Two Surprising Metal Albums of 2016: Dystopia and Hardwired...To Self-Destruct

Megadeth at Gods of Metal 2007
Megadeth at Gods of Metal 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In December of 2014, I wrote a post called "Atheist Revolution's Top 10 Metal Albums of 2014." I am not sure how I ended up having enough free time that year to spend most of the month listening to new metal albums. At the time, I thought I had found a new year-end tradition. I don't know what I was thinking, but I did not have nearly enough time to come up with a similar list last year. Sadly, this year was even worse in that respect. And so, the best I'm going to be able to do is tell you about a couple of pleasant surprises for 2016.

Thrash metal roared onto the scene in the early 1980s with the release of Metallica's Kill 'Em All and Slayer's Show No Mercy. Metal would never be the same. But for me, the albums from that era that made the biggest and most lasting impression were Metallica's Ride the Lighting, Slayer's Reign in Blood, Megadeth's Killing is My Business...And Business is Good!, and Anthrax's Among the Living. There were plenty of other great thrash bands, but these earned their distinction as the "Big Four."

Two of more surprising 2016 albums I have finally had the chance to hear come from two of these classic bands: Megadeth and Metallica. In this brief post, I'll share my thoughts about each of these albums.

Megadeth - Dystopia

Megadeth's Dystopia album coverI have been a fan of Megadeth since the mid-1980s. While I cannot claim to have enjoyed all of their albums (I didn't care for much of what they did between the mid-90s and mid-00s), I have been impressed with the last few. It has seemed like they have been refining their sound, connecting with their early classics without being overly confined by them. Still, Dystopia surprised me in that it was much better than I was expecting.

I heard people raving about it for most of 2016, but it wasn't until this month that I finally picked it up and gave it a good listen. All those raving about how wonderful it was were right. For the last few albums, it has seemed like the band has been getting closer and closer to recapturing that classic Megadeth sound while still managing to sound fresh. Not many bands can do that. This album, more than any, reminds me of that sound. Dave sounds angry, the guitar work is excellent, and the band is really hitting hard. The last few Megadeth albums have been good, but this one is in a different league. It also seems to fit the mood of 2016 really well even though it was released early in the year.

I do not think it is any secret that Dave Mustaine is a born again Christian, a political conservative, or a fan of Alex Jones. None of this detracts from my ability to enjoy his music, but I mention it since I know it may do so for others (e.g., all those announcing on social media that they will unfriend, unfollow, or block anyone who dares to hold different opinions).

Metallica - Hardwired...To Self-Destruct

Metallica's Hardwired...To Self-Destruct album coverThis one was another surprise, albeit for different reasons. I was a fan of Metallica until the mid-90s. Even though I have all their studio albums (except the garbage they did with Lou Reed), I despised Load, Reload, and St. Anger. I was lukewarm about Death Magnetic, but that had as much to do with the excessive audio compression of the recording than anything else. Still, Death Magnetic was the point where I gave up on Metallica and decided enough was enough. It was better than the previous three but still not what I was looking for.

I was aware that Hardwired...To Self-Destruct had been released and was receiving very positive reviews, but I decided not to bother. I'd been burned too many times, and I was done with Metallica. Then a guy a work with who has similar taste in music and whose opinion I have come to respect a great deal recently told me that he had picked it up and was very impressed. He shared my opinion of the last several albums and the disappointing trajectory of the band but insisted that I was missing out by not listening to this one. He acknowledged that there was still too much audio compression, but said that this was easily the best the band had sounded since ...And Justice For All.

As skeptical as I was, I decided to check it out. I'm glad I did. While I do not like it nearly as much as Dystopia, it is easily the best I've heard from Metallica in a long time. Although I cannot say that the improvement is consistent across the album, there are songs that really do seem like they would have been at home on ...And Justice For All. Death Magnetic was often described as an attempt by the band to revisit their early days. I can see why it would have been described that way, but it was only a partially successful attempt. Hardwired is a better attempt. But while there are songs that remind me of Justice, there are also some stinkers that would have been at home on Load or Reload too. Some of the reviews noted that one could pull 6-8 songs from this double album, drop the rest, and have a better result. I'd have to agree with that.

This is undeniably the best I have heard from Metallica since 1991. Having said that, I am confident that die-hard fans of the Kill 'Em All/Ride the Lighting/Master of Puppets glory days are still going to be disappointed. That band no longer exists, and this one is a poor substitute even though this latest album was a pleasant surprise.