After more than a decade of alienating fans with behind-the-scenes drama and unpopular stylistic choices, Metallica pulled off a coup with 2008’s Death Magnetic, a triumphant return to thrash marred only by questionable mixing and production. Eight years later, Metallica’s double-disc tenth album manages to continue that march back toward respectability while simultaneously adding a few new wrinkles.
In some ways, Hardwired is very self-consciously a throwback album. The destructive connotation– and punctuation choices – of the title seem to be taking a page from Megadeth’s 80s catalog (ironic, given Metallica’s love-hate relationship with ex-member/Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine) while the radio-unfriendly song lengths call to mind …And Justice for All. Across the first several tracks, James Hetfield’s snarling vocals and sometimes-juvenile lyrics, backed by hard-hitting instrumentation, would seem right at home on a mid-late 80s Metallica release.
But Hardwired is neither simple repetition nor self-parody, and as it progresses, the album takes a number of unexpected turns. From track to track, lyrics alternate between Biblical and mythological themes (“Atlas, Rise!” and “ManUNKind”) to tributes of sorts to Amy Winehouse (“Moth into Flame”) and Lemmy (“Murder One”). The band also plays with slower tempos on some songs, gradually speeding up to project a sense of growing menace. Metallica may have embraced its roots, but it hasn’t chucked every bit of musical development from the past two decades out the window.
An alternate explanation, of course, is that all of the members are north of 50, and sustaining a 77-minute thrash assault simply is beyond their reach. Yet if Metallica is slowing down, the members mask it well. Robert Trujillo delivers strong basslines while Lars Ulrich’s drumming, always somewhat divisive, is at least well-timed. Ironically, it is lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, usually the most reliable of the bunch, who seems the most noticeably absent here. It isn’t that his guitar is neutered but rather that he doesn’t really get a chance to cut loose, in trademark fashion, until the closing track, “Spit out the Bone.” Whether or not this is related to the fact that Hetfield and Ulrich wrote all of the songs is anyone’s guess. Whatever the reason, it comes as a letdown following the epic riffing found on Death Magnetic.
Hardwired doesn’t pack as much of a punch and won’t turn as many heads as Metallica’s classic albums, but it is a commendably hard-hitting effort from a band that seems to have seen and done it all in three-plus decades.