Metallica’s “Hardwired” One Week Later
“Hardwired”, Metallica’s first new non-collaborative album song in eight years is now five days old. It’s written to sound like it’s over thirty years old, and that’s what people like about it. But that doesn’t sit right by me.
“Hardwired” doesn’t work. It does a lot of things right but it does a lot of things wrong. To understand what doesn’t work, and how Metallica got here, we need to look at the band’s past.
Metallica’s last album, Death Magnetic sounded like the return to classical form that those fans asked for after Saint Anger. It split the difference between The Black Album’s brooding introspection and chunky riffs with the long prog-ish songs of And Justice For All.
The band seemed to think this was their creative sweet spot, and I don’t blame them: those two albums were the soundtrack to their rise to fame. After Master of Puppets they were opening for Ozzy Osborne. After The Black Album they were co-headlining with Guns and Roses.
Some bands have had good luck aiming for their past sweet spots. Surgical Steel sounds like a split between Necroticism and Heartwork; it re-started that band’s touring career and it’s my favorite Carcass record. Black Gives Way to Blue sounds like Side A of Dirt mixed with the Jar of Flies EP and if Layne Staley sang those songs it would probably be my favorite Alice in Chains album.
The sweet spot didn’t totally work for Metallica. People hated Death Magnetic on release for its too-compressed production job, and for James Hetfield’s somewhat off-key vocal performances. While that record retcons all the nu-metal and country rock influences from Metallica’s sound, not to mention the slam metal snare, it retains the biggest weakness affecting each album since Load: Every song is too long.
Fans thought they could do better than Metallica did. Fans ripped the Guitar Hero versions of Death Magnetic songs and put them on torrent sites, believing they were a superior mix (they are, and Metallica lost an opportunity by not offering the video game edits for commercial sale). Some audio whiz fixed the length problem by cobbling every Death Magnetic song into one 15-minute instrumental track cheekily called Life Copacetic. It’s a fun listen.
People reacted more warmly to “Lords of Summer,” a commercial demo released in 2014. The relatively rough quality of the recording keeps it from sounding too artificial, and it features Hetfield’s first fantasy lyrics since 1984. The 8-minute runtime keeps it comfortably in the Death Magnetic-zone, though. That same year the band released “Ronnie Rising”, a medley of Rainbow songs for a Dio tribute album, itself a throwback to “A Medley of Mercyful Fate” from the Garage Inc. cover LP from 1998, itself a callback to 1987’s The $5.98 E.P. Garage Days Re-Revisited.
Predictably, the more Metallica turn their stylistic clock back, the more people seem to enjoy their material.
“Hardwired,” the title track from their forthcoming tenth album Hardwired… To Self Destruct calls back to their first album, Kill Em All. Lars Ulrich plays a thrash beat for most of the track, while James, Kirk and Rob chug away on their E strings. At roughly 3 minutes and 9 seconds long, it’s tied with “Motorbreath” for the shortest song in their discography. The four horsemen haven't written a song this brief since they wrote “The Four Horsemen”. Even the title with its short, punchy consonance screams “iconic” the way song titles on Kill Em All do. It’s so breathless that Metallica cut the space between ‘hard’ and ‘wired’.
The response to “Hardwired” seems warm. Adrien Begrand, formerly of Popmatters, enjoys it. Former IO Editor and Metallica superfan Michael Nelson seems into it as well.
I’m cooler on it, and it took this long for me to articulate why: “Hardwired” lacks dynamics.
Both it and “Motorbreath” follow a simple, almost-identical song structure, with a drum intro, a verse riff, a chorus riff, and one riff played during the guitar solo. The trouble is, “Motorbreath” is one of the least-interesting songs in Metallica’s discography. A holdover from Hetfield’s time in Leather Charm, the song doesn't feature any of the odd time of “The Four Horsemen” or the tempo changes of “Seek & Destroy.” Just four chords, that’s it. My ear isn’t perfect, but I think “Hardwired” only has three. “Hardwired” packs a little more rhythmic variety into it than “Motorbreath” does, particularly in its last 20 seconds, wherein Ulrich teases a full double-kick blast and the band plays a melodic bar chord riff a single time just before the conclusion. But “Motorbreath” changes riffs roughly every ten seconds, whereas “Hardwired” rides its individual components even harder.
In a sense Metallica has tacked too hard away from the lessons learned in their later years - regaining brevity in exchange for the complexity that informed their creative peak.
Their new editorial ferocity is probably limited to “Hardwired”. The double-CD and quadruple-LP album will approach 80 minutes in length, as long as Load. Given that “Hardwired” takes up three of those 80 minutes, the remaining 11 tracks will average six and a half minutes long. My inner optimist tells me that the songs on Master of Puppets average just a touch longer than that, but I never listen to my inner optimist when it comes to Metallica.
This article has been updated to link to Life Copacetic Thank you commenter asd.