Growing up metal is no mean feat. A music born of the marriage of aggression, volume and virtuosity, it’s a form meant to live fast, die hard and leave a careworn corpse. Once a metal band has fully stuffed its bag of tricks – usually by the time it makes its second album – it tends to keep returning to that bag as the years fly by. Eventually, the candy starts to get a little bit stale.
Metallica has been around for more than 30 years. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Californian quartet would have devolved to the point of self-caricature by now. But conventional wisdom was not likely prepared for “Hardwired…To Self-Destruct” (Blackened).
The band’s 10th studio album arrived Friday like a shovel to the back of the head. It’s a metal masterpiece, a sprawling double-album that starts with a body-slam and ends with a TKO. And it leaps from the speakers with a ferocity normally associated with a gang of hungry 20-year-olds, not a bunch of millionaires in their early 50s.
What’s notable is the level of invention apparent in all 12 tunes, even if that invention takes place within self-proscribed limits. This is Metallica, after all – the band commonly hailed as the progenitors of thrash, that metal sub-genre where punk ferocity and hardcore hyper-tempos meet the groundbreaking work of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Judas Priest to form a sonic assault perhaps best exemplified by the band’s late-'80s magnum opus “Battery.”
A wall of guitars, more often than not lock-stepping in the keys of E minor or Eb minor, working the holy hell out of seemingly every possible syncopated riff in the key, while drummer Lars Ulrich pushes the strident head-banging groove, and singer/guitarist James Hetfield howls like a drill sergeant having a particularly awful acid trip – this is the Metallica “formula,” although that word suggests a self-consciousness that doesn’t really exist in the finest Metallica vintage.
“Hardwired…” doesn’t find Hetfield, Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo messing with that formula too much. Instead, the band seems to delight in being itself. Fans will recall the tortured insecurity and over-thinking that made the band’s nadir, 2003’s “St. Anger,” such a paranoid nightmare of an album. “Hardwired…” chases that ghost back from whence it came – Metallica hasn’t sounded like it was having this much fun since “Master of Puppets,” way back in 1986.
That sense of fun is tempered by the subject matter, which tends to focus on hard-won endurance amid immense turbulence. Song titles like “Atlas, Rise!” “Moth into Flame” and “Now That We’re Dead” deliver exactly what their titles suggest they would, but there’s a subtle difference: Hetfield, at 53, is a survivor of drug and alcohol issues, a father and husband, and a man who has perfected the art of outrunning hellhounds.
So these new songs don’t sound so much like grisly comic book fantasies, as they might have when the members of the band were young men. At this point, Hetfield sings these tunes in an authoritative and wholly believable voice – we get the feeling he knows of what he sings.
Hetfield’s performance lends gravitas to the occasion, certainly, and that helps Metallica do something that very few metal bands are able to do – create heavy music that is both adult and vital.
It doesn’t hurt that he and Ulrich, as the album’s producers (along with Greg Fidelman, who worked on 2008’s “Death Magnetic”) have managed to capture the iconic assault that is Metallica in concert this time around – in the past, mixes could be a bit muddy, the bass buried, the drums thin and brittle, but here, the sound is warm, deep and pummeling, like a Metallica concert. So not only is “Hardwired…” a high watermark for Metallica’s songwriting, arranging, and playing, it also sounds bloody fantastic, particularly when played at the sort of high volume that the good lord intended.
If you would’ve told me in 1986 that Metallica would be releasing some of its very best work 30 years in the future, I would’ve scoffed and suggested you to take an aspirin, listen to Iron Maiden’s “Piece of Mind,” and stop deluding yourself. Metallica didn’t exactly have “long-term survivor” written all over it at that point.
And yet, here we are. Atlas has risen. And he’s ready to kick it.