Why the rush? Metallica unleashes its 'Anger'

June 6, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

'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.