Despite long gaps between records, Metallica haven’t exactly been taking it easy.
Their music since the nineties has been a long way short of their best but their unquenchable thirst for new creativity has been alive and well for much of the intervening period.
Since Death Magnetic, Metallica have released an EP, made the Lulu album with the late Lou Read, produced a 3D movie and its associated live double album, and played on Antarctica. And, of course, they’ve toured their arses off with some terrific stage productions.
But in 2016, Metallica’s creative output has been focused squarely on the new record and its promotional campaign.
It’s been a good autumn for innovative album releases in heavy metal. Avenged Sevenfold, themselves admirers of Metallica and undaunted by the prospect of their new album going head-to-head with Metallica’s latest offering, dropped The Stage out of nowhere last month.
It was a remarkable achievement to keep it under wraps, and a statement of confidence backed up emphatically by the work. Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct was no secret; it was released today on the back of a campaign that was unconventional in its own right.
On top of the fact that James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo have been rushing around all over the place promoting the new record with various small shows, signings and press commitments, the music itself was rolled out song by song as the crescendo built towards one of the year’s biggest heavy music releases.
The title track was unveiled as a video alongside the album announcement, and was followed by videos for ‘Moth Into Flame’ and ‘Atlas, Rise!’, two more tracks from the first disc of this double album. So far, so normal. But on Wednesday this week, the Metallica creative engine cranked into gear.
Every two hours a video for a track on the new album was revealed as an exclusive with a media partner somewhere in the world, and then added to the band’s website. By the time the November 18th launch date was reached in the first time zone to hit midnight, the whole album had been put online and collated into a playlist.
The twelve videos were made by a handful of directors, resulting in a wide range of stories and styles – and, frankly, standards – across the record. These creative collaborations include a fantastic Lemmy animation for ‘Murder One’, a black metal pastiche by Jonas Åkerlund, and Tom Kirk’s subtly excellent video for ‘Moth Into Flame’, and they rolled out the album in style.
As launch week picked up pace there was an #AskMetallica livestream and hashtag emojis for #Metallica, #HardwiredToSelfDestruct and #BlackenedFriday. And, in amongst the slew of usual press work, a viral moment: Metallica were joined by The Roots and Jimmy Fallon for a rendition of their classic single ‘Enter Sandman’, played on classroom instruments.
Of course they did. How else would you promote an album? It was a high point, but the whole of the last week has come across like a well-oiled campaign reaching peak talkability and boosting excitement levels at exactly the right moment.
Hardwired… To Self-Destruct
But none of that matters. This is music, and the only thing that counts is what we see on stage and what we hear on record. Metallica have nothing to prove when it comes to the former, but they faced a battle to rekindle a musical flame that hasn’t been evident for some time.
To put it in one of its contexts, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct isn’t the best album of 2016. Why would it be? That requires fury and subversion and exploration. But in the context of Metallica’s history, what this quartet of fiftysomethings have delivered today is remarkable.
Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is worlds ahead of Death Magnetic. For Metallica to round off the year with the best album they’ve made since the mid-1990s is astounding. I love Metallica, but for them to produce an album of this quality is beyond anything even I had dared to hope.
It’s got punch, and it’s got groove seeping from its pores. Its 77 minutes rattle through riff after riff after riff; combined with its luscious production, album number ten finally feels like a Metallica record for the modern age. It even begins and ends with a couple of thrashy numbers, albeit split across two discs that are best received when treated independently.
The highlights are a pair of three-song combinations, one on each disc.
On the first, the hard-rocking ‘Now That We’re Dead’ is followed by the frantic but focused aggression of ‘Moth Into Flame’ and the doom-tinged monster that is ‘Dream No More’.
On the second, ‘Here Comes Revenge’ is a slow-burning, sleazy headbanging anthem in the finest Metallica tradition. ‘Am I Savage?’ majors on a gigantic swinging riff, and ‘Murder One’ is a crushing, vital and upbeat Lemmy tribute.
That’s six flat-out ragers and a bunch of other good songs, more than anyone expected, and that makes this a triumphant release for Metallica. At the very least it’s what they should sound like in 2016.
But this is by no means a flawless return to form. I don’t dislike any of it, but Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is long enough to be shortened and has a couple of outstanding candidates for the chop. Without ‘Atlas, Rise!’ and ‘ManUNkind’ – the record’s lowest point – we’d have a much tighter album.
So, there’s a bit of fat. So what?
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