Not sure if you heard, but a few people have an opinion on the new Metallica record. I know…crazy, right? Those guys haven’t done anything in like, 30 years! Who cares? Did you hear that new porno doom spazz release by HyphēnX1göRe? Their last four splits and that demo are more vital than anything those old farts have done in forev— ugh! Wha! blech…ack–*gasp* thud…
(puts down bat, removes butcher’s apron and wipes hands and face with a wet-nap)
Okay, let’s talk about Metallica for a few minutes.
Maybe it’s an age thing, but Metallica IS metal to me. I was 13 years old when Master of Puppets came out; until that point metal for me was Ratt, Mötley Crüe and, when I was feeling really heavy, some Iron Maiden. It was popular, it was what the girls liked, and it was what passed for metal (well, we called it Hard Rock) on MTV, at that point only a few years out of diapers. Anything heavier was reserved for the burnouts smoking behind the school, and they weren’t sharing the cool pictures emblazoned on black shirts behind leather jackets, nor the buzzing sound that kept pulling me whenever I could hear its faint strains (I didn’t get too close…asthma, you know). I remember the exact moment it all changed: sitting with my friend Greg Lee in the back of the bus on the 40-minute ride to school, a boom box smuggled in his duffel bag. Hearing the charging riff of “Battery” felt like I was being punched in the face, beaten into the realization that there were variations in how “heavy” metal could be, and I liked it heavy. Metallica were so heavy their logo was carved out of stone, etched by some elder god they worshipped on songs like “The Thing That Should Not Be.” It was my first taste of metal that wasn’t simply storytelling or boasts of sexual conquests — it was raw, it was angry, and it was finally speaking to the things a young, introverted and bullied kid could understand.
They weren’t the first band I saw live (that prize goes to Def Leppard, touring with Tesla for the Hysteria tour), but they were the first band to blow my mind, watching massive statues explode on the …And Justice for All tour which had stopped by the local fairgrounds. …And Justice for All was full of firsts for me: for all the grief Lars Ulrich gets for his drumming, it was the first time I noticed drums doing something other than holding down the beat. They were alive, accentuating the anger, working around the riff in a way that was furious and unwilling to be relegated to the back of the line. I remember seeing the video for “One” for the first time — if you weren’t there you have to understand there was NOTHING like that on MTV at the time. How many people bought a copy of Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo after watching that video? I did… How many people heard that song and ran out to buy the earlier stuff, getting blown away by the raw punk mixed with NWOBHM on Kill ‘Em All and the furious aggression on Ride the Lightning? I did, and to this day am still ashamed that the only thing I ever stole from a store was the cassette for Kill ‘Em All, because my taped copy from a friend didn’t have “Blitzkrieg” and “Am I Evil?” on it.
Can you be a die-hard fan and still be critical? Of course, and I’ll be the first to admit while I really like the Black album I don’t return to it that often (although live some of those songs still kill, like “Through the Never” and “The God That Failed”) and Load and Re-Load sacrificed too much of what made Metallica unique in the name of 4X4 groove. But name me another band that have been so open in charting their musical explorations: whatever your opinion on those records, you can’t say it wasn’t exactly what they wanted to put out at that time. And I still stand up for St. Anger as a deeply troubled record that still couldn’t completely mask some great ideas hidden in all the incongruous riffs and wailing and snare — I’d put “Frantic” and “St. Anger” on any Metallica favorites compilation I made (in fact, I just did…check it out here). When Death Magnetic came out I listened to it non-stop for a week. Was it the grand return to form so many in the music press proclaimed? Hell no, but it sounded like a band rediscovering what made them what they were, and songs like “End of the Line” showed them trying to acknowledge their past without having to relive it.
Which brings us to the here and now. Hardwired…to Self Destruct takes the process of rediscovery that served as the blueprint for Death Magnetic and further refines it, injecting more of the post Black album influences but maintaining a sense of connectedness and fun from the classic period. It’s the sound of a band finally getting comfortable with their legacy, and enjoying the process of making music. “Atlas, Rise!” makes no effort to hide their love of their NWOBHM roots, and raging stompers like “Hardwired” and “Spit Out the Bone” have all the head-thrashing fun of earlier songs without feeling like an older band desperate to sound young again. I can’t remember the last time Kirk Hammett sounded this engaged, and the production is heavy and clear and concise: the band finally realizing on tracks like “Dream No More” and “ManUNkind” that having your bass player a little more evident in the mix is a damn good thing.
Are they the band they once were? No, and I’d argue why should they be? They’re in their 50s, playing what they want and having fun inverting the sounds they created and mastered in their 20s and 30s. And as a guy in his 40s who started listening to them in his teens, I’ll follow them wherever they may roam.