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I am sitting at the bar at Kuma’s Corner in Chicago. The Avondale original, significantly smaller and more prickly than the comparatively spacious location in yuppified Lincoln Park. About about halfway through a listen of Metallica’s new album Hardwired… To Self Destruct when a bartender slips me a shot of whiskey. When I ask why he says, “Because you’re a Metallica fan”.

If this is true, Kuma’s must have been giving out a lot of shots. Whether you like Hardwired or not, you undoubtedly have an opinion on it. Metallica are our weird genre’s greatest success story. Even now, long after they rode the earth like gods in the late 80s and early 90s, they still command enough respect to get write-ups from sites like Vulture and The Ringer, both of whom wouldn’t touch say, Deathspell Omega, with a 10-foot pole. More important than the acceptance and attention of non-heshers, Metallica are the one topic that literally any group of metalheads can make small talk about. Metallica are popular in the way that sports teams are popular. We gripe when they suck, rehash old highlights, and trade minutia like rookie cards.

Because of this, the release of a new Metallica album is an event in the way that no other new metal album can be. It helps that Metallica put in the effort to make their release cycles fun. Death Magnetic was preceded by a lengthy ‘behind-the-scenes’ campaign that allowed fans to watch the album improve incrementally. Even If the final product was significantly overcooked, it was engaging to watch the bread rise in near-real time. We didn’t get as deep a peek behind the curtain for Hardwired, but Metallica flexed their marketing muscle to give fans a constant stream of music videos, live footage and late night appearances in the lead up to the album’s release. This meant that Kuma’s listening party was slightly anticlimactic, plenty of people had heard the album in full, but the event benefited more from its populist appeal than it could ever have suffered from overexposure.

The restaurant, already notorious for it’s long waits, was packed to the brim with equal numbers of leather clad true-believers and backwards Cubs hat wearing bros. Although Kuma’s flies it’s metal bonafides high, it’s absurdly huge (and delicious) burgers also fit squarely into Chicago’s culture of comically overeating. A good deal of the crowd will gladly suffer through an hour plus of Metallica if it means they can stuff themselves silly on craft beer and piles of meat the size of a human face.

A couple next to me had stumbled into the event with no knowledge of the Metallica cross-promotion. They had heard Kirk Hammett talk on NPR earlier in the morning, but weren’t fans of the band. Instead they preferred music that they described as being less slickly produced, raw varieties of blues, punk and reggae. I briefly considered telling them that this meant they had a great deal in common with the average black metal fan, but thought better of it.

Most of the crowd was less oblivious however, but instead were treating the night as a “two birds one stone” situation. A few seats away, a man enthusiastically drummed along to the intro of “Confusion” on the bar, thoroughly embarrassing his date. He later jumped into an argument about the merits of post-80’s Metallica (the argument was settled very quickly). Another patron at the bar named Mike told me that he ate at Kuma’s at least once a week after his job at NetherRealm Studios, but was an old-school Metallica fan and So-Cal ex-pat who was happy to show support for the new record.

All the while Hardwired played at high volume above the crowd. The venue’s acoustics aren’t exactly built for detail. James Hetfield’s vocals were lost in the din, but his rhythm guitar, along with Lars Ulrich’s surprisingly tight double bass playing, cut right through. This meant that the record’s flaws, of which it has several, were smoothed over. Instead we were a bunch of metal fans engaging in a low stakes communal ritual.

That low stakes environment is also contributes to some of Hardwired’s appeal. Never before have Metallica sounded more like a bunch of middle-aged California dads, and never before has that worked more in their favor. Hardwired may aim for the speed and aggression of Kill Em All but the end result is closer to Garage Inc in spirit. Metallica, with nothing left to prove, are simply having fun playing music. They nod towards their earliest inspirations, like the “Am I Evil?” homage in “Confusion” or the Iron Maiden harmonies of “Atlas, Rise!”, while also engaging in self-plagiarism on tracks like “Dream No More” and “Here Comes Revenge.” Given that Metallica’s last trip outside of their comfort zone lead them to “Brandenburg Gate,” the conservative approach is welcome here. Besides, old Metallica is fucking good and the band’s modern approximation is nothing to sneeze at either. If pillaging their older albums means more songs like “Moth Into Flame” or “Spit Out The Bone,” nobody at Kuma’s was going to complain about it.

At one point, Mike from NetherRealm leaned over and told me that at the very least a new Metallica album meant that the band would hit the road again. He had never gotten the chance to see the band in their heyday, and felt a renewed pressure to catch them this time around. I told him that I could relate, that I had chances to see both Motorhead and Dio and I felt like earth’s largest dumbass for passing them up.

Skipping out on seeing classic bands live has become a risky proposition lately. This year has felt like a constant funeral procession. Even as I settled into my meal at the bar, an alert popped up on my phone about the passing of Sharon Jones. The week before it was Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell. Mortality has always been a recurring theme in Metallica’s work, but their last two albums seem especially morbid. Death Magnetic was partially inspired by the death of Layne Staley, and “Murder One” from Hardwired is full of references to the late Lemmy Kilmister. So maybe we’re all going a little easy on Metallica. But even if Hardwired doesn’t hold a candle to Ride The Lightning, it’s nice to have around.

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Some records get tied to specific moments in your personal history. Others get attached to more collective cultural landmarks. An album like Slayer’s God Hates Us All will always be colored by it’s 9/11/01 release date. To a lesser extent, it will be hard not for me to think of Hardwired as the Metallica album that happened to be released a week after the 2016 Election. The album didn’t ask for this, and James Hetfield’s lyrics, bless their heart, are not exactly built to offer trenchant political commentary, nor were they intended to. This is simply bad timing.

The album wrapped and everyone settled back into normalcy after the adrenaline rush of “Spit Out The Bone” wore off. The NPR couple left, replaced by a young man making an origami elephant (he had ordered the “Mastodon” burger). I stuck around long enough to watch the end of “Thrashin’”, an 80s skate movie featuring a hunky young Josh Brolin, which had been playing on Kuma’s Corner’s lone TV. I mentioned to Mike from NetherRealm that the movie’s supporting cast was more multicultural than I would have expected. He told me he had grown up surrounded by this kind of skate culture, and that the movie’s diversity wasn’t far off.

It didn’t even occur to me until I had left that Metallica, another Californian export from the 80s, are far from as whitewashed as someone unfamiliar with heavy metal might assume. Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo would both stick out like sore thumbs in Mike Pence’s rightfully maligned selfie, and the Hetfield/Ulrich braintrust, a collaboration between a Danish former tennis prodigy and the child of christian scientists, is the kind of wacky pairing that could only happen in the glorious weirdness of Southern California. Heavy metal has always been the product of cultural exchange, a truly global genre, one whose very existence rejects the xenophobic nationalism espoused by the President Elect.

This last week’s anxiety will linger on Hardwired. But the next time I find myself making small talk over Metallica, I’ll remember that I’m in good company.

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