'The monster lives!" James
Hetfield roars on the third track from "St. Anger," Metallica's first new
album in six years, which was rushed into stores Thursday ahead of its
scheduled release on Tuesday.
Whether we should believe Hetfield depends on which "monster" he's
growling about. If he means the giant, multiplatinum-selling conglomerate
known as Metallica Inc., he is absolutely correct, and it is proving to be
as adept at playing the music industry to its advantage as it's ever been.
The long-running Bay Area quartet has tried to turn the bitter split with
veteran bassist Jason Newsted to its advantage by spinning the story on an
MTV special. It prompted the musicians to return to their abrasive thrash
roots, they said, thereby attempting to deflect criticism from the
underground that Newsted was the real "heavy-metal soul" of the band and he
quit because he was sick of its pandering to the mainstream.
Then there's the matter of the pushed-up release date: Rather than
short-circuiting the Internet pirates, the stated reason for the change,
many in the industry view it as an attempt to goose the first-week sales and
gain an extra dose of publicity in the process, taking a lead from a number
of hip-hop artists who've recently done the same.
If the "monster" in question is the Metallica of yore--one of the
cornerstone bands of modern metal and the unrelenting powerhouse of "Ride
the Lightning" (1984) and "Master of Puppets" (1986)--well, sorry, but "The
monster lives" is not entirely accurate.
While "St. Anger" is indeed the loudest, fastest, least melodic and most
angry set of new originals since Metallica started wearing mascara and
turning toward softer, more alternative sounds with 1991's "black album," it
isn't as strong as those classics, and that isn't really saying much by the
standards of the metal underground today. That world measures the pinnacle
of high energy against Messugah, whose watered-down influence can be heard
in many of Metallica's new grooves.
"St. Anger" does nothing to change the position Metallica has held since
the early '90s: It remains the favorite metal band for people who don't
really listen to a lot of metal. The group makes an impressive noise, for
sure. But if you are a true connoisseur of metallic racket, you're going to
get a bigger, badder, louder fix elsewhere.
The album was crafted with veteran producer Bob Rock (who also filled in
on bass before the addition of Robert Trujillo), and the story is that it
benefitted from Hetfield's new status as clean and sober (the leader of the
band that formerly called itself "Alcoholica" did a long stay in rehab) and
the counseling of a therapist/"performance coach" who encouraged the
black-clad bad boys to start sharing their feelings and talking, really
talking, to one another.
Sheesh! Maybe they should have pulled out the stops and gone on "Oprah."
In between boasting of how mean and angry Metallica still is, Hetfield's
lyrics take an annoying turn toward therapy-speak: "If I could have my
wasted days back/Would I use them to get back on track?" he sings in the
opening "There Is Only One Guarantee," while the key line in the title track
is "I want my anger to be healthy." (Have you ever tried punching a pillow,
James, or taking up a hobby like pottery?)
Nobody has ever really cared about Metallica's lyrics, though. The
question is whether the band delivers a roller-coaster rush or kicks with
the fury of a jet engine.
Despite a very odd mix that buries the guitars while emphasizing
Hetfield's vocals and Lars Ulrich's busy but unremarkable drumming (listen
to Slayer if you really want to hear how speed-metal is done), "St. Anger"
does pack a wallop, and much more so than the group's last new offerings,
"Load" (1996) and "Reload" (1997), to say nothing of its absurdly indulgent
orchestral romp, "S&M" (1999).
But if it comes down to a choice of whether to invest in some really
great old-school metal (a la the recent "Led Zeppelin DVD") or to
investigate more underground sounds (like the aforementioned Messugah),
Metallica and "St. Anger" can wait.