Monday, December 5, 2016

Music Review: Metallica - Hardwired...To Self-Destruct

Well, Metallica's long-awaited (and I mean fuckin' LOOOOOOONG-awaited) tenth album is on shelves and in the iPhones everywhere.  And my associate Mike Drinan (@mdrinan380) and I have allowed ourselves a couple weeks of digestion before commenting publicly on it (being that there's A LOT of it to digest).  So here we are with a discussion of Metallica's new album.....

Justin: So Michael, what are your thoughts on Hardwired...To Self-Destruct?

Mike: First and foremost, I really like this album. When I first heard the title track, it sounded like a castoff from Death Magnetic and I was worried that the band would be complacent and just try to make DM again but with better production. That, however, isn't the case. It's not a huge step forward from DM but it is a step forward. This album sounds like a mixture of all the eras of Metallica to me, from the thrash, speed metal era with "Spit Out The Bone" and the title track, to the more straightforward metal era with "Here Comes Revenge" and even the Load era with songs like "Now That We're Dead" and "Dream No More". The production on this album is so much cleaner and the performances are really good. I have to say, I'm really impressed with Kirk and his leads on this album considering he lost his phone with I think 200-someodd lead demos on it and was forced to remember some of them or come up with new ones. Sounds like he still has it to me. There is a lot happening in a lot of these songs that impressed me. Their influences spill over in these songs. I can hear a little Iron Maiden in "Moth Into Flame", a little Sabbath in "Am I Savage?" and of course, Motorhead. James' vocals I feel, for the most part, sound really good but there are a lot of spots where his lyrics are a little bland and uninteresting. I did appreciate the Lemmy tribute on "Murder One" even though I was expecting something a little thrashier and heavier, but that might be nitpicking.

My gripes on this album - first is Lars. I know Lars isn't a technical drummer but his playing on this is so mediocre, nothing he does excited me one bit and I haven't felt that way about his drumming since St. Anger. His kick drums sound very thin and weak. I'm used to them being heavy and full. Another negative I have is some of these songs seem very bloated and overdone. I feel as if they could've trimmed some of these songs down a little more.

The only songs that I really don't care for are "ManUNkind" and "Am I Savage?". The theme of the former just fell flat to me and the latter just didn't hold my interest. Some favorites are "Spit Out The Bone," "Now That We're Dead," "Confusion," "Moth Into Flame," and "Here Comes Revenge".

Alright Justin....what are your thoughts?

JB: I like the album a lot overall.  My appreciation is a bit tempered by the fact that it took eight years and it didn't blow me away like I'd hoped.  But there's plenty to like on this album, exhausting though it might be to get through in one sitting (as I did the first day).

First off, the production sounds incredible.  It's not flashy or super-polished like the Bob Rock albums, but it's got a beautifully crisp, clean sound where everything comes through, unlike on DM where every track was so overblown the little nuances got lost.  James's vocals have just enough reverb, the guitars sound fairly thick (though I still miss the super fat chunkiness of James's Black Album guitars), the bass is low in the mix but definitely present and audible, and the drums sound intense, brutal and clear.  I wish Greg Fidelman had been in charge with Death Magnetic, as apparently Rick Rubin was smoking some serious shit when approving the final mixes.

Performance-wise there's nothing spectacular here, the band is very comfortable and in familiar territory.  James's vocals are solid and strong, and I'm very happy he's rediscovered harmonies, but I do wish he'd pushed his range a bit like he did on DM and its follow-up EP.  Kirk's solos are pretty competent but I honestly haven't been that impressed with his leads since ...And Justice for All.  He's kinda been doing the same ol' shit for the last 25 years and I think it's time he explored some new soloing styles.  On this album he seems quite stuck in the "pentatonic box" (for all you guitar players out there).  Also his phone mostly had rhythm riff ideas I think, not solos so much.  Hence why he got no writing credits on this album; all his song ideas are now in the void.  Hopefully he was able to remember some of them and the band can get moving on an 11th album in less than eight years!  As for Lars's drumming, he seems to be going for a simpler approach on this album, a bit closer to what he did on Black.  Most of his parts are pretty basic and oddly devoid of fills, and when he does add a fill he relies way more on the snare than usual (The video for "Now That We're Dead" depicts him playing on a three-piece kit as opposed to the wall of drums behind which he's usually crouched).  It was a little off-putting for me at first but I got used to it over a few listens.

As for the songs themselves, I like almost all of them but I must say I'm less impressed by this set than I was with Death Magnetic.  From a songwriting standpoint I wouldn't really call this a step forward, so much as a lateral move to already comfortable territory, recalling some of their early, no-nonsense thrash in "Hardwired," the progressive era with "Spit Out the Bone" and "Halo on Fire," the Black Album with "Confusion," and Load/ReLoad with "Dream No More" and "Am I Savage?"  This is a very safe album for them that should please both the die-hard fans and those who joined during Bob Rock's tenure.  On the next one I'd like to see them stretch their legs a bit more and move back outside their comfort zone, just a bit.

The opening title track has grown on me a lot as a sudden punch in the face, as has the more even-keel "Atlas, Rise!"  I love "Moth Into Flame," which sounds like classic Metallica, "Dream No More" plays like a cross between "The Thing That Should Not Be" and "Devil's Dance," "Halo on Fire" is a power-ballady improvement over "The Day That Never Comes," with a much more focused second half, "Confusion" is a basic metal song and one of the best on the album, "Man UNKind" has kind of a classic rock feel to it and I like the bass intro (I would've liked to hear that motif explored further), "Am I Savage?" is a continuation of, and for me a vast improvement over "Of Wolf and Man," and "Spit Out the Bone" is a lengthy thrash closer with a fantastic bridge section that I actually wish they'd used as the chorus ("Stop breathing and dedicate to me").

There are only two songs I really don't like.  The first is "Here Comes Revenge," which strikes me as both musically and lyrically flat; the chorus features a go-nowhere melody over a riff with no chord changes, and the lyrics are pretty pedestrian, nor do I get any sense that James actually means what he's saying.  Somehow I don't think Mr. Rock would've let this song go without a few revisions.  The other clunker for me is "Murder One," which I just find awkward and forgettable.

On the whole though, this album fits quite snugly in the Metallica pantheon; a safe metal record easily identifiable as Metallica.  Unlike KoRn's latest release though I actually like almost every song and they've stuck with me over the past two weeks.

MD: I've heard one critic call this album a "meat and potatoes kind of Metallica album" which I agree with. This is a very straightforward Metallica album and you're right, while it is very good, there isn't anything extraordinary about it and does fit into their comfort zone.

I was hoping they'd let Rob do a little more on this album than on Death Magnetic. On the last album I understood his limited role since it was his first album with the band, but I was hoping to hear a little more of his playing this time. There were various parts on this album I felt they could've allowed more space for Rob to stretch out but it never went anywhere. I wonder if they're keeping him on as short a leash as they kept Jason. I don't know, just a wonder.

The reception hasn't been warm for "Murder One" as I've heard a lot of people felt let down by that track. I thought it was just okay but still found it good to sing along with and I did like the riff. A lot of the references to Lemmy and Motorhead in the lyrics do feel forced.

Lars' playing has gradually gotten on my nerves with each album since ReLoad. I felt he sounded great on the Black Album and even more so on Load. As time went on he kept trying to play off the beat and now he uses way too many cymbal crashes, even though he's always loved his splash with the double kick. On this album and on DM, he's fallen in love with his snare. There were many times on this album I felt he could've done more fills instead of hitting his snare. On the Black Album he did take a simpler approach, but on this album I felt he took a lazier route and it really bugs me. Not "St. Anger snare drum" bugs me but it's bothersome.

So, I've found the reception has turned with the title track with most people coming around to at least liking it. They might've needed to hear it in the context of the album and as an opener it really sends the message across. Watching the making of the song on YouTube, Lars got it right when he said this should be the first thing people hear on the album. It's a no nonsense thrash number and I love it.

Rick Rubin's production has ruined albums before, off the top of my had Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers stands out. I feel it's his hands off approach. Chili Peppers were once asked how involved he had been with the production on each album and they basically said he would show up less and less to the studio with each album, which is what he did on Death Magnetic. It's a shame that record suffered because of that.

In comparison to Death Magnetic, I think I like the songs just about the same. To me, DM felt like they were catering too much to the "old Metallica" crowd and I didn't much care for that. I felt this way about "Suicide & Redemption". All these years without instrumentals and then they put one on the album where they return to form. Meh. James once described the instrumentals as filler so it kind of put me off when I saw DM had one. On Hardwired, they feel like they're catering to all eras of Metallica and thankfully they didn't go for an "Unforgiven 4."  Haha!

JB: Yes, Rob definitely needs to be given more to do.  He might be pound-for-pound the most talented musician in the band and I'm not sure how you keep a bassist with that skill level as a background player all the time.  I know Metallica hasn't really ever been about the bass (a few Burton showcases excepted), but throw the guy a frickin' bone!

One thing Lars does too much now is echo the guitar riff in certain spots, particularly the choruses.  In the "Here Comes Revenge" chorus for example when James gets to "I give you sweet revenge," the vocals, guitars and drums are all hitting triplets and there's literally nothing else going on musically.  "You've reached the end of the line," from the second track on Death Magnetic is another example.  They do that a lot lately.

Another example of Rubin's hands-off approach is Slipknot's third album The Subliminal Verses.  I love that album and I actually think it sounds great, but according to Corey Taylor, Rubin was never around at all during recording.  Taylor said he'd never work with Rubin again.  It honestly seems a tad unethical to be absent for most of an album's production and still get to call yourself the Producer.  By definition the recording engineer and the band themselves are the Producers at that point.

DM was definitely an effort to revisit the Puppets/Justice era, and as I understand this was a conscious thing from Rick Rubin.  He really wanted them to make a super-progressive album like those and pushed them to cram as much material into each song as they could.  I've never heard James say that about instrumentals, but if that's the way he feels I heartily disagree.  "The Call of Ktulu," "Orion," and "To Live Is to Die" are incredible songs.  "Suicide & Redemption" is undoubtedly not at that level but I still like it.

Another thing about Death Magnetic is I wish they'd included "Hate Train" and "Rebel of Babylon" and taken out maybe "S&R" and "Cyanide."  Not that those two are bad songs, I just think the two Beyond Magnetic songs are really great.  I'm always frustrated when bonus tracks outshine some of the material on the album proper.

So back to Hardwired - if it hadn't been eight years in the making and the band didn't feel so pressured to give us our money's worth I'd say cut "Revenge" and "Murder One" and leave it as a streamlined 65-minute album.  You could even add "Lords of Summer" back in - the new version is infinitely better than the demo they released a couple years ago.  The same could be said for St. Anger and Load/ReLoad - trim a bit of the fat and all three albums would be considerably improved.

So my final take is Hardwired is a satisfying effort that offers a lot of classic-sounding Metallica, but not a groundbreaking opus like I'd hoped given the wait time.

I give the album ***1/2 out of *****.

MD: I do remember hearing that was Rubin's suggestion that the band go back to that era musically, but I feel this album is more progressive than Death Magnetic. I hear more parts, more nooks and crannies on these songs than with the songs on DM. For me, that's what makes it a tick higher than DM.

Like you, I did expect this album to be a little better than what it is after the long wait. Maybe not a masterpiece but something a little more daring and dynamically different. Even though I like that a lot of the songs take me in different directions, some of that could've been scaled back a little in order to not feel as bloated. The more I listen to "Dream No More" the more I am bored with it. That and "ManUNkind" are the only two songs I skip. The rest I thoroughly enjoy. I love how the album embraces the different eras and styles of Metallica's career and even though it's a middle-of-the-road "Metallica album" I feel there is something for every kind of Metallica fan.

For me this album is ***3/4 out of *****.

JB: Oh we're allowing quarter-stars?  I'm changing my rating then.  ***3/4 out of ***** as well.

Well that's our take on Metallica's latest.  Comment below with your thoughts!

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