Eight years after their last album, the members of the world's biggest metal band stop in for a check-up. Well, how are they?
JAMES HETFIELD. Quite a singer and still improving, Hetfield is sensitive enough to croon Deep Purple's "When a Blind Man Cries" and not make you miss Ian Gillan; he howls strong on the angry stuff, too. The words remain death-obsessed, of course -- what the hell, it's a living. On guitar, his buzz-picked rhythm work saws more viciously than ever. Much of his songwriting feels manufactured, but he's always had that proggy overachiever side. (Check "Am I Savage?": How many composers would bother ripping off the climbing slow riff from Procol Harum's "Whaling Stories"?) The '80s fans always wanna hear Het heat up the thrash, and they get plenty of oompah -- "Spit Out the Bone" stands out -- with real vigah behind it. Me, I think midtempo stompers like "Here Comes Revenge" sound realer than thrash coming from a mature f*ck, and you can't deny the craft of a ballad like "Halo on Fire."
LARS ULRICH. Lars ignores the low ratings he gets from fellow drummers and unfailingly rocks the greater populace. Metallica's deep appreciation for music history drove them away from the closet of Thrash Purity and into the ears of millions, sparked by a talkative li'l dude who bashes away like he loves it and owns enough technique to negotiate intimidating tempo shifts. I'm about the only fan who dug his trashcan snare sound on "St. Anger," but he should jettison the last two albums' flinch-inducing kick-drum snap.
KIRK HAMMETT. Having lost the phone with all his new riffs on it, and therefore contributing no tunes, Hammett settles down to listening. The result is his most inflected playing, like the delicate single-string intro to the Frankensteinian "ManUNkind," some gleeful solo kicks on the wah pedal, and lots of rich-toned, contoured legato lines. Yeah, he does still twiddle mindlessly sometimes.
ROBERT TRUJILLO. There's one obvious answer to the question of why a man with Trujillo's skills joined a band where the bassist is squashed into frequencies of the mix that only blue whales can hear. Lucky he can count on lengthy Metallica hiatuses to mess around with Mass Mental or Joe Holmes' Farmikos.
GREG FIDELMAN. As engineer and de facto producer of Metallica's last two albums, Fidelman has made listening to the band resemble eating a takeout sandwich without taking off the wrapper. You're separated. There's clarity but faint warmth. It's loud without vibration. Metallica got their emotion shrink-wrapped. Again.
THE BABY. Metallica and the rest of humanity may be programmed to self-destruct, but experience shows we like ourselves enough to procure a long fuse, and this band doesn't build fragile houses. "Hardwired" feels monochromatic? Put the special edition on random play to sift in the nine live songs, which jump with primal energy. Don't like the sonic blend? Twist those knobs. Tempted to retreat to your old copies of "Kill 'Em All," "Master of Puppets" and "Metallica"? Sure, but keep "Hardwired" around. Prognosis: It will outlast you.