(Written on 11/18/16, for next-day publication.)
Metallica released their newest album, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct today. I listened to it while doing solitary work at the office. I also resumed my listening to my partially started indulgence in another band’s recent release: Thank You Scientist’s 2016 release Stranger Heads Prevail. It is my goal to review these two albums simultaneously, which I hope will make sense by the time I conclude.
Metallica’s release is a return to old and old-ish (i.e. almost a decade old) styles; one hears elements from tunes such as “Whiplash”, “Blackened”, and “Cyanide”. There is little new content; at times I felt myself humming the vocals and tapping the rhythm guitar parts to past songs of theirs such as “Damage, Inc.”. There are some unique features that enhance color, such as metric modulations and (gasp!) dominant seventh chords, but overall this is very much a gray-scale, black-and-white album with flashes of color–oh: and that’s what their album cover happens to look like.
Has Metallica run out of new ideas?
I love Thank You Scientist; I still have a copy of their first album lying around. Yet, when I heard their new release, it seemed like a rehashing of the same material. The album opens with a prologue, much like their first album. The second track jumps right in, hitting the ground running, with a processed/compressed vocal part before the mix explodes. Wait. That’s how the last track of their debut album began. Once I hit the fourth track “Mr. Invisible”, which has subdued and jazz soloing and instrumental parts like the first album’s “Suspicious Waveforms”, I almost threw in the towel. Something seemed off.
Metallica’s release is almost devoid of counterpoint, richness, fullness of tone. Most guitar tones are harsh or edgy, and that’s great for fitting in with bands such as Lamb of God and Gojira, but they seem to have modernized their sound a little too much. The overwhelming homophony kills any sense of harmony and counterpoint, and the cliche lyrics and awkward, repeating phrases and rhymes raise the “cheeseball” level to new heights. At least the recording quality and production are flawless. Yet, the more I listened, the more I wanted to throw my headphones on the table.
The more I listened to Thank You Scientist, the more I realized that I had been viewing them through their old history, as I had with Metallica. The difference here with Thank You Scientist, is that the more the album progresses, the more diverse, experimental, different from their history, and out of their comfort zone they get. Their mix, like Metallica’s, gets dry at times, but there is contrast with more fuller sounds that make the contrasts in the album gratifying. I realize that with this album they are creating a rock without a tonal center that is more through-composed than typical rock, more busy and scattered in concept than typical, and more like a show in an album than a studio album. Admittedly, some of their themes and chords in this album seem not to follow, and they could do more with less thematic material, rather than constantly inventing new material. And, they continue to bash us over the head with their chops, and sometimes it is artful, but sometimes I want to say, “yes, you do indeed play better than I ever could, and I realize that”.
Overall, Metallica’s release is a return to an old style that, upon revisit and modernization, is bland, and repetitive. Thank You Scientist seems to inadvertently have returned to their past album, perhaps because they bore it all in the first album; perhaps because they love the specific balance of musical influences, tones, and forms they frequent; perhaps because they don’t have anything left in their creative world at this time (I hope not); perhaps because they don’t quite understand quite yet how everything aligns in their music (not that every single thing they do has to be done with complete understanding–I am an advocate that one should always have a part of one’s music where one has no clue what one is doing–honestly). The point is, Metallica knows better than to re-issue hackneyed phrases in a new release. Thank You Scientist is still experimenting, and growing, and I’m not saying that just because they are young. They may not be squared up artistically with where their chops put them, but they are creating a progressive rock that is freeform and atonal–consonant, enjoyable, inviting, and competent atonal music, and it keeps one’s attention. They have a lot of learning to do, but overall, I would rather listen to Thank You Scientist’s album, and not just because Metallica’s album is dismal, but because TYS has promise, potential, and forward motion, even if they lack thematic focus at times. Overall, TYS is bringing more color to today’s scene, and I’m afraid Metallica is “fading to black”.