Metallica had one of metal’s most formidable album runs across ’80s classics like Kill ‘Em All and Master of Puppets, but they’ve also spent years trying to outrun that legacy. The band embraced massive hooks and slower tempos with 1991’s self-titled “Black Album,” and each new project got progressively longer and weirder. The mid-’90s sister albums Load and Reload incorporated blues and Southern rock. 1999’s S&M added the San Francisco Symphony. Many fans lost faith after the middle-aughts studio album St. Anger and Some Kind of Monster, a documentary tracing the record’s tumultuous creation. St. Anger ditched guitar solos, and saw the band parting ways with longtime bassist Jason Newsted, while adding a nagging, ringing clatter in the low end owing to Lars Ulrich’s insistence on playing drums with the snare switched off. The sound rankled fans, and the movie depicted the beasts cycling between studio sessions, group therapy, and comfortable affluence, a bad look for a band with roots in populist tape trading.
Since St. Anger, Metallica has struck up a more careful balance between the tightly structured speed trials of the early days and the looser headspace of recent work. 2008’s Death Magnetic, which renewed lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s license to shred and axed St. Anger’s deal-breaking drum sound, was the band’s best studio work in years. This week Metallica finally follow up Death Magnetic with Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, a double disc, and one of the longest releases in their main album catalog. Most of the music was written by Ulrich and singer James Hetfield; Hammett claims to have lost the phone onto which he recorded 250 ideas for riffs. The last time Hammett contributed so little to the writing process, it resulted in the meandering, lukewarm hard rock of Load and Reload, but Hardwired avoids that trap, and for nearly 80 whole minutes.
The opener and title track “Hardwired” is a beautiful fake-out: Three minutes of blistering speed metal dangle the very real possibility of a full-length trip back to the ’80s glory days, only to inch it away with each slow, heavy, rude number that follows. Hardwired is Metallica abandoning the tug-of-war with their classics and advancing instead on the lead of the “Black Album” with another display of everything this band can pull off besides rip-roaring pace. “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth Into Flame” will further please the speed demons. But tread deep into disc two for the resolutely patient “Am I Savage?” and “Murder One” — which will assuage anyone’s fears that Hammett’s absence from the songwriting process here means less blistering guitar work — or “ManUNkind,” a showcase for bassist Robert Trujillo that figures out how to dance with the blues without straining out the metal. Ultimately, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is a few hairs too long; a little bit more editing, and this thing could really kill.
It’s too soon to call Hardwired the best Metallica release since the “Black Album,” and perhaps the distinction isn’t worth so much anymore when you consider some of the wobbly competition. (The honor might have sat comfortably with Death Magnetic if it hadn’t undercut its brutalist agenda with “The Day That Never Comes” and “The Unforgiven III,” two separate rehashes of “The Unforgiven,” which never exactly demanded a sequel.) At best it’s the first that doesn’t seem distractingly preoccupied with nudging the band closer toward or further away from its own legacy. At this point, can we ask Metallica for more?