I’m admittedly cheating a little this week. No one can really tell how “unpopular” this opinion will be just yet. But guys, Metallica is back and I’m just too stoked to keep my mustached mouth shut about it.
The critics are predictably not all that impressed. The Chicago Tribune says that the band “lost their way.” The AV Club called their latest effort, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct “a little tiring.” What the hell do they know? The record seamlessly incorporates everything that’s ever been good about Metallica, balancing their vintage thrash assault with the looser, bluesy Load-era sound and even a bit of their self-titled 1991 album's big radio-rock riffs. The whole affair clocks in at 80 minutes, but is dynamic enough not to be tiresome.
The entire rock world is virtually united in agreeing that Metallica lost their way at some point. The only real point of contention is precisely when that happened. I take a slightly more nuanced view: Kill 'Em All and Load are undisputed masterpieces. The rest of their '80s thrash crop is fully respectable, though lacking the youthful exuberance of the earlier work. On …And Justice for All, the band decided they’d rather write about ‘Nam than Cthulhu and something got lost along the way. The self-titled “Black Album” isn’t without its moments, but it showed that the band was running on fumes.
Then came Load, which irritated a lot of people at the time as Metallica morphed into a strange '90s version of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Reload attempted to recreate that formula, with little success. From there, it was many years of us being told that Metallica were getting “back to basics” while burning us every time a new record came out. It’s not that Death Magnetic or even St. Anger were particularly terrible, it’s just that they didn’t live up to their own hype.
When Lulu dropped in 2011, a lot of people were ready to give up on the band. This seems unfair on a couple of accounts. First, Lulu is less a Metallica album with Lou Reed singing and more a Lou Reed album with Metallica as his backing band. Critics panned it, I defended it and was rewarded handsomely with a ten-second segment where Lars and Howard Stern discussed me as “some guy at L.A. Weekly.” If nothing else, it seemed to me that the band were enriched by their exposure to Reed, helping him craft his swan song before he shuffled off this mortal coil.
Enter Hardwired … To Self-Destruct. What you have is basically what the band took a stab at with Death Magnetic, but actually executing it. Metallica are no longer the zitty upstarts they were way back in 1983. They are, instead, grizzled veterans who have been there and back. What Hardwired has that their previous efforts do not is a desire not to run away from any part of their past, but to incorporate everything they’ve learned in the last 30-plus years.
That’s precisely what makes it such an engaging listen and impressive recording. To revisit some part of Metallica’s past and roleplay that they’re that band again would have been a waste of their time and energies. To synthesize everything they’ve done in their existence is a masterwork. Look forward to a Metallica renaissance over the next decade. At long last, the band finally appear to be comfortable in their own skin.