So, what's the verdict?
Wait! Don't be so impatient.
After the 32-car pileup of a car crash — I've used this metaphor before and I will use it again and again — that was 2003's St Anger, followed by the more musically-sound but largely underwhelming Death Magnetic of 2008, expectations from the third Rob Trujillo era Metallica album weren't exactly sky-high. I'm not mentioning Lulu in this list, because to be fair, Lulu — the 2011 collaboration between the band and Lou Reed — cannot be classified as a Metallica album. That would be unfair.
And to be fair, once again, to Metallica, the Californian
thrash heavy metal quintet has been quite open to change and trying new things. For starters, let's take a cursory glance at the evolutionary trajectory of the band's discography — moving from the out-and-out thrash of Kill 'em All, the more refined masterpieces of mega-musicianship that were Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets to the experimental and contemplative nature of ...And Justice for All, the radio-friendliness of the eponymous album, the country music-friendliness of Load and ReLoad and the stripped-down nature of St Anger.
This willingness to adapt — whether to artistic whims or market whims — did give birth to such ill-advised experiments as Lulu, but it also sets Metallica apart from the likes of Slayer and AC/DC that appear to be content putting out the same album year after year after year. But it's not only in terms of musical style that this willingness to evolve is evident. Just look at the band's changing hairstyles and its changing views on sharing music online and even its views on alcohol over the years.
That brings us neatly to Hardwired — the first single and title track off the band's upcoming 10th studio album Hardwired... To Self-Destruct, scheduled for a November release.
— Metallica (@Metallica) August 19, 2016
The first thing that catches the eye isn't even the artsy and very un-Metallica cover image or the fact that it pales in comparison to the elaborate album covers we are used to seeing from this band, but the new logo. They say that 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' and that adage is very appropriate when discussing the Metallica logo. Classic, clean, powerful and memorable in equal measure, in its original iteration, the logo underwent several cosmetic changes over the band's first two decades, but these were by-and-large, small and adherent to the original aesthetic of the design.
Then came the failed experiment that was the St Anger logo (and this time, I'm not taking potshots at the music):
Designed, presumably, to depict the attitude of the band — frothing at the mouth, gnashing and gurning with anger, it ended up looking like an endeavour to create a logo that was similar to those spiky and almost illegible logos favoured by bands of the death metal persuasion. Somewhere along the way, though, it appears the designers gave up on the exercise midway and went off to have a sandwich. Fortunately, the band — or its design team, at the very least — came to its senses and reverted to the crisp 'normal' logo. And all was well with the world.
The logo accompanying Hardwired... To Self-Destruct is also a bold departure from tradition, with its glitchy look:
While it's probably designed with a view to aligning with the theme of the upcoming album, it could also represent the mood of a band in transition — one foot in the past and one in the future.
This mood is perfectly replicated on the track Hardwired.
Kicking off with a riff that's quintessentially Metallica and showing off fast aggressive drums, it sounds like the sort of opening track that's comparable with other album openers Hit the Lights, Battery, Fight Fire with Fire and Fuel — all genuinely smack-the-ball-out-of-the-park tracks — in terms of setting the agenda for what is to follow. I use the word 'comparable' with some caution, because while Hardwired is up there with those aforementioned tracks in terms of energy — so too was Frantic — it's also deeply flawed — once again, just like Frantic.
At 3:18, it would be ridiculous to expect an intricate exploration of sound, but it's not unfair to expect a song. A song with some semblance of structure.
Don't get me wrong, I think the move to use one dominant riff throughout the track is a great idea. Metallica tracks from the 1980s and early 1990s were perhaps guilty of trying to squeeze too many riffs into one track, leaving it creaking under the immense weight of all its parts. So, keeping it simple is absolutely fine. But in this case, it feels more like a case of one riff — that turns less and less memorable everytime you hear it — played over and over again, with a teenie-weenie guitar solo thrown in for good measure.
But it's not all guitars and drums. There's also the small matter of James Hetfield. His snarling vocals — the monstrous power of which has understandably waned over the decades — resemble the growl of an aging lion: Still the alpha male of his pride, but slowing down every so slightly with every passing day. But on this track, liberally strewn with invective lines about technological dependence, Hetfield shows he's still got it. So, it's not how he's singing that's a problem. It's what he's singing that is deeply problematic.
Sophomoric lines like "We’re so f**ked; Sh*t outta luck; Hardwired to self-destruct" are beyond cringe-worthy. In fact, they do a great job of kicking you out of the track just as you're getting into it. Think of it as the aural equivalent of biting into a bhoot jolokia chili that made its way into your bowl of strawberry ice cream. Horribly jarring! The 'one foot in the past and one foot in the future' notion comes into sharp relief at this stage: The music and indeed, production (makes the awful din of St Anger seem like no more than a bad dream) on this track is a throwback to the past, but the lyrics are very 21st Century, channeling the "Frantic-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tock" of Frantic.
Slight digression: We discussed barnstorming album openers earlier in this piece. Frantic falls unequivocally into the category of distinctly un-barnstorming album openers.
Moving from audio to visual, and the video for Hardwired also represents a departure from the 'Metallica way' of doing things. Whether One or I Disappear or even The Day that Never Comes, Turn the Page and that abysmal car-crash that was Frantic (interesting sidenote: The video actually depicts a car-crash), Metallica music videos have traditionally (and almost without exception) been expansive, big-budget affairs. They were like mini-films of a sort, telling some sort of story. Hardwired, on the other hand, is a minimalist video that could have been shot anywhere. Dimly-lit and replete with strobe, the video appears to depict the band just jamming in a small box. But, like the new logo, it seems to reflect the mindset of a band in transition — unsure of where to go next; clinging to the garage roots of the past but trying to move away from the way Metallica videos were made in the past.
And now, back to the query raised at the very start: The verdict.
Were it being released as a standalone, Hardwired would go down as a decidedly mediocre track with few redeeming moments. The dominant riff — powerful, no doubt — is not particularly memorable and under 30 minutes since listening to the track on loop a fair few times, I'm having a bit of difficulty remembering it. As the title track for an upcoming album though, it's a decent appetiser that gives some idea of what to expect from the LP. As long as expectations are kept in check, 18 November may well see Messrs Hetfield, Trujillo, (Lars) Ulrich and (Kirk) Hammett drop what could be a very good Metallica album.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
On a serious note though, the video should really be accompanied by an epilepsy warning.
But in the absence of such a disclaimer, consider this your warning.