SINCE THE RELEASE of Metallica’s new album I’ve come across a few reviews that start by sharing their personal stories with the band, primarily from people who were ‘into them’ even before Kill Em All came out or at least prior to the death of Cliff Burton.
Sadly my parents didn’t have the fortitude to conceive me before 1985 and I didn’t have the musical nous to purchase those early albums and subsequent street cred during my infancy. The fact that my Dad listened to Roy Orbison and my Mum is a Monkees fan also had some bearing.
The first album I was ever GIVEN was Queen’s Greatest Hits on cassette, which in hindsight was pretty cool in itself. When I was finally old enough to spend my own hard-earned (read: Christmas and Birthday) money on an album, I went for (What’s the Story) Morning Glory by Oasis and Metallica’s Black.
While I might not have the credibility of an ‘early days’ fan, history certainly proves that I have excellent taste.
Since then I’ve been one of the millions of fans worldwide who’ve endured the highs and lows with the Bay Area thrashers. I embraced those early albums, and particularly the debut, mainly because the first instrument I learned was bass guitar, and we can easily admit that Cliff Burton was a far better bassist than Jason Newsted. The thrash, the eight minute tracks, Hetfield’s adolescent screech, they’re all deeply embedded in the memories of my teenage self.
Then there were Load and Reload, albums slammed by those aforementioned ‘credible’ fans because they were something different (ie. Radio friendly). I can admit that I prefer the early stuff too, but it’s pretty clear that the Black album was an obvious step in that direction and in hindsight we, as fans, shouldn’t have been too surprised. There are still some killer riffs and sexy drunken redneck vocals from Hetfield that offer plenty to enjoy.
Naturally, next came St. Anger. It was long-awaited, it was heralded as a return to ‘old school’ and it carried the weight of the world on its shoulders. Suffice it to say, it would have taken mastery akin to Dark Side of the Moon for it to meet the expectations that surrounded it, and it fell AGONISINGLY short. From the disgusting mix to the absence of solos, most of us can agree that it was a disappointment. I saw them tour for this album, though, and they were incredible. Say what you will about their recording decisions, Metallica are one of the best live bands in the world and always will be, no matter how sloppy Lars Ulrich gets.
I’m not even going to touch Lulu.
Their last album was Death Magnetic, and in many ways it was the album that St Anger should have been, but it came far too late for fans who were now, after multiple disappointments, ready to approach any new material with sceptical cynicism and a lack of willingness to embrace it. Personally? I enjoyed it. It was a solid release, but a band of Metallica’s magnitude and with a fanbase like theirs can’t accept ‘solid’.
So now here we are, over 8 years since their last release, with Hardwired… To Self-Destruct ready to divide opinion. Will it suck? Will it redeem the band? Or will it merely be another ‘solid’ release that leaves the ‘old school’ crowd tutting and muttering about ‘real’ metal and longing for the good old days when their lives were still ahead of them and they had hair?
In my opinion it’s not just a ‘solid’ release, it’s GOOD. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably as good as we’re going to get.
There’s thrash (although far less than you would imagine given the tactically-selected singles Hardwired and Moth Into the Flame), there are a host of fat, head-banging riffs that hark back to the Black album era, and Hetfield is in fine form.
In the (more recent) past some of his lyrics could generate eye rolls either because they feel like cheesy, yet struggled-for, rhyming couplets, or because they sound riddled with teen angst yet are coming from a man over 50 years old. He’s not going to win a Nobel Prize like Bob Dylan, but they (mostly) don’t detract from the songs, the melodies are well-suited and he sings well – better than many in the genre. Tracks like Now That We’re Dead and Here Comes Revenge that lack a bit of musical intensity are well covered instead by his voice. It’s a great balance.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the album is the production (by Greg Fidelman, who did SOAD’s debut, Audioslave’s debut and a bunch of Slipknot + more). It’s fantastic, the mix is smooth and lush but also retains a raw grit that the album would suck without. You can actually HEAR Robert Trujillo’s fingers HITTING THE STRINGS on the bass guitar – and any bass-playing fan of Metallica knows that you don’t normally hear the bass at all. You can hear the thickness of multiple guitar tracks yet the bass and leads are perfectly balanced and the drums sound fantastic.
Sadly, though, the drums are severely lacking. Not only does the lack of thrash mean there’s less double kick, about 90% of the fills take place solely on the snare drum. I get that it’s always been a big part of Ulrich’s style, but at times it feels like they were using the snare to count off rhythms in pre-production and never bothered to change them. I read someone suggest that this could be because Ulrich is worried about live performance, but that seems remarkably unambitious. In an age where metal drumming has gone ahead in leaps and bounds, Metallica are found wanting. I’m not saying I want to hear Danny Carey or Gene Hoglan behind the kit, but surely Ulrich has been at it long enough to develop some technical flair worth showcasing. Nearly all of Hammett’s solos, too, while competent, don’t have you thinking ‘Wow, he’s never done THAT before’.
Fortunately the riffs and melodies more than compensate. The second half of the album plods along far more than the blazing start, but I’m up to my fourth listen now and they’re definitely growing on me. I can only wonder how Dave Mustaine feels when he listens to the RIDICULOUSLY Megadeth-sounding Am I Savage? – but it’s still a great track.
Ultimately I’d best describe the new album as ‘a greatest hits record full of new songs.’ Everything you’ve loved about each era of Metallica’s 30+ year career can be found here in varying degrees, and they all sound great. It’s thorough, heavy and Hetfield is on fire – which is all I can ask of a Metallica album these days. I like it – hell, I enjoy it, and I can’t wait to see them on their next tour.
Is that enough though? Will any of these tracks be at the top of fans lists as they compose their dream live sets? Will I be screaming to hear the new stuff or will I be banging my head politely while secretly hoping for Damage Inc. and Harvester of Sorrow?
Will it be compared to Master of Puppets in another 30 years time? Let’s be honest – probably not. People are cynical assholes at the best of times. I know I am.