Saturday, November 19, 2016

I'm glad it exists: "Criticism," fandom and Metallica's 'Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct'

For the benefit of those existing outside the bubble of "arts media," there is a strange set of phenomena that arrive when a major artist/band/director/etc. with a considerably lengthy career and extensive body of work unveils a new album/movie/etc., especially now, in the post-Twitter age. Some or all of these things happen, within days and even hours of the new work being made available:

1) Many line up on one side to breathlessly praise the new work, inevitably hailing it as said artist's "best since [insert title of canonical work by said artist]" or otherwise implying that is on some level a return to bygone glory.

2) An opposite faction stands skeptically aloof, refusing to engage with a new statement from a once-great artist who, they feel, is now past his/her/its prime.

3) One whose job it is to engage with the medium in question — and who, thus, exists within the online-centric micro-community of fellow commentators — feels compelled to form a more or less immediate, handily expressible opinion on the new work, and to gravitate almost inevitably toward the attitude of either of the aforementioned stances.

If all this sounds a bit absurd, and absurdly beside the point when it comes to the basic function of art, which is some combination of enrichment, enjoyment and escape, that's because it is. And it bums me out each time. Sometimes I get swept up in the rush and succumb to the temptation to Weigh In in some definitive way, and almost inevitably end up feeling stupid.

What I'm always looking for is a way to enjoy music and to respond to it without getting caught up in the Right and Wrong binary, or the compulsion — now that everyone's so continually distracted that only extreme, even reactionary opinions make an impression online — to frame it in some grand or provocative terms. Maybe that's why I favor the fundamentally casual, essentially first-person medium of blogging. There's no implication of Correctness here, just thinking out loud.

In that spirit, here are some things I think about the new Metallica album. (And/or that I think about when I think about the new Metallica album.)

(Note: I would strongly discourage you from watching this terrible, terrible music video. Just listen to the song.)

1) My basic opinion about Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct is that it is pretty good. Not exactly a headline-maker there! But that's where I'm at with it right now, after about two full, attentive listens and a few piecemeal spins. I think the album contains two truly great songs ("Moth Into Flame," "Spit Out the Bone") that anyone who has ever had even a remote interest in this band, or heavy metal in general, ought to hear immediately if they haven't already; a few more good, effective, enjoyable songs that I, as a serious Metallica fan of going on 25 years, find myself cranking up and submitting to with relish (a.k.a. rocking the fuck out to) ("Hardwired," "Atlas, Rise!" and one or two others such as "Now That We're Dead" that are steadily growing on me); and a fair amount of lesser tracks ("Am I Savage," "ManUNkind," "Murder One," etc.), which I either find boring, meandering or just sort of awkward and unmemorable.

Update, 11/20/16: Only digging this record more the more I play it. Little details and hidden moments coming to the fore, e.g. the amazing, epic bridge riff at around 5:10 in "Halo on Fire." "Confusion" also joining ranks of standout Hardwired songs.

2) I've heard a fair amount of that aforementioned "return to form" talk going around re: this album, and I'll admit that it's been bugging me a bit, for a few reasons. First is that I feel like much of the commentary I've read on Hardwired thus far seems to simply ignore 2008's Death Magnetic, Metallica's very good prior album. I revisited that album yesterday, and though I still can't overlook its obvious weak points (namely the ponderous ballads "The Day That Never Comes" and "The Unforgiven III"), I think that it's a more consistent record than Hardwired. It's also heavy, raw and, in spots, crazily complex. It's a fascinatingly dense album that I'm still finding new wonder in. (With time, of course, maybe it will be the same with Hardwired.) What I mean to say is that if you're the type to go in for the "return to form" narrative, and you're positioning Hardwired as Metallica's return to thrash glory after the wilderness years of Load/Reload (or even the Black Album, depending on your viewpoint), St. Anger, Lulu, etc., you might want to go back and take stock of what Death Magnetic had/has to offer. (Pardon the formatting when you follow this link, but here's my review of that album from back in '08.)

3) A related issue is this whole idea that a legacy band's mature/late work is only measurable in terms of its resemblance to its "classic"/canonical work. This is not only a reductive and myopic way to look at art; it's also a blatant sort of killjoy rubric, often inflicted upon one's self. Yes, Metallica made a series of titanically great, era- and genre-defining albums in the '80s. Records like Master of Puppets, ...And Justice for All and in a different way the Black Album (which was my gateway drug into this whole thing we call metal) helped me establish my personal paradigm for what a certain kind of epic, transportive "heavy" music ought to strive for. They set, in other words, an extremely high bar.

By the time of, say, Death Magnetic, Metallica was no longer, clearly, a band at the vanguard of metal, or of anything, really. The year 2008 was no longer Metallica's Time; in fact, many would've argued that that Time had been up since 2003 or 1997 or even 1991. And when I say Time, I mean that shining era in the lifespan of any truly great band where their abilities and ambitions line up exactly with fan enthusiasm, general stylistic trends and (maybe, though not at all essentially) critical tastes. This is obviously a much smaller-scale example, but I'm thinking about something like the Jesus Lizard circa Liar, when a band is doing its best work, and they know it and everyone else does too and they're sort of just indisputably ruling whatever it is their sphere is at that particular moment. (Seeing the mighty Sheer Mag live last night, I felt that they were in the midst of just such a glorious moment.)

Metallica, as we all know, ruled long and strong. I don't need to quote sales figures or other stats to make that point. In 2016, Metallica still rules among its millions of fans, but the band's pop cultural footprint is greatly reduced. They're not a big part of the mainstream musical conversation (almost entirely dominated by hip-hop and related styles) — they're not, in other words, particularly Relevant — and they probably never will be again. Sure, they're still making the high-profile promo rounds, from Howard Stern to Jimmy Fallon, but what I mean to say is that it is clearly not, at this historical moment, Metallica's Time. And to compare this phase of Not Metallica's Time Metallica to Metallica's Time Metallica is just sort of pointless, like saying that the mature, well-rounded adult is somehow lacking in comparison to the brash, nothing-to-lose teenager.

So we have this concept of Late Work, of artists continuing to release long past the expiration date of Their Time. As a fan, I happen to love Late Work, because I think that what often happens is that a band, during this career phase, if they last that long, simply gets down to the business of making itself happy, and in turn making its fans happy, while dispensing entirely with tedious ideas of legacy, that part of "music appreciation" that bleeds into the critical practices of canonizing and list-making and all that ultimately irrelevant machinery.

To me, Metallica on Hardwired sounds like a happy band. They sound vigorous and engaged with the process of writing and executing Metallica songs. Although I like parts of the much-maligned St. Anger, I'm not sure if I could say the same of that album, which sounds like the work of a band trying so hard to be different, to embrace spontaneity at all costs, that they're sort of losing their collective mind. Hardwired is confident and proud even in its less thrilling moments, and when that confidence and pride align with the band's true strengths, virtuosity and innate genius (I'm thinking of the triumphant, Classic Heavy Metal leads that punctuate "Moth Into Flame" or the ferocious, headlong verses of "Spit Out the Bone"), magic happens. To be honest, I don't give a fuck how that magic compares to Master of Puppets. It's great music in the moment, and what else really matters?

The same is true of a lot of other comeback-ish albums that have emerged in recent years, from Carcass' Surgical Steel to Black Sabbath's 13 and even Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth or simply strong late-career statements like AC/DC's Rock or Bust, Iron Maiden's Book of Souls or Rush's Clockwork Angels. I of course can't speak for any other fans of these bands, but my feeling is that if you're a Carcass, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, AC/DC, Iron Maiden or Rush fan, respectively, in the sense that you simply love these bands being themselves and sounding happy and energized doing what they do and sounding like what they sound like, then you like these albums.

You also, maybe, appreciate that new chapters are being written in a given legacy. One of the reasons I'm so into Death Magnetic is that it's a very different Metallica than the one I grew up with — as opposed to this monolithic force, they sound almost, to borrow a term from the St. Anger lexicon, frantic on that album, like they're tripping over their own ideas and cramming their songs full of as much stuff as possible just for the sheer maximal joy of it. (In other words, as time goes by, they shed certain qualities, maybe even ones that contributed to their greatness in a given period, but they also gain new ones: One way to look at it is, I really love Death Magnetic, and the 1986 Metallica couldn't have made it.) And because: they're Metallica, so why the fuck not?

So what I think about Hardwired at this moment is maybe not all that relevant. Because in the end, for a Metallica fan, there's absolutely no downside to this album existing, and I think it's that principle that's too often forgotten. If you wished they'd stopped after Cliff Burton died, then so be it: Just listen to the first three albums and be happy with it, or choose whatever demarcation point you wish and stop there. All I mean to say is that for me, it's more fun to stay current when possible, to see how these legacies evolve, to see how bands shed certain core qualities while taking on new ones.

In the end, I keep coming back to the I'm Happy It Exists principle when considering an album like Hardwired. The album has already provided a week or so of listening enjoyment or, at the very least engagement, has already sparked many interesting conversations with colleagues and friends. Has already soundtracked a couple refreshing morning runs. Has already inspired a number of private "Fuck yeah" moments from me as I listen on the train. Maybe the album will grow on me; maybe it won't. But it's fucking Metallica. Now. And I'd rather focus on and relish that fact rather than spend my time measuring it against the band's back catalog like some joyless fact-checker.

Yeah, the old Metallica albums rule. No, Hardwired is not as much a part of my DNA as those albums — yet, at least. But in taking it for what it is I don't in some way turn my back on those older albums. In a way, I simply say: This band means a lot to me. They're probably always going to. I'm always going to be curious about what they're up to, and moreover, in the ways in which their inherent greatness (because whatever you want to say about a given period of their work, I think it's indisputable that they have been and still are, in some general way, a truly great band) manifests itself over time, interacts with the aging process, reflecting it honestly or defying it. Metallica have changed, a lot, but they're still here, and to me there's more reward in celebrating that fact overall than in dwelling on why what they're doing now or have done recently does or doesn't measure up. The fact is, it's different. And without saying I love every second of Hardwired, or going overboard in expressing why it's their best album since X or, on the other hand, why Metallica is dead to me now, since they put out X, I'm trying to focus on that I'm Glad It Exists principle.

As I've tried to convey on this blog many times and in many different ways, I'm not a Critic, or at least I don't think of myself that way. I'm really just trying to find a way to record my experience of music in a way that feeds back into my enjoyment of music, not puts up walls for others or for myself. Yes, I've recorded what I think of Hardwired now, just because why not, but beyond that, I'm curious what I'm going to think about Hardwired in a week, month or year, and I'm curious what other Metallica fans (and non-fans) think and will think. I'm curious what these songs will sound like live. I'm curious which of them will become new set-list staples and which will be left behind. I'm curious to read other reviews of this record. I'm curious to go back to other Metallica records, both ones I know well and ones I don't, and see how the general arc of their discography and career looks now, taking everything into account. I want to get outside this compulsion to express some Immediate Definitive Opinion about something I just heard and just let the music sink in and see how it goes.

Because, as I said before, I'm a Metallica fan. One who has experienced an ongoing lifelong musical awakening in large part because of this band, who remembers giving a speech on them in eighth-grade English class complete with hand-drawn visual aid, who remembers marveling at an early screening of Some Kind of Monster, obsessing over …And Justice for All riffs with bandmates during practice, going to their management office to hear Death Magnetic before its release, seeing them play an incredible show at Yankee Stadium (again, pardon the formatting, but the piece is there if you scroll down) as part of the Big 4. A lot of memories, a lot of time and attention and passion invested. And so what else to say about Hardwired other than "Bring it on." Just a day after its release I can't possibly say I know what it means to me yet and the great thing is that I don't have to. I'm just glad it exists.


Matt Sloan said...

Fantastic piece, Hank. Feel the same with bands that have a long life, in that I sometimes get caught up in comparing them to different eras and it diminishes the current experience.

Thanks for the Sheer Mag recommendation. Will listen.

Also, the link to your Big 4 article doesn't reach its intended destination.

Ben M. said...

I think I came here from Corbin Reiff's twitter feed. Anyway, I'm not a big metal fan, but I love thinking about music and criticism, and I really enjoyed your post. It's given me a new perspective on late-period work by my favorite bands, and just enjoying that work without worrying about how it fits into their Canon. Thanks for the food for thought.