital.