I first heard Metallica in 1985 or ’86 on a Sony Walkman in the back of the bus on the way home from school. The Walkman belonged to this kid named Zack who had a hideous case of athlete’s foot. My memory of hearing “Creeping Death” for the first time is forever fused with the sight and smell of the rotting flesh on Zack’s toes. This strikes me as a proper introduction to the world’s greatest thrash metal band.
It’s thirty years later and Metallica just dropped their tenth proper album, Hardwired… to Self Destruct. Released in the week after the 2016 presidential election, this feels like the first time the band’s apocalyptic vibe jives with the zeitgeist. From the beginning, they’ve assumed the pose of outsiders and musical contrarians, indulging in intricate, doom-obsessed song suites that often last long enough to kill a whole six-pack. Their biggest hit, “Enter Sandman” came out during the musical renaissance of the early nineties, when “alternative” became a genre unto itself and Metallica weirdly found themselves more or less occupying the mainstream.
On the title song of the new album, James Hetfield barks out what might be the band’s dumbest sounding yet most culturally spot-on lyrics of their career.
We’re so fucked!
Shit outa luck!
Hard wired to self-destruct!
Driving around in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, I found myself nodding, thinking, yeah, that sounds about right.
As a thirty-year student of Metallica I’m pleased to see the band pretty much enjoying themselves and seeming fairly content. They glowered through their first three albums, which bore the influence of the late Cliff Burton’s taste in literature, with songs inspired by Lovecraft and Hemingway. One of my favorite Metallica releases remains The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-revisited, a collection of thrash and punk covers that was their first outing with replacement bassist Jason Newsted. To me, a Northwest headbanger steeped in the purity codes of late eighties metal, this quick and dirty EP served as my doorway to punk rock, which would later be blown open by the Sex Pistols, X, and Jane’s Addiction.
The first full-length album of the Newsted era, …And Justice for All is widely considered an accident of production. Apart from the epic “One,” and the scorcher “Blackened,” Justice is a frosty, joyless exercise in pain management, the product of three mourning alcoholics incapable of sharing their feelings.
After Justice, Metallica needed a big, breakout album. They needed their Back in Black. And they delivered it to a nation in thrall to Nirvana. Metallica, aka “The Black Album” is as warm as Justice is cold, with Newsted’s bass planted between Lars’s kick drum thunder and Het’s chug-chugga-chugga riffs. “Enter Sandman” is their “You Shook Me All Night Long,” the song that will be played at every sold-out stadium show for as long as Metallica remains standing with legs spread and necks bent in ways that must cause the staff chiropractor they bring on tour to lose sleep.
After Metallica, the band embarked on a period in which they experimented with makeup, short hair, therapy, haute couture, and occasional forays into country music. Much of it was not pretty. Actually, the best work the band did during the Clinton and Bush administrations were their covers of such songs as Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar,” which was included in their covers compilation Garage Inc. Their collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony, S&M, was audacious if a bit ridiculous, as though they were fulfilling Spinal Tap’s ambition to record an opera about Jack the Ripper with the London Philharmonic. After the meh Load albums, the band hit a fairly miserable low point with the nearly unlistenable Saint Anger, best remembered for a wince-inducing snare drum tone that sounds like a tin can getting shot with a pellet gun. Then the band went into what might be called Oprah mode, producing the unintentionally funny documentary Some Kind of Monster, featuring a cardigan-wearing therapist named Phil who encouraged a band who once invited us to imagine existence as a shellshocked quadriplegic to express their hurt feelings over Jamba Juices.
It seemed that Metallica might have been washed up after that. But they returned at the dawn of the Obama era with Death Magnetic, produced by bearded Beastie Boy midwife Rick Rubin. This album featured new bass player Robert Trujillo, whose face upon learning he’s getting an advance of a cool million dollars to become the newest member of the world’s greatest thrash band is the highlight of Some Kind of Monster. Death Magnetic sounds like an expression of the Metallica idiom, with songs like chunks of old songs stitched Frankensteinishly together. Rubin reportedly contextualized the recording of this album by telling the Bay Area blokes that Master of Puppets was their best work, directing them to jam and figure out the arrangements of their songs before they entered the studio. It’s a good album, but not really one that you feel compelled to revisit every year.
Hardwired… to Self-Destruct has emerged when it appears that the world could most use a heaping helping of Metallica. Many of the songs stretch past the six-minute mark, and the album is over eighty minutes long, spanning two discs. Many of the songs reach a point where it would seem the end is in sight but then Hetfield delivers yet another verse. Kirk Hammet wheedly-wheedly-whees his solos as per usual. In my favorite song, a slower-grooved grinder called “Now that We’re Dead,” Lars drops a series of tom fills that stretch beyond credulity, entering prog territory. Is it overindulgent? Over-the-top? Ham-fistedly baroque? Well, yeah, dumbass. What part of “Metallica” don’t you fuckin’ understand?