Metallica’s ‘St. Anger’ packs a wicked punch

The prelude to “St. Anger” (Elektra), the first studio album of new Metallica songs in six years, has not been promising.

In recent years no multimillion-selling band has done more to tarnish its image. A variety of moves backfired, both trivial and telling. The erstwhile bad boys cut their hair, for some hard-core fans the equivalent of Samson getting sheared by Delilah and losing his heavy-metal powers. They sued Napster over its free file-sharing service, and came off looking like greedy rock stars. And they lost sight of the uncompromising music that once made them great, first trying to loosen up and boogie (“Load” and “Reload” in 1996-97) and then turning into the Moody Blues by recording a double-CD with a symphony orchestra (“S&M,” released in 1999).

Then the band itself started to splinter. Jason Newsted, 14-year veteran bassist, quit amid lots of name-calling, guitarist James Hetfield checked into a rehab clinic, and the squabbling got so bad that “St. Anger” was recorded under the aegis of a “performance coach” who specializes in helping sports teams learn how to get along. Metallica was starting to sound more like a made-for-TV movie than a band with a future.

But “St. Anger,” released Thursday, comes out of the box in a foul, furious mood, and doesn’t let up for 75 uncompromising minutes. The hardest-hitting Metallica album since “… And Justice for All” in 1988 is nearly devoid of melodies and new ideas. But it still packs a wicked punch, the kind of who-gives-a-bleep nastiness lacking in most new metal, let alone Metallica’s recent output. It is a reassertion not of Metallica’s skill as musicians or record-makers, but of their ability to simply burn, with paranoia as their fuel.

“Frantic,” sets the tone. It opens the album with an exchange between Hetfield’s swarming bee-hive guitar and Ulrich’s machine-gun drumming. It’s more than a minute later before Hetfield starts to sing: “If I could have my wasted days back, would I use them to get back on track?” It’s the sound of a man struggling to break free of a straitjacket: brutish, breathless, desperate, weirdly energizing because at long last something more than just record sales seems to be at stake.

The title track is more than seven minutes long, spiked by snare volleys that suggest Lars Ulrich is taking out his frustrations on a battery of oil drums. The song’s finale – two relentless minutes of Hetfield barking “I need to set my anger free” over a polyrhythmic storm – is the goose goose-bump-raising stuff of a risk taken and rewarded.

The closest kin to “St. Anger” in Metallica’s back catalogue is “Garage Days Inc.,” a raw, rushed exercise in sonic violence that was released as an EP in 1987. The new album couldn’t be further removed from the polished feel of most of the band’s “90s output with producer Bob Rock. Though Rock is again at the board for “St. Anger” (as well as manning the bass in place of the departed Newsted), the album doesn’t sound fussed-over. It’s as if the band didn’t even have time to think about fleshing out the arrangements; there are no guitar solos, and very little in the way of developed melodies.

After the missteps of recent years, Metallica’s world may never be the same. “St. Anger” is the sound of that world being shattered by a band that feels it has nothing more to lose.

(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune.

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AP-NY-06-04-03 1343EDT

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