Metallica fans may be one of the most devoted groups in music, but they sure know how to pick a bone with their favorite superstars. To wit: 1) the bass is never mixed properly on the records, and neither Jason Newsted nor Rob Trujillo can match Cliff Burton, so who cares anyway? 2) Lars Ulrich is an egomaniac who can’t keep a beat or find an adequate snare sound, and 3) Kirk Hammett favors his wah pedal and the rigidity of the pentatonic scale to ever reclaim his former glory.
No one ever says anything negative about James Hetfield, though.
The rhythm guitarist/singer of the biggest band in the world, maybe in music history, rarely gets called on for anything that has to do with his playing or composition. That is with good reason, though. Fans say he has the Right Hand of God, and there’s no denying his machine gun-like picking prowess elevated Metallica above its peers back in the day when playing as loud and fast was the endgame.
His vocals improved with time on — haters be damned — Metallica and the Load albums, making him a premium talent; nobody played rhythm like him, and now he could sing, too!
Only, at the dawn of the new Millennium, things went haywire. Hetfield’s anger issues overtook the band. That translated into a brutal album, both sonically and critically, and because of St. Anger, Metallica overcompensated to return to form on 2008’s Death Magnetic.
Thankfully, the era of Metallica going haywire is over. Enter the era of hardwired. The group’s recent release, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct is everything a fan would want from Metallica at this point in its career. The only that sucks is this is the record it should have released in 2003, not St. Anger.
The biggest upgrade from the previous two albums is the production. The snare sounds like an actual snare, and although the album is mixed a bit loud (par for the course these days in music, sadly) the over-compression, give-me-Advil-I-can’t-take-listening-to-this-for-one-more-second production from DM is gone. Hardwired lets each instrument breathe, making this listening experience a much calmer affair, even though the songs themselves are still loud and heavy as hell.
Best of all is Hetfield’s voice. It was too up-front in the mix for St. Anger and DM, with no reverb. This made the songs less atmospheric, and every strain of his vocal chords to hit those hard-to-reach notes were painful to hear (This is was probably the point of St. Anger, but still).
On Hardwired, Hetfield channels the style and phrasing of tracks not heard since the mid-90s, specifically the colorful verses on “Dream No More” and “Here Comes Revenge” Because his voice sits more within the instruments here, complemented by just enough reverb, this is the best he’s sounded in almost 20 years.
There’s speed for the ’80s freaks, as “Hardwired,” “Moth in Flame” and the song that people will be talking about for generations, “Spit Out the Bone,” are each relentless and catchy. While some of Hammett’s solos shine (“Bone”) and others don’t (“Atlas Rise”), there’s a ton of dueling harmony with him and Hetfield throughout the 12 tracks, an added composition layer that makes this effort shine.
The closer on disc 1, “Halo on Fire,” takes an epic turn the last two minutes, all while Hetfield screams “Hello darkness, say goodbye.” Hammett’s lead parts during the last two minutes leaves the listening feels euphoric.
Not everything is winner, as the second disc meanders. “Confusion,” “Man UNkind” and “Murder One” all have great ideas that never coalesce into a good song. And, truthfully, most of the tracks should have been cut by about a minute. But Metallica loves its long intros and plodding middle sections, so we have to sit back and take it.
The heavier, slower tracks are the ones which will catch fans’ attention, for better or for worse. For me, and this guy, it’s for the better. “Dream,”Am I Savage?” and “Now That We’re Dead” have jangly, palm-muted riffs that conjure feelings from “The Outlaw Torn,” and grooves which are parsed from “Devil’s Dance” and “The Memory Remains.”
In short, much of this album feels like a continuation of the original songs from 1999’s S&M, “No Leaf Clover” and “Human,” which is what the progression of Metallica should have been all along.
Shame it took 16 years for everyone to get here, but let’s be thankful it’s arrived.