The Best Albums of 2016, #4

band014. Metallica, Hardwired…To Self-Destruct (Blackened)

A few months ago it dawned on me that I have not thoroughly loved a Metallica studio album, from start to finish, since 1988. Nearly 30 years. Time flies, I tell you. They’re still a band that’s very near and dear to me – though my naming S&M my 1999 album of the year was more a result of a life in serious flux, spent removed from a great deal of new music – but oh my, what a slump they’ve been in. Ever since side two of the Black Album (I listened to it the other day and it is still awful!) Metallica has been so painfully inconsistent, always giving in to self-indulgence, cramming albums with too much filler. When I finally heard their tenth album this fall, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but the crazy thing was that it never happened. Sure, things wavered a tiny bit, but it was a cohesive listening experience. I was dumbstruck. Indeed, Hardwired…To Self Destruct shows audiences a side of Metallica that’s been sorely missing for the last 29 years: fiery, focused, aggressive, disciplined.

Yes, disciplined! Metallica has always crammed its albums to the gills with content – at 47 minutes Ride the Lightning is the shortest album in the discography – but starting with side two of the Black Album the sharp focus slipped to the point where every subsequent album would be bogged down by filler, partially a product of the CD era. This time, the 77-minute Hardwired has been split into two distinctly sequenced halves, which in turn allows the listener to ease into the large volume of music instead of taking it in all at once.

“Hardwired” is a glorious return to the thrash metal sound the band helped create. Propelled by Ulrich’s loose-but-steady double-time beats and held together by Hetfield’s trademark muscular rhythm riffs, the song’s angry sentiment (“We’re so fucked, shit out of luck”) feels unfortunately relevant considering the tumultuous year the world had endured. In direct contrast, “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth Into Flame” exuberantly revisit Hetfield’s and Ulrich’s early-‘80s metal fandom, channeling Diamond Head, Mercyful Fate, and Killers-era Iron Maiden by adding melodic flourishes to a strong sense of groove, yielding a pair of the band’s catchiest fist-bangers in ages. Speaking of hooks, though, the mid-paced chugger “Now That We’re Dead” is built around a brilliant, crisp little marching riff and rides that groove for a full seven minutes. Its simplicity echoes the Black Album at its best, and features some of Hetfield’s strongest vocal work on the entire album. “Halo on Fire” starts off melancholic but builds to a wonderful climax, featuring an up-tempo coda built around a blessedly simple riff and an expressive solo by Hammett that echoes Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi. And in an inspired touch, Master of Puppets’ Lovecraftian colossus “The Thing That Should Not Be” is alluded to on the stomping, crushing “Dream No More”.

The second half of the album is more of a mixed bag. “Confusion” bears a strong similarity to Death Magnetic, in how it tries to find an even ground between atonality and melody, but it succeeds mightily thanks to very strong interplay between the lead riff and vocal melody. Despite its unfortunate title, “ManUNkind” is a wicked Southern rock jam that features Trujillo’s finest bass work, and echoes the better deep cuts from Load and Reload two decades ago. “Here Comes Revenge” swings hard, alternating between creeping menace and anthemic vitriol, while “Am I Savage” neatly releases its building tension with a clever ascending riff in its chorus. “Murder One” is arguably the album’s weakest moment, as the band’s heartfelt tribute to the late Lemmy Kilmister falls slightly flat, but the ship is righted immediately after as the dystopian “Spit Out the Bone” closes things with another ferocious, angry blast of speed.

As much time as it took for Metallica to rediscover that old magic, though, upon hearing the end result it was well worth the wait. More than anything, Metallica sounds like they’re having fun again. You hear it in those little touches throughout Hardwired…To Self Destruct that pay homage to their old favorites, and even in those extended passages where they keep going just a little longer because the groove feels too good. The subject matter might be bleak, but there’s a lust for life on this album that will leave a big smile on the faces of their millions of fans, and even on a few of those grumpy old ones. Including yours truly.