On their upcoming St. Anger, Metallica have settled for living in the past — and odds are fans are going to be perfectly happy with that.
Gone are the radio ballads, straightforward rock anthems, string-laden exorcisms and alternative experiments that many fans felt bogged down the band's music in recent years. On St. Anger, the band resurrects the primal power, musical self-indulgence, whiplash-inducing tempos and red-eyed rage of their first three albums, 1983's Kill 'Em All, 1984's Ride the Lightning and 1986's Master of Puppets (see "Metallica To Give Rock And Roll A Good Thrashing").
The band's last two studio LPs — Load (1996) and Reload (1997) — were written at a time when alternative and grunge were still prevalent, and both were laced with Southern boogie groove, country-rock textures, bluesy experimentation and melodic ballads, abandoning the trademark force that made Metallica the world's preeminent metal band.
Since then, the bandmembers haven't exactly been prolific. They've toured, released the B-sides and covers album Garage Inc. and a live double disc with the backing of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, S&M.
But there's been little new material, as Metallica spent more time in the courtroom than the studio, filing lawsuits against companies that infringed their trademark, including file-sharing service Napster, Victoria Secret, a tuxedo company and a wheel company. Metallica may have won their legal battles, but their vehemence made them appear greedy to some. Top that off with the January 2001 departure of bassist Jason Newsted (see "Bassist Jason Newsted Leaves Metallica") and frontman James Hetfield's stint in rehab (see "Metallica's James Hetfield Speaks From Rehab"), and it looked like the masters of metal had slipped off the rails.
With St. Anger, Metallica have firmly re-established their footing and recaptured the heavy metal throne at a time when bone-crunching rock is becoming stagnant. All 11 songs on St. Anger are brutal and uncompromising, featuring double-bass drumming and hardcore blast beats, roaring blowtorch guitars and multiple rhythm and tempo shifts. Most are at least seven minutes long; right when you think the guys are building up to a climax, they shift into a completely new rhythm. Not one track features a guitar solo, yet there's no lack of dizzying sonic firepower.
At the same time, Metallica incorporate numerous flowing melodies and engaging vocal harmonies between crushing grooves and chugging, staccato rhythms. "Shoot Me Again" blends Alice in Chains-style atmospherics with savage, percussive grind, and "Dirty Window" seesaws between another speedy firestorm rhythm and a textural, undistorted passage that sounds a little like Tom Waits.
Throughout the disc, Hetfield sounds consumed by fury and on the verge of insanity as he rails about the horror of denial, the pain of self-doubt and his need for control. Many of the lyrics seem to address his battles with the bottle and drugs. On the tornado-swirl opener, "Frantic," he screams, "My lifestyle determines my death style," and on "Sweet Amber," a track fueled by stop-start rhythms and sludgy guitars, he howls, "She deals in habits/ Deals in pain/ Run away, then I'm back again."
Bob Rock's production on St. Anger matches the album's desperate, intense vibe. The man who gave the group such a commercial sheen on their best selling disc, 1991's Metallica, keeps things dirty and raw. Not only does the disc capture the urgency of St. Anger's creation, it sometimes sounds like it was recorded during a colossal jam session in a garage. The drums have a tinny ring, the guitars a vicious echo and sometimes Hetfield's voice sounds a tad unpolished.
As Metallica were working on St. Anger, they clearly felt like they had something to prove. "I hurt inside/ I hide inside, but I'll show you," Hetfield sings on "Invisible." That conviction provided incentive to — as Hetfield so eloquently puts it on "All Within My Hands" — "Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill."
Avril Lavigne, Korn, Limp Bizkit Sum 41 will salute Metallica on "mtvICON: Metallica," airing May 6 at 9 p.m. ET/PT (see "Avril, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Sum 41 Set For 'mtvICON: Metallica'").