I confess: I haven't been the most forgiving Metallica fan over the past 20 years. It hasn't been that I've hated all of their material during that period, mind you, and I can live with the fact that the band aren't out there spinning their wheels with Master of Puppets pt VI. But as I've always said about Dave Mustaine's restless streak: just because you're trying something new doesn't necessitate that it's any good. I think most of us old school fans are on the same page in terms of Load/Reload being sort of ok but with a lot of regrettable moments, and St Anger representing a thoroughly unsalvageable shit heap. But then 2008 came around, and since Death Magnetic we've all been back at each other's throats arguing over whether the old Metallica is truly back or not (wait five minutes then refresh the comments section if you demur).
Death Magnetic was a mitigated return to thrash form for Metallica, which many adored but to me merely came off as highly competent fan service. Again, I didn't hate it, but damned if I've really listened to it much in the ensuing years. I can see why others have a more favorable opinion, but for me a really great album demands repeat listens, and Death Magnetic just didn't hit that high water mark (for the record, I think I still gave it an 8 at the time, which I would today downgrade to a 7 sans the benefit of freshness). When the string of singles for this year's Hardwired… to Self Destruct started rolling out, I had a similar reaction: a fine listen once through, but ultimately easily forgotten. But often for me songs work better within the context of the album itself, so I was eager to get the full sequencing under my belt.
In case I haven't pissed off enough readers by inferring that D.M. was a bit of a b.m. – I didn't, but that won't stop 9/10 commenters from reading that into it – I would just like to get this off my chest: James Hetfield is like the heavy metal Madonna. Both took singing lessons that, yes, added range and discipline to their vocals, but also added a studied mannerism that undercuts the sincerity of the emotions they wish to invoke. Hetfield has been worse about this elsewhere, to be sure, but the eight-minute "Halo on Fire" – to single out the most egregious song – is his most mannered performance yet, an uneasy compromise between the man's unabating need to bellow at all times while also queasily restraining himself on the verses, the better to honor the otherwise effective mellow instrumentation. It's not flammable enough to qualify as a dumpster fire but it's still kinda trash. "Hardwired" has a pretty nifty riff, but its brevity and speed turn out to be uncharacteristic of the rest of the album, which gives it a sort of gimmicky vibe. And simplicity is often a virtue, sure, but this title track is ultimately so rudimentary that it doesn't survive a shitload of listens all that well.
In spite of the above reservations, though, I still found myself enjoying Hardwired more than I thought I would. Sure, it's patchy and not at all consistently great, but there's a looseness throughout that hasn't been present since the 1990's, but here without the cringe-worthy self-indulgence of "Fuel" or – god for-fucking-bid – Marianne Faithfull. It's at once familiar enough yet doesn't quite sound like any other Metallica album. There's a lot of that Load-era groove here but the length of most tracks alone pretty much guarantees some Death Magnetic-style jamming. My gripes about Hetfield's singing aside, he still has a mean way around a rhythm guitar, and the only time Kirk Hammett has ever failed to show up is when the rest of the band have locked the studio doors (speaking of which…).
For me a lot of the finer moments on Hardwired are the ones least likely to garner accolades: the surprisingly funky grooves of "Manunkind", the classic mid-paced thrash of "Here Comes Revenge", the Thin Lizzy swing of "Now That We're Dead". "Moth Into Flame" kind of loses me at the chorus, but "Atlas, Rise!" was a pretty grand choice for a single. This isn't much of a singles album, though; in fact, a hefty chunk of my personal regard for it is as a sum of its parts. It really requires an extended attention span to fully immerse you in its charm. Excised moments have a sugar-crash appeal that bottom out almost as soon as you've begun to savor them, but 77 minutes of it somehow ends up constituting an honest-to-god fucking meal. Still slight on flat-out brilliances, but if Master of Puppets 6 isn't on the table this able composite of 30 years worth of musical strengths is sure as hell preferable to a more monochromatic Death Magnetic 2.
Score: 8/10 (but a real 8 this time, no 2020 downgrade applicable)