Thursday, December 29, 2016

METALLICA "Hardwired...To Self Destruct"

(c) 2016 Blackened Recordings

Disc One
  1. Hardwired
  2. Atlas, Rise!
  3. Now That We're Dead
  4. Moth Into Flame
  5. Dream No More
  6. Halo On Fire
Disc Two
       7. Confusion
       8. ManUNkind
       9. Here Comes Revenge
      10. Am I Savage?
      11. Murder One
      12. Spit Out The Bone

Disc Three (Expanded Edition)

      13. Lords of Summer
      14. Ronnie Rising Medley
      15. When A Blind Man Cries
      16. Remember Tomorrow
      17. Helpless (Live)
      18. Hit The Lights (Live)
      19. The Four Horsemen (Live)
      20. Ride The Lightning (Live)
      21. Fade To Black (Live)
      22. Jump In The Fire (Live)
      23. For Whom The Bell Tolls (Live)
      24. Creeping Death (Live)
      25. Metal Militia (Live)
      26. Hardwired (Live)

James Hetfield--Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
Lars Ulrich--Drums
Kirk Hammett--Guitars
Robert Trujillo--Bass

1988 is a long time ago, especially if you are a fan of a band who, in the estimation of many of its most ardent fans, has not released an album worthy of their name since that time.  Metallica is just such a band.  A true legend in the metal field, and considered one of the pioneers of thrash metal, the mighty Metallica was at the top of the metal heap in the 80s, releasing four consecutive albums of thrashy bliss, starting with 1983's Kill 'Em All, then continuing through Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and the 1988 offering mentioned at the outset, ...And Justice For All.  Throw in a top-notch covers album, $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, and you had five albums that showcased the fast and aggressive thrash the band was known for, intermixed with enough NWoBHM to outline the difficulty in pigeonholing the band, and enough progressive elements to show the band's growth and maturation as they progressed from album to album.

But many felt success bred a rapidly declining aggression to the Metallica sound, pointing to the band "selling out" on the self-titled 1991 album, also referred to as "the Black album", which was decidedly more hard rock and less metal than anything the band had done before.  This new sonic accessibility led to increased sales and a larger fan base, with the record selling more than 16 million copies and becoming one of the top albums, sales-wise, in American history.  It also cost the band some of their die-hard fans, as the disenchanted began to look elsewhere to get their metal fix.  This was probably a good thing, too, as the band departed more and more from their thrash roots, releasing to alternative metal albums, Load and Reload, the live S&M album which featured the band being backed by the San Francisco Symphony, and a new covers album, Garage, Inc.  For original fans from the Kill 'Em All days, Metallica was about as far removed from the band they fell in love with as they could possibly be.

Of course, most readers know that things DID get worse, as the abysmal St. Anger was released in 2003, at which point even I had all but declared the band dead.  I enjoyed the Black album, I found things about Load and Reload to enjoy, and I'll even admit to enjoying S&M for what it is (the record...not the sexual fetishes, by the way...), but St. Anger killed the band for me.  To me, the album is so bad I don't even own it now...and I'm a completist when it comes to collecting my favorite bands.  (I also don't own the equally crappy Lulu, which found the band collaborating with Lou Reed.)

Of course, the band started to work on a musical resurrection with Death Magnetic in 2008, and the band seemed to be returning to their roots musically, although the production on the record is overly compressed, the sound suffers as a result, and many of the songs were almost too complicated for their own good.  Throw in the fact that Hetfield had apparently forgotten how to sound like Hetfield vocally (both on record and live, by the way...he had pretty much lost his edge by this point), and this album was a letdown for me, although there was some hope that the band may be finally coming full circle and the band remembered how to thrash about a bit.

That brings us, finally, to Hardwired...To Self Destruct.  Unlike Death Magnetic, the new album doesn't come off as the band throwing a bone to a long-starved section of their fan base; it comes across as the band sounding like they genuinely woke up from a long musical coma and suddenly remembered, "Hey, we're Metallica!  What the hell have we been doing these past 20 or so years?!"  They then locked themselves in a room, pulled out the first five albums (yes, there are still some hints of the Black album here...but not many), picked up their instruments and re-learned how to be Metallica!

The new record starts off in blazing fashion with the frantic thrash-about of the title track, "Hardwired...To Self Destruct", which should immediately have fans slamming off of one another and moshing about the room.  With a loose and easy speed that hasn't been present since Puppets, and a tone that is reminiscent of the Justice days, "Hardwired" finds the boys chewing through an actual thrash song, complete with Lars sprinting away on double kicks and James threatening to scorch the strings right off his rhythm guitar.  While he didn't contribute any writing to this album, Hammett rips off a nice solo in the middle of the track, and UNlike the Justice record, you can actually hear Trujillo go to work on the bass, which really helps support the structure of this blistering track.  While all of this is great and welcome, for me one of the most important...and likely most overlooked...facets of this song and album is the return of the Mighty Hetfield as lead snarler for the band.  Sure, he still attempts to throw in some hip crooning here and there (mostly on disc two), but the sneer and snarl are back for the first time since the Black album, and James truly sounds like the James of old, which does so much for the sound of the band that it is almost impossible to adequately describe.  Honestly, this more than anything else had me excited upon hearing "Hardwired".

"Atlas, Rise!" shows a bit of the progressiveness that the band had started toying with on Justice and then continued with to varying degrees of success for several albums, but the rhythm guitars continue to blaze along on this track, the tempo changes are more metallic in nature, and the high speed guitar solo keeps the listener's attention solidly directed, all of which don't allow "Atlas, Rise!" to devolve into the alternative dreck that so many songs did on Load and Reload.  It's not my favorite track here, but it's still very much a Metallica track of the older-school variety and one I enjoy.  "Now That We're Dead" drifts closer to the edgier hard rock sound of the Black album than it does the thrash of the first four records, but it remains heavy as stink and fits nicely with its surroundings.  Kudos to Lars for the different drum tempos used within this track, especially during the extended break before the last bridge and chorus.  "Moth Into Flame" drags a Ride The Lightning tone to the opening guitars and a "Four Horsemen" styled structure to the verses, which is pretty dang cool to hear on what is easily one of the best songs on this new record.  A definite nod to the old-school, while not ripping themselves off or simply rehashing old ideas, "Moth Into Flame" finds the band successfully revisiting familiar waters while still managing to sound fresh.  "Dream No More" again recalls the more simplistic bottom-heavy rock of the Black album, not sounding wholly dissimilar to "Sad But True", but again it manages to avoid being a complete reworking of that song, largely due to some absolute jackhammer drum work from Ulrich in spots, and a cool solo from Hammett that really showcases the guitar slinger finding a groove and just absolutely running with it.

"Halo On Fire" is my least favorite track on the first disc, but it isn't horrible by any stretch.  At more than eight minutes in duration, the song is likely too long for a lot of people, although the tempo changes should help alleviate attention span problems.  My main issue with it is that this is an example of a song where James slips into that sing-song crooning style that he used in the Load/Reload era of the band that seemed to get stuck in his head as his go-to approach in all cases, even when performing older material live.  The music itself isn't bad here, just not overly interesting or memorable, but again, so much more palatable than 90% of the material the band released from Load through Death Magnetic.

Disc 2 starts off in fine fashion with "Confusion", which again has a definite throw back approach, with the intro drum cadence and guitar riff punching you so familiarly in the face that you welcome the bloodied nose with a smile, as Hetfield once again proves himself to be one of the greatest  rhythm players in the history of the genre, and Hammett absolutely scorches through a really good solo here.  But from here, Disc Two limps along a bit for three of the next four tracks. "ManUNkind" gives a co-writing credit to Trujillo, and after an odd, atmospheric intro, slips into a Black-ish groove, although there is an element of Rage Against The Machine to the guitars leading into the verses that I find rather unsettling (I freaking HATE RAtM!).  If I had to completely drop one track from the album proper, this would likely be it.

"Here Comes Revenge" has a purely Justice inspired tempo and opening riff and quickly rights the ship (although its not like "ManUNkind" had sunk the record by any means), with "Am I Savage?" finding the band getting a bit more experimental/progressive and drifting a bit in the direction of Load/Reload, but Hetfield resists the urge to slip into "metal Sinatra mode" for the most part, which helps keep this from becoming a straight-up skipper.  Much like "ManUNkind", this would be a track that I would have likely left off, or at least moved to the bonus disc of the deluxe version.

"Murder One" starts off like it wants to be "One...Pt. 2", but a couple of rapid-fire drum bursts disrupt that feeling on this track which tributizes the late Lemmy Kilmister and name-drops several Motorhead song titles throughout the lyrics.  Not my favorite, and one that could likely have been left off, but I guess it isn't something that has to be skipped, either.

"Spit Out The Bone" is an absolutely perfect close to the second disc, and the main album, with huge drums, blazing rhythm guitars, a piercing solo, and gut-wrenching thrash tempos ripping right through your skull, with Hetfield's snarl held firmly in place throughout.  It wouldn't shock me to learn that "Hardwired" and "Spit Out The Bone" were written in the same writing session, as both really recall the thrashiest sounds the band has put on a record in many, many years.

The bonus disc contains a re-recorded, and somewhat shorter, version of "Lords Of Summer", which I was kind of surprised didn't make it onto the actual album.  The "Ronnie Rising Medley" here was also previously released on a tribute to Dio, and it's pretty cool to have it here as part of this package, even if it really doesn't fit anywhere, stylistically.  "When A Blind Man Cries" is a cover of a Deep Purple track, and it is done very, very well musically, although many are going to find the song's bluesy approach a bit of a downer after the much heavier, faster material on the two main discs of this set, and...well...Hetfield sings rather than snarls, so there is that.  "Remember Tomorrow" is an Iron Maiden cover, and hearing the twin guitar tones that are so much a part of Maiden is pretty cool coming from Hetfield and Hammett, and the bass of Trujillo is really given a voice here.  Again, probably too sing-songy for me, and Hetfield will never be mistaken for Dickinson, but it's a nice cover nonetheless, from a band that loves to do covers.

The live material sounds better than so many other recent live recordings that I was really happy to have it included here.  Hetfield actually sounds like Hetfield here, and the tempos are crisp and fresh, perhaps even a hit faster in the live setting than on the original albums, especially with the slower-tempo tracks.  One minor letdown was not including any Puppet or Justice songs in the live set, but its a short set performed specifically for the reissue of Kill 'Em All and Ride The Lightning, so it is understandable.  Plus, no Load/Reload schlock was included either...or God forbid, something from St. I'll take it!

This is the album Metallica fans have been clamoring for for decades now, as the band has finally, fully returned to their thrash roots, even if those roots are more from the Justice era than Kill 'Em All  or Master Of Puppets.  While Death Magnetic was a step in the right direction, Hardwired...To Self Destruct fully embraces, to varying degrees, who the band was on those first four classic albums, and finds the band in top-notch form as far as both musicianship and songwriting goes.  While I have no belief that it is the end of the band's recording career, if Hardwired... WAS to be the last album the band released, it would be a more than satisfying bookend to a legendary career.

Do yourself a favor and spend the extra few bucks to get the deluxe edition.  The bonus tracks and the live set are worth the dollars spent.

Rating:!  Rattle the windows with this masterpiece nearly 30 years in the making, by cranking it up to 8.  A bit of bloat keeps it from being even a notch higher, as it is that good in its best places.  Once again, all hail the mighty Metallica!

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