The Wait: Metallica’s Hardwired To Self Destruct

It’s difficult to know where to begin in reviewing a new Metallica album. I’ve listened to Hardwired…To Self Destruct many dozens of times, and have watched the album wide collection of music videos that the band released (in one of the more interesting and expensive promotional stunts in metal history). I’ve read a plethora of reviews across a variety of metal and non-metal sites, and the comments sections under them as well. As expected with such a polarizing band, opinions seem to range across a spectrum, but I think that the underlying problem in reviewing a new Metallica album is that we’re all a little clueless on what a new Metallica album is supposed to sound like. This isn’t our fault obviously, it’s Metallica’s —- which is what naturally happens when a band takes half decade to near decade long gaps in between studio albums. The trouble has been though, that this affected not only the public and fan perception of new Metallica music, but the band’s creative process as well.

Over two years ago, I wrote about my frustration with Metallica’s continuing new album delay as that spring marked the beginning of the longest gap of time between proper studio albums in the band’s history. They were on the cusp of passing their seemingly standard 5 years, 3-6 months n’ change gaps between albums (with slight deviations, that was the amount of time between ReLoad to St. Anger to Death Magnetic). The time span from the release date of Death Magnetic to Hardwired is a staggering 8 years, 2 months, and 6 days. There’s never really been an official reason given for why the band allowed such a lapse of time to occur, even though they’ve at times questioned it in the press themselves. The answer seems obvious enough however: too much touring, too many ancillary band projects (3d movie, an ill-conceived experimental album with Lou Reed, a financially disastrous festival that required more touring to make up the losses), and we can probably tack on weeks upon weeks of time off to recover from all these activities, and pretty soon five years spirals into eight. These were the choices Metallica made. Fine, fair enough, but as I explained in my piece two years ago, they came with consequences. Artistic ones.

How does a band who takes so long in reconvening for songwriting collaborations, let alone releasing albums, expect to maintain anything in the way of artistic continuity within their own relationships with each other? In Bill Flanagan’s excellent biography U2 At The End of the World, he depicts how that band’s extra long gap of time between their monumental 1987 blockbuster The Joshua Tree and 1991’s artistic rebirth of Achtung Baby almost threatened the band’s very existence as a functioning creative unit. On The Joshua Tree, the band tempered their arty arena rock with Americana musical and literary influences. Achtung Baby saw them reinventing their sound by embracing European dance textures and rhythms. But in between those studio albums, the band had spent time working on, releasing, and promoting their Rattle and Hum concert film and its accompanying soundtrack, a mix of live cuts and a few originals that further focused on American roots music. That process left them physically and mentally exhausted as well as at an artistic dead end. U2 took a year plus break from each other through 1989 and 1990, after which they reconvened to find that their aim to launch a new musical direction was at odds with one another.

 

Singer and guitarist Bono and Edge, respectively, found themselves exploring then cutting edge dance and house music, the Manchester scene, and other new forms of popular music sprouting up around the time. Drummer and traditionalist Larry Mullen Jr however went back to Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and a load of other bands he missed in the late 70s while he and his bandmates were knee deep in post-punk. The former pair came into the studio talking in the abstract about textures, deconstructing their sound, and incorporating new production techniques that were making traditional rock music sound antiquated by comparison. This was to bassist Adam Clayton’s irritation, who at one point wondered where the songs were and whether or not Bono and Edge had written any. Each faction expressed surprise at their bandmates’ differing perspectives. Tensions boiled and nearly split the band up before they were able to work things out. The point of this non-metal anecdote is to point out how easy it is for a band to jeopardize its creative momentum when they cease communication about artistic matters —- and that’s from a case where the end result turned out pretty well (to say the least).

In Metallica’s case over the past twenty five years, every new album (counting Load and ReLoad as one big songwriting session for the most part) has been a complete revision of their sound, often to murky or embarrassing ends. I personally thought Load was (and remains) a fine experimental album, full of songwriting depth and Hetfield’s most personal, poetic lyrics to date. It was too long and had filler, and its best songs should’ve been combined with ReLoad’s to make one really excellent album (a problem that rears its ugly head twenty years later, more on that below). But St. Anger was a travesty, not only for its tin can production but for its awful, group-therapy produced lyrics and neanderthal approach to metal. It was the very opposite of the impressive artistic heights they achieved with “Until It Sleeps” and “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn”. Then there was Death Magnetic, where the band brought in another therapist-like outsider in the form of Rick Rubin to tell them to write music like the old days, a recommendation that failed because of its inherent shortsightedness. It was a dismal album, full of songs that sounded like they were impersonating Metallica. And if we must talk about the time sink of Lulu, well, lets just say it sounded like Lou Reed was holding Metallica hostage at gunpoint forcing them to be the backing band for his terrible songs.

What outsiders such as Rubin failed to realize was that the secret to Metallica’s success during their classic first five albums era was exactly what sustained a band like U2 through its glory years —- a regular frequency of writing new music and communication between band members about music and direction. By frequency I mean treating the creative process as a muscle that needed to be worked consistently rather than allowed to wither from disuse. The 80s-early 90s were a prolific time for Metallica, mostly because they were a new band on the rise and they simply had to be, but it strengthened them creatively. And by communication, I’m thinking back to all those anecdotes by Hetfield of how Cliff Burton would always recommend new music to him, even non-metal stuff —- a cumulative effect that produced huge changes in his songwriting approach. Its easy to see in retrospect just how much that could have played into the musical leap into maturity from Kill Em’ All to Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. That was simply a band that worked hard at being creative, as opposed to the Metallica of the last twenty years, who’s seemingly allergic to the very concept.

 

Okay, enough pontificating. What I have realized right now however is that this isn’t really going to be a review in the traditional sense. Everyone of you already has listened to and dissected this album in your own fashion, and your opinions aren’t going to be swayed by anything I say here. That might not be the case with other bands where I could persuade you to give an album a second chance, or the benefit of extra listens. Nope, you already know what you personally want from a new Metallica album. In fact, me writing anything about this album is largely for my own edifice, to put myself through a process where I gave the album (and the band) the respect of time and attention. I do think its worth keeping in mind that all of our wants and expectations regarding Hardwired are likely to be different, so I’ll lay out mine here. What I always loved most about Metallica was Hetfield’s songwriting and his pure, impassioned, and often poetic manner of conveying darkness or inner turmoil. Whether that came in the form of aggressive, up-tempo thrash metal or mid-tempoed, epics such as “The Unforgiven” or “Until It Sleeps”, or beautiful, aching balladry ala “Nothing Else Matters”, “Hero of the Day”, or “Low Man’s Lyric”. He was one of the original poets in metal as a whole, standing shoulder to shoulder with Dio in my book for lyricism that at times for me was far more intriguing than the riffs he played under them.

I can’t express how surprised I was that I didn’t completely dislike this album. I say this with full acknowledgement of my inclination to not like it beforehand just due to how annoyed I was with the delays and their past two offerings (three if we count most of ReLoad). Don’t get me wrong, this is a severely flawed album, in dire need of an editor —- in fact, allow me to play one right now. Let’s grab this tracklisting here… okay, we’ll keep all of the first disc, and then from disc two let’s keep “Spit Out The Bone” and scrap the other five songs. That’s only seven tracks? Eh, who cares, its still a 43 minute tracklisting. Seriously, that second disc sans the last track should never have made the final tracklisting, everything from “Confusion” to “Murder One” is meandering, with riffs that lead nowhere interesting and choruses that seem half-baked. “Am I Savage” is head shakingly terrible, and an unfortunate assault on a Diamond Head classic made popular by Metallica’s own cover version (only Megadeth’s “When” was a worse Diamond Head re-appropriation). I applaud Metallica’s thinly veiled attempt at making up for the lengthy delays in giving their fans a double disc album, a sort of make up offering along with the third disc found on the limited edition where they unload some pretty fun covers of classic metal (Dio, Maiden, Purple). Interestingly enough, they fell into the same trap Iron Maiden did with their last album, also a double disc —- the misguided notion that they don’t need someone that serves as an editor in their recording process.

 

But those seven tracks we just isolated? Not too shabby, in fact, downright fun at moments and hinting at the genius of old in small, fleeting moments. Regarding the latter, Metallica come really close to delivering a home run with “Moth Into Flame”, Hetfield’s morbid musing on the life of departed singer Amy Winehouse. His barked vocals sound like they were lifted straight from 1991, sharp, angular and full of vigor, and simply put, few in metal are as good at syncopating their lyrical delivery to match the rhythm of chugging riffs underneath as Hetfield is. Its the song I’ve kept coming back to, even when not listening to the album, those verses stuck in my head long after. Its also Kirk Hammett’s best solo, a small thing, but complementary to the song, a rarity on an album where he is really the weakest link throughout (whether its attributed to him losing his song ideas on his lost phone years ago or not… his solos seem phoned in for the most part, whatever happened to the guitarist we once knew?). Everyone’s fawning over “Spit Out The Bone”, and it certainly is very fun, though I reject the notion that its the best song the band has done since Justice (as I’ve seen many declare), that’s a lame opinion from people who can’t get past the populism of the black album nor acknowledge the artistry of Load (both have phenomenal songs, just not thrash metal songs… get over it).

I really enjoy “Atlas, Rise!”, and it features one of Hetfield’s most intriguing lyrics in quite a long time, with mythical imagery possibly serving as a greater metaphor for something else (and open enough to allow everyone to fill in their own blanks). The riffing here is imaginative, clean and concise and full of memorable hints of melody, and the dual lead guitar solo is inspired. Kudos must be given to Lars on our seven song tracklisting too —- he’s good when he wants to be, nowhere near as awful as many claim. I’d argue that his groove based, almost swinging approach to most of these songs works in their favor, particularly on “Now That We’re Dead”, a song that took a few spins to grow on me but has a swagger to it that I find appealing. I will say that as much as I like “Dream No More” on a musical level, I find Lovecraft based lyrics from Hetfield at this point in his life a bit unconvincing, sort of as if he was just dishing out a bit of fan service. Maybe I’m wrong and he really is reading the stuff at home even now, but it seemed far more genuine when he was in his early twenties and was writing songs about it because it was on his brain. Oh well, nitpicking, we could do that for a lot of things but its still a decent song, if not in need of a slight tempo increase. I’ll keep these seven songs though, and Metallica should too —- as building blocks for another album. Don’t allow five years further to elapse (you don’t have that luxury anymore!), simply put, build on the chunk of artistic success you carved out of nothing here, and get momentum going for another album in two or three years.

Metallica’s Baffling Decision Making

I’m sure some of you read the various news items about Metallica debuting a new song during their gig in Bogotá, Colombia on Sunday, March 16th. The new, presumably unfinished track was presented as “The Lords of Summer”, and it was captured on a variety of mobile phones and even a professional camera crew (apparently standard operating crew for Metallica these days). Its not surprising that the mere inclusion of a new song in the band’s setlist would attract a lot of media attention —- this is after all a band that has only mustered up enough creativity to release four proper studio albums in the past twenty-three years. If you detect some snark there, well —- I won’t go out of my way to keep it hidden. That this is the first time I’ve written about the biggest metal band in the world, Metallica, on what is a metal blog is admittedly strange, but I’ve only written about Iron Maiden once before and they’re my favorite band of all time (fingers crossed for a new album this year!).

 

Full disclosure will reveal that I was a pretty rabid Metallica fan in my formative years, as I would wager a lot of us were. I was even a fan of their Load/ReLoad period, though I wasn’t too much of a Metallica apologist to not be able to concede that those two albums should have been released as one, distilling the best from both. My fandom waned in the next six years after that era however, particularly with the fascinating mess of St. Anger, an album so abysmally remedial that I barely even recognized what I was listening to. I still remember my brief flashes of denial —- trying to listen to “Frantic” and simply will myself into enjoying it. It was a lost cause, not helped by the fact that I had by then heard too much in the way of far superior metal of all types being released by talented artists who were also capable of releasing records every other year. It was a sad commentary on the state of Metallica in 2003 that the documentary on the making of their new album was far more compelling than their music. What happened to the band that just a half decade prior had penned “Bleeding Me”, or “The Outlaw Torn”?

 

A brief aside: I am a firm believer in the hypothesis that it was Iron Maiden, not Metallica nor any other band, that spearheaded the resurgence of all things metal around the turn of the millennium. I’d have to get into a fairly lengthy explanation to detail my thinking behind that statement (and perhaps I will one day), but I feel that Maiden’s reunion had a tremendously positive affect on the metal community and associated industries all around the world. It wasn’t just the major media attention that Maiden’s resurgence attracted; it was partially responsible for the sea-change in temperament towards metal that affected the disposition of American promoters who became willing to take chances on booking European metal bands for their first Stateside treks. Or that cleared the pathways for previously mail-order only metal labels like Century Media or Nuclear Blast to ink retail distribution deals with companies like Caroline or EMI. It became tremendously cheaper and easier to be a metal fan living Stateside after the Maiden reunion —- look I know it wasn’t all due to Maiden. The success of European bands like Hammerfall, Nightwish, Dimmu Borgir, etc, etc (the list goes on) certainly helped as well but again, it was Maiden’s resurgence that made new opportunities possible for many of those artists.

 


Swinging back to Metallica now and fast forwarding to 2008, they decided that perhaps the best thing to do in a resurgent metal landscape of 2008 was to record an album of material that harkened back to an archetypal Metallica sound. It may seem on paper like a smart decision, and even retrospectively I’d still think that it was the only reasonable direction they could have ventured in —- except that it didn’t work out that way. Oh sure, Death Magnetic has its defenders, supporters, and apologists —- but lets call a spade a spade, this was a dim shadow of what Metallica once was. Most of the songs were lifeless, one of them was a motif recycled not for the second, but third(!) time, and there was a distinct sense of uncertainty and lack of direction in the details (even in the cover art and album title…. seriously, what are they trying to convey?). I remember wondering if it was just that my own tastes in metal had moved on, but that idea was negated by the fact that I still enjoyed the hell out of new Iron Maiden albums, and always found something to enjoy in new records by other bands of the same era such as Megadeth, or Helloween. So what was it that made Metallica’s new music come off to me as uninspired and clunky?

 

I think the answer, ultimately, is that there was little in the way of artistic continuity. Metallica’s writing sessions for the Black Album took place in 1990, and after its gargantuan mega-tour the Load/ReLoad sessions occurred around 1995 with some touch-ups in the two years afterwards. Touring and various projects such as S&M and Garage, Inc took up the intervening years. Metallica wouldn’t work on a collection of new material until those dysfunctional, therapist guided, captured on documentary sessions for St. Anger a whole seven years later. It would be nearly six years before they reconvened once again for Death Magnetic —- simply put, this is a band that tours and tours and tours, and I’ll argue that despite its financial benefits their incessant touring has come at the cost of their artistry. I’m not suggesting that its wise for Metallica to scale back its touring, these guys obviously understand where their huge paychecks come from. What I am saying however, is if the band is interested in making continually better original music, they would do well to realize that they need to attempt its creation more often. How do they relate to one another musically speaking when they haven’t attempted to write new material in half-decade long spans? At what point do you overdo touring?

 

 

I’ll argue that the case in point that answers that question is the band’s current touring activity —- that’s right, Metallica is on a South American tour as we speak. In fact, they have tour dates lined up all through the spring and summer up to August. Promoting what you ask? I dunno… Metallica I guess. This is a band that has waffled on going back to the studio for a proper studio album, only pausing in their incessant tour schedule to commit ear murder with their ill-conceived and executed Lulu album with the late Lou Reed (for all our sakes I’ll just avoid talking about it at all here, suffice to say it was a time-sink —- as in black hole, the astronomical object). So now, in 2014 every band member has finally mentioned something in the press as to this year being the perfect time for Metallica to start cooking up a new album, okay, great! Except that they’re not in a rehearsal room, and certainly not in a recording studio. How do you write an album on the road when you’ve been unable to do so in the past? Does this mean that the next Metallica album won’t start getting assembled until the fall of this year, when the band is finally off the road? Does any of this sound like the plan of a band hell bent on delivering a truly great work of recorded art?

 

Coming back to what happened the other night then, when the guys figured that a stadium full of fans who in their heart of hearts really just want to hear anything pre-Black Album at the show, would be perfect guinea pigs to ear-test this raw version of a new song they’ve been working on. A couple things: The debuting of new material in a live setting before the release of the recorded version has been a pet peeve of mine for countless years, no matter what the band, no matter what the subgenre. Metal is a form of music that is best appreciated on record —- there may be some of you that will instantly feel the need to argue against that, but think for a moment of where your metal fandom began. Most of you will attest that it began upon hearing the studio version of a song, whether it was from the actual album itself, or as heard on a music video, or hell even on an episode of Beavis and Butthead. My rock and metal fandom began with hearing studio versions of songs by Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden… I didn’t see those bands live until after the fact.

 

You may go to a metal show, see a support act you’ve never heard before and walk away impressed enough to go check out their record —- it happens to me too. But I guarantee you that you’ll enjoy that band way more the next time you see them live, having had time and opportunity to listen to their recorded albums, so that you recognize and know the songs when they’re played live in front of you. Its always a more rewarding experience to have some familiarity with a band’s music before you see them live —- they have the possibility of becoming transcendent experiences. Because of metal’s usually complex nature, there’s a lot going on within the music that your ears need to decipher. Most great metal records need more than a casual spin to reveal themselves to you, with all their carefully layered instrumentation and intricacies. Metal has spread, persevered, and made its greatest artistic advances as a form of recorded music —-less so as live performances.

 

 

When a band plays live, there are so many factors that can audibly affect the performance of a song, the acoustics of the venue, the noise of the crowd, bad mixing, the sound guy sucks, etc. I was mildly annoyed when Kamelot debuted their first Tommy Karevik era song at a European festival —- crap sound and all —- when you took a listen to the versions plastered over YouTube you could hardly make heads or tails of anything. I’m sure it was worse for the fans in the crowd, what exactly were they supposed to be hearing that they could comprehend, if anything? When you take a look at some of the videos of “The Lords of Summer” performance, you’ll see some of those lucky fans that got to be invited on stage to watch the gig from the wings, and most are cautiously bobbing their heads during the song. A few just look confused, and you can imagine how many people are taking the moment to head to the concessions or hit the head. And this brings me to the moral of this little quibble, and this goes for all metal (and rock) bands: STOP PREVIEWING NEW SONGS LIVE! And to Metallica, this tour leg of yours is called “Metallica By Request”, no one in Bogotá requested a demo!

 

The actual song itself is described as “epic” by Rolling Stone, those experts of all things metal. I’m going to have to keep myself in check when using that term in the future if that’s what it means. I’m not trying to come off as a curmudgeon, though I probably am, but I hear no difference in the aimless, wandering, mediocre riffs of “The Lords of Summer” than those heard on the past two Metallica albums. Its boring, uninspiring, and frankly comes off as a parody of a Metallica song. Lars Ulrich has stated that there’s no guarantee that the song will remain in its current state, and he stated a prior instance in 2006 where Death Magnetic demos were aired live before before the album’s release. The demos were chopped up and transfigured by the time they actually made it on the album. Which begs the question: Why play these demo songs live at all —- what is to be gained from this? I don’t understand the creative thinking behind this, especially when its yielded the results it has for the past few albums. Ulrich states, “We like to leave the studio and get out and be inspired by playing some shows…We’ve done that a lot in the last few album cycles. So getting out and playing is a vital part of writing and creating.” Huh? What were the other four to five years of touring behind Death Magnetic about then?

 

 

This is a band that doesn’t understand how to continue as a creative unit anymore. Years wasted on vanity projects (the 3-D movie, the atrocious S&M, Lulu) and overkill on touring has depleted their sense of what it means to be individuals in a metal band playing metal music. I would even go as far to suggest that their lifestyles make it difficult for them to relate to their fans, largely a blue collar bunch. When you live in a mansion on the coast of the richest neighborhood in the Bay Area, with a multimillion dollar art collection on hand and bottles of wine at the ready, its hard to relate to a fan of yours that works a soul crushing job with terrible pay. That’s not Metallica’s fault, nor their responsibility. What is their responsibility however is to own up to the fact, and perhaps reassess how they approach songwriting, perspective, and what it is they want to express through words and music.

 

I mentioned enjoying a good bit of the material on the Load records, and I feel its because I could sense the band was still writing about things that mattered to them personally, that musically and lyrically the band was exploring and allowing itself to evolve. St. Anger was a confused mess made worse through horrible production, but one album amidst a band crises could be forgiven. Death Magnetic however was a devolution, a move towards fan service that betrayed the guiding principle that should carry a successful band through its later years. You can still remain true to your sound as long as you are writing songs with conviction and belief —- there are many other multimillionaire artists out there that continue to do so (Iron Maiden included). When I listen to Death Magnetic, I hear sounds that remind me of what Metallica sounds like, but I don’t hear the passion and fire that molded those sounds into moving music. They’ve lost something in that sense, and they’re not going to find it on the road.

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