By Sammy Warm Hands
A truly great band will take chances and experiment, each album sounding different from the last….but only a rare few will take those lessons learned, often over the course of decades, and wrap it into one career-spanning project like this. On Hardwired… to Self Destruct, Metallica embraces its past—and not just an early portion of it—resulting in the most Metallica-sounding album yet.
“Hardwired” kicks off with the full band hitting hard. The chunky guitar riff and snare pattern are reminiscent of “Holier Than Thou,” and quickly launches into Kill ‘Em All tempos. We haven’t heard this youthful energy in decades. In the verses, James Hetfield’s bark rides the beat like the epic Master of Puppets closer, “Damage Inc.” The choruses are simple sustained chords, allowing Het’s voice to cut through the mix. Make no mistake, this album is a showcase for one of rock’s greatest frontmen.
“Atlas, Rise!” sees the band in Ride The Lightning territory; a muscular melody that might be the most memorable riff on the album. The vocal phrasing is classic Metallica: each line is punctuated by two syllable shouts, not unlike “Creeping Death” or “The End of The Line.” The chorus guitar work is surprisingly Iron Maiden-like while Hetfield belts out the high notes. Decades past his signature rasp, recent performances will alternate between a low shout or a clean melody, but it appears that the band really took their time on the recording, giving us a timeless Hetfield performance from start to finish.
“Now That We’re Dead” starts with a drawn out Black Album-era intro that isn’t necessarily out of place, just much too long. My chief complaint with Death Magnetic (2008) was that great songs were often bloated by minute-long intros that only served to set up a callbacks later on. That said, “Now That We’re Dead” is packed with great melodies. Lars Ulrich rides a classic Phil Rudd beat behind a brilliant mid-tempo guitar groove that would sound right at home on Reload.
One of Metallica’s stated goals on this album was simplicity. And while the songs aren’t necessarily shorter (most clock in over six minutes), they are more effective. It’s most evident in songs like this, where the prechorus is strong enough to be the chorus itself, but it’s really just warming you up for the big payoff. This is some masterful pop songwriting under the guise of a metal song.
“Moth into Flame” was the second single, and the first one I heard in its entirety. I was first struck by the powerful, Justice-style guitar part, which is more moving notes than power chords. (The band had riffs like this on Death Magnetic, but some of them had a slight St. Anger-in-standard-tuning sensibility.) As the tempo picks up, Ulrich hammers on both bass drums, and you realize that this album doesn’t suffer from the over-production we’ve heard from them before. This sounds like a live band playing together.
Kirk Hammett’s singing lead guitar is strikingly simple and catchy. He has plenty of moments to show off on this album—and much has been made of his not receiving a songwriting credit on the album, due to losing some 250 riff ideas on a cell phone—but it’s important to note how much his more subtle layers contribute to their signature sound (“The Unforgiven” being a good example).
“Moth” caught my attention as a single because it’s a hard thrasher with an undeniably catchy hook. Many metal/hardcore bands sound make an abrupt shift from aggressive verse to singing chorus, but “Moth” finds the sweet spot that so many bands have missed.
“Dream No More” didn’t blow me away at first, but I often have less enthusiasm for songs that I first hear on my iPhone (instead of a loud stereo). It, too, suffers from an unnecessary intro where the band just kind of sustains chords while Lars keeps time on open hihats. The riff that follows is infectious, setting up a swampy groove with huge sustaining guitars.
One of the biggest surprises on the album is the verse vocal, which harkens back to “The Memory Remains” with a two-part harmony that’s a full octave part. It suits the song, but is definitely a departure from the production style on the rest of the album. What ties it together is an uber-heavy shout that follows: “YOU TURN… TO STONE.” Later, a four-count pause sets up Hammett’s “Sad But True”-infused solo, making it hit twice as hard.
“Halo on Fire” reminds me of an overlooked gem in the Metallica catalog: S&M (1998). Though it was a live recording, two new songs appeared and they had a much different vibe than the rest of their 90’s output. It was a rare point in time when James showed a more delicate tone of voice, even more than their famous ballad “Nothing Else Matters,” which was still delivered with raspy bravado. The verses on “Halo” are stunning, which makes the first quiet moment on the album—and the only soft part of Disc 1—a welcome change of pace. As the verse rings out, James does not pause before the chorus, instead pushing that gentle croon into an explosive scream like we’ve never heard before. The ending is huge a triumphant close to the first half of this double album.
This song is one of the biggest contenders for radio, if they choose to take that route. (It’s worth noting that the band started their label Blackened Recordings, making Hardwired their first independent release in 30 years. Their marketing strategy was a stroke of grassroots genius, releasing music videos—all through different sites, spanning several countries—every two hours for every song on the album.)
“Confusion” was one of my favorite of the aforementioned videos. It showed a soldier at war, and the effects of PTSD once she returned home. Lyrically, this is vintage Metallica like “One,” “For Whom The Bell Tolls” or “Disposable Heroes.” The main riff has the same drum and bass groove as 2008’s “Cyanide,” but the guitar part is more akin to 1990’s ‘tallica. Honestly, this is the kind of song that Load was missing! It still has the Sabbath-leaning blues metal, but with a harder edge like “Wherever I May Roam.”
“Man Unkind” opens softly, with clean guitars and a bass that’s reminiscent of Jason Newsted’s “My Friend of Misery” (on the Black Album). Bassist Rob Trujillo has proven himself more than capable in his 13 years with the band, and this is one of those rare chances for a Metallica bassist to shine. When the song picks up, it’s in familiar territory; the hard bluesy guitar style that makes up much of the middle of Hardwired. Though the riff is pretty straight, like Load’s “2×4,” the verse chops it into ¾ phrases that gives new life to the formula.
I should explain that I had the benefit of timing when it comes to Metallica, first discovering “Fuel” in the late ’90s and then working my way back in the Metallica canon. On some level, it’s a great privilege to witness a band grow from its inception, experiencing the glory days in real time. But if the band lasts long enough, they will undoubtedly change and evolve into something different than what you first loved about them; maybe into something unrecognizable. I’m one of the fans who enjoys the entire catalog, and I think that’s part of the reason I’ve enjoyed Hardwired so much.
“Here Comes Revenge” is all about the vocal (have I mentioned that Hetfield is absolutely killing it right now?). The verse begins softly with an introspective lyric, while Ulrich slowly builds toward a huge, anthemic chorus. Musically, it’s very Black Album, but it has more than a hint of Tony Iommi in the guitar melody. The bridge/solo is pretty much straight rock, but Hammett returns in the outro for a noisy last hurrah. This is also one of the more thought-provoking videos on the album, animating a head hunter who is haunted by his own trophies, ultimately finding himself in a violent role reversal.
“Am I Savage?” was criticized by other reviewers, but I can’t help but feel they’re missing the point. Like its title’s resemblance to “Am I Evil?” (a Diamond Head cover from Garage Days Revisited), “Savage” pays homage to another one of their biggest influences. This song is an obvious nod to Dio, whose tribute medley appears on the deluxe edition of Hardwired. But while the medley explores Rainbow-era Dio of the 70’s, “Savage” sounds more like his later work with Black Sabbath. From the opening guitar riff to the palm-muted triplet in the prechorus, it’s all just garnish before we feast on that RJD melody in the chorus. It’s all classic Dio, from Hetfield’s vocal phrasing to the word choice itself. Throw in a thick, harmonic-drenched breakdown (before bringing it back at the end, because it’s just that good) and you’ve got a recipe for a timeless hard rock monster.
“Murder One” was another of my favorite videos, paying respect to their fallen friend (and musical idol) Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. My only gripe is the clean guitar intro, whose first chord sounds identical to “Fade to Black.” It becomes less apparent by the third phrase, when the band enters with all that distortion, and from there on, everything is tasty, powerful riffage. The lyrics are littered with Motorhead references, and the accompanying visual is a devilish, Rob Zombie-inspired cartoon. If I’m being nitpicky, the “aces ’til you die” line could be reworked or sung differently, but the chorus makes up for it… in spades.
“Spit Out The Bone” is easily the most aggressive song on the album… maybe in the last 25 years, if I’m honest. It’s as heavy as the Black Album, and as relentlessly fast as anything on Master of Puppets. This track has been universally acclaimed and it’s easy to see why: it features Lars’ best and most ambitious drumming since 1988’s “Dyer’s Eve,” explosive singing from Hetfield, and in the final minute, Hammett lays down a vintage Metallica solo that would be at home on “The Four Horsemen” or “Whiplash.”
The band seems to have approached this with something to prove; a grand finale, proving that Metallica can still write incredible speed metal that’s on par with their creative peak. One could even argue that this album’s musical trajectory mirrors that of their career; starting with the simplest, fastest song and evolving gradually into melodic thrash before retreating to slower tempos and hard rock territory. If that is true, “Spit Out The Bone” represents Hardwired itself; a grand statement that secures their permanent place at the throne.
Disc 3 (bonus track):
“Lords of Summer” is only on the deluxe edition, though it was kind of the first single for the album. A demo version was released in 2014, and I feel like this studio version deserves to be more than a bonus track. I’m not sure that I would cut any of the songs, but in a double album format it would be easy to fit “Lords of Summer” on Disc 2 and pick up the pace between those mid-tempo songs.
There aren’t many pioneers—of any genre—who can still deliver on this level, and will happily tour the world for the next two years just to share it with us. Hardwired is great by any standard, but for a band in its fourth decade, it’s nothing short of exceptional.