Album: Hardwired… to Self-Destruct
Released: November 18th, 2016
Highlights: Hardwired, Moth Into Flame, Halo on Fire, Spit Out the Bone
The long interval between releases that is so vividly present in the modern music industry may make one think eight years is not a long time. During that timespan, though, The Beatles went from conquering the United States through their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show to being two years removed from their breakup as a band; that is, eight years is quite a bit. For Metallica, however, eight years was the time it took for the group to coin the successor to “Death Magnetic”, the 2008 album that was seen by some as a spark of light in the wake of the disaster that was “St. Anger”. To those expecting “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” to conclude that crescendo by bringing full redemption to these veterans, as if the energetic angry young men that produced the four records that wrote the book on thrash metal back in the early 80s were capable of emerging from the older shells that now wrap them, the album will fall short; to anyone simply looking for a solid collection of heavy tracks, it will perfectly fit the bill.
Proving James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Robert Trujillo are fully aware of the context that surrounds the release, “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” rocks with vengeance in its eyes, showing that a band this successful can carry a chip on its shoulder. Many of the record’s tracks easily rank as the roughest and most aggressive pieces of music Metallica has recorded since the final song from 1988’s “…And Justice for All”. “Hardwired”, the opener, channels the aura of “Kill ‘Em All” in three brief minutes, embracing the formula of brutal riffs and catchy hooks that drove the band to stardom; whereas the closer, “Spit Out the Bone”, does the same via a more considerable length, traveling through multiple sections and demanding that listeners raise the volume of their speakers. At the other end of the spectrum, tunes such as “Now That We’re Dead” and “Halo on Fire” revisit the mid-tempo guitar crunches that populated “Load” and “Reload”, albeit – to the relief of millions of fans – with much stronger songwriting as far as riffs and melodies are concerned.
For all the accolades it rightfully earns as an album that seamlessly connects the unfiltered rage of Metallica’s early years with the friendlier material of the midway point of their career, “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” falls short of pure success. Firstly because it feels bloated, an issue that has plagued all of the band’s works since “Load”. The twelve songs, two albums, and seventy-seven minutes of music are too much. Part of the material could have been easily cut, as the second record does not live up to the greatness set by the first; and some songs could have been made shorter, as they meander through grooves that lose their appeal after a while. Secondly because the lyrics are thematically repetitive and range from poor-to-average, dealing with the usual subjects touched upon by metal (anger, anguish, and other mental disturbances) without enough creativity to stop them from coming off as satirical. Finally, because Kirk Hammett’s performance is inconsistent, as he alternates great solos with poor ones, showing that the first-solo-best-solo approach he took to “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” did not yield many benefits.
Those issues, however, are drowned by the overwhelming fire that lies within “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct”. Metallica has not sounded this inspired in twenty-five years, and gems like “Moth Into Flame” and “Atlas, Rise!” show that, even though they are not as good as they were in their heyday, they deserve being the most respected and important metal band in the world. The thirty-three years that have passed since they debuted are indeed a lot – it is at least four times longer than The Beatles’ journey from Ed Sullivan to retirement – and the group has inevitably changed. They are, however, still around and rocking spectacularly; we should all be thankful.
Album: Blue & Lonesome
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Released: December 2nd, 2016
Highlights: Just Your Fool, Commit a Crime, Everybody Knows About My Good Thing, Hoo Doo Blues
Out of all rock bands that have flirted with blues, either those from the early days of rock music or contemporary acts that drench themselves in nostalgia, no group has done it better than The Rolling Stones. Maybe it is due to the fact Jagger and Richards ate records of American black music for breakfast when they were younger; maybe it is because Richards’ feeling-based guitar playing is a perfect fit for the raw emotion that carries the genre; or maybe such talent was polished to razor-sharp lengths as the band began its career by unleashing a sequence of albums composed mostly of covers. Most likely, though, The Rolling Stones’ mastery of the genre is the result of a combination of factors that have turned this rock and roll entity not only into the biggest channel to the modern world for the black singer-songwriters who crawled from the outskirts of Mississippi, but also into the main gateway youngsters of many distinct generations have used into that realm. Certainly aware their historic run is coming to a close, and probably conscious of the huge debt they owe to blues musicians, The Rolling Stones pay, in “Blue & Lonesome”, their final homage to their musical forefathers.
Given “Blue & Lonesome” was reportedly recorded as the band was warming up in the studio, the album will likely not be The Rolling Stones’ last effort. Nevertheless, it serves as some sort of bookend to their illustrious journey, being a grizzled counterpart to the LPs that introduced the world to the quintet of white British boys that fearlessly tackled R&B classics. Differently from those records, though, which embraced a myriad of genres inside that branch of the tree of American music, “Blue & Lonesome” gravitates solely around blues: more specifically, its urban Chicago-based variation. By looking back on this old songbook, and by doing so inside such a loose environment, The Rolling Stones find youth: it is clear, throughout all the twelve tracks that form this collection, that the boys are having a blast; they had not sounded this energetic and natural since 1972’s “Exile on Main Street”, and they had not released something as consistent since 1981’s “Tattoo You”.
“Blue & Lonesome” lands like a victory of passion. It is guts over brains; instinct over calculation; and feeling over meticulousness. Richards and Wood, always smiling onstage with their guitars in hand, take that vibe straight into the studio, as they lay down solid grooves over which they deliver am impressive amount of licks – whether by themselves or with a little help from Eric Clapton, who shows up in two of the record’s cuts. Meanwhile, Watts swings and pounds on his drum kit like the master of rhythm he has always been; and Jagger proves that while age may have reduced his ability as a vocalist (he is human, it seems), time has eroded neither his capacity to convey emotion, as he adds power to these tunes, nor his terrific harmonica playing, which has never been in evidence as much as it is here.
Time, in fact, seems to have greatly benefited The Rolling Stones when it comes to playing blues. Although “Blue & Lonesome” may not carry the variety and the adventurousness of the band’s cover records of the 60s, it comes off as more confident and firm. Jagger and Richards may be decades away from their peak as songwriters, even if 2005’s “A Bigger Bang” was a worthy effort by what was then a quartet of sexagenarians, but as they live into their seventies they produce yet another masterpiece made up of covers. It is hard to imagine a band as gigantic as The Rolling Stones could have anything left to prove at this stage in its career, but “Blue & Lonesome” does send a message to a horde of critics that sees the group as a walking museum piece. The Rolling Stones show they still have fuel to burn. Perhaps now, at last, they are indeed out of things to prove and thresholds of greatness to reach. If this is a final bow, then it is a pretty fantastic one.
Album: Unknown Pleasures
Artist: Joy Division
Released: June 15th, 1979
Highlights: Disorder, New Dawn Fades, She’s Lost Control, Shadowplay
The fact that Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s vocalist, hanged himself in his kitchen at the tender age of twenty-three, less than one year after the release of “Unknown Pleasures”, makes it hard not to look at the record as some sort of statement – or maybe a cry for help – from a tortured soul. Curtis, after all, suffered from both depression and epilepsy, the latter of which often attacked his body in the middle of live performances, something that he frequently, and darkly, satirized by performing sudden violent movements on the stage. However, despite the strong association that exists between such issues and Joy Division’s two records, “Unknown Pleasures” is still quite haunting if analyzed out of that context, for few albums in the history of rock music manage to be so consistently ominous.
The first element behind that attribute is the production work of Martin Hannett. Formed by Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, which greatly admired the simplicity and rawness of the Sex Pistols, Joy Division was a band that, outside the studio, existed inside the aggressive edge of the post-punk movement. Hannet, however, perhaps spotting the gloominess that lied within the group’s music, boldly built a sparse soundscape and locked the quartet inside it. “Unknown Pleasures” is executed in the sparsity of a bleak vacuum; its sounds expand and reverberate inside a cave whose walls cannot be seen, making it simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic. Echoes and distant unusual sound effects – such as a glass shattering – pop up out of nowhere, creating an atmosphere in which comfort does not exist. It is quite possible to dislike the inbred slow-paced monotony of “Unknown Pleasures”; staying indifferent to it, though, is inconceivable.
In mood, “Unknown Pleasures” is indeed far removed from the punk waves that propelled Joy Division. In terms of execution and composition, though, the album embodies the movement’s motto of stripping rock to its basics; the difference is that the bare-bones songwriting tackled by the band is rather distinct from that of its forefathers. The riffs come not from the guitar of Bernard Sumner, but from the bass of Peter Hook, which is – with one or two exceptions – the lead instrument of all tracks, providing not only the hooks but also some of the greatest bass lines ever put on record. Accompanied by the drums of Stephen Morris, those riffs make the songs sound almost tribal, as if the group were trying to tap into the most contorted depths of the human soul by providing a musical link to our primitive selves. The guitar, then, punctually comes to the forefront to deliver remarkable lines, which range from jangly pop to brutally raw, that serve to ornate the atmosphere, adding aggressive and threatening touches to it.
The final ingredient of “Unknown Pleasures” is Curtis himself, who stands on top of that web expressing his pain, confusion, and anger with a vocal approach that is somewhat lost and distant, as if he were aimlessly floating inside Hannett’s vacuum looking for answers he knew he would never find, not in this realm at least. In that sense, “Unknown Pleasures” fits nicely within the chaotic shouts of punk, as it expresses much of the same breed of despair. However, its more introspective and hopeless demeanor, and its sparse atmospheric sound, paved the way to hordes of Gothic and post-punk bands that used its sound as a sacred blueprint, and connected to millions of depressed teenagers and young adults. It spoke to a generation that, up to that point, did not have a voice, and it is no wonder it has remained so influential and relevant.
Artist: The Replacements
Released: October 16th, 1985
Highlights: Hold My Life, I’ll Buy, Left of the Dial, Here Comes a Regular
For most great alternative rock bands, there comes a time when the bigwigs of the major music labels come knocking on the door. It is a pivotal moment that usually sees those groups trying to juggle the expectations of their established fanbase, who look at their idols as bastions of rebellion and integrity, with the members’ natural urge to speak to a wider audience. For The Replacements, that moment came as they geared up towards “Tim”, their fourth album. As a band that was often way too drunk to perform live shows properly, it is surprising The Replacements got their chance at all; conversely, given their spectacular third album, “Let It Be”, was simply way too good to be ignored by executives and investors, such turn of events could as easily be classified as expected.
For a group always so careless and driven by sheer gut instinct – if said gut has been recently drenched in alcohol – the choice of Tommy Ramone as the record’s producer is astonishingly calculated. It is a letter by Paul Westerberg to his followers – misunderstood outcasts who, like him, lived on the fringes of life – telling them that even though the band had to share a few meals with those who control the system, their hearts remained wild and punk. Truthfully, Tommy does, to a certain point, polish up the edges of The Replacements’ sound: “Tim” is a spacious album full of reverb, making it miles removed from the garage aura of the bands’ first two works. However, Paul Westerberg is just too witty and Bob Stinson too true to their underground origins to let The Replacements come off as controlled, focused, or restrained. “Tim” ends up being a smart kind of rebel; one that instead of sabotaging itself to make a point, opts to sneak its powerful statements past the radar of those it wants to show up.
Packing such a display of intelligence in eleven tracks and thirty-six minutes would already be enough to propel “Tim” to the upper echelons of music. Yet, it is Paul Westerberg’s songwriting that emerges as the album’s highlight. Not overwhelmed by the larger stage that was given to him, Westerberg gets intimate with his audience of misfits. He does so by proclaiming “Hold my life until I’m ready to use it / Hold my life because I just might lose it” in the unsafe roller coaster that is the chorus of the opening track; by channeling the anxiety, awkwardness, and despair of teenage love through just five words “Your tongue, your transfer, your hand, your answer” in “Kiss Me on the Bus”; and by building an anthem to all neglected renegades in “Bastards of Young”. All the while, musically, he is brilliantly drinking from rockabilly (“Waitress in the Sky”), Chuck Berry’s guitar licks (“I’ll Buy”), jazz (“Swinging Party”), hard rock (“Lay It Down Clown”), and even acoustic balladry (“Here Comes a Regular”), proving that The Replacements can infuse any genre with their loose demeanor and, consequently, turn it into something other losers could identify with.
Nowhere is the power and importance of The Replacements better exposed than in “Tim”, and no track in it conveys that idea as masterfully as “Left of the Dial”. Its title, a reference to the position of college and underground stations on the radio dial, and its closing verses, “And if I don’t see ya, in a long, long while / I’ll try to find you / Left of the dial”, are a comforting reminder that through all hardships we may endure, our favorite songs – be it by The Replacements themselves or by anyone else – will always be right there where they have always been. Neither “Tim” nor The Replacements ever made it as big as they should have. And while it is sad Westerberg and the band never got their well-deserved dues, it is nevertheless reassuring to know that the few outcast hearts beating out there that end up coming across The Replacements will feel accepted and understood. The Replacements will never jump to the mainstream. They were born left of the dial, and that is where they will always be; the misfits will know where to find them.