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 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 its ability to simply burn, with paranoia as fuel.
"Frantic" sets the tone. It opens the album with an exchange between Hetfield's swarming beehive 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-bump-raising stuff of a risk taken and rewarded.
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. Hetfield has dropped the burly-man, neo-Bob Seger croon that had begun creeping into ballads such as "Mama Said" and "Unforgiven" in favor of a throat-wrenching wail.
St. Anger distills Metallica to a riot of furious drum beats, frantic riffs and soul-purging vocals. Hetfield sings the fresh-out-of-rehab blues, his life changed, but in ways that he's just beginning to comprehend. He's unsure, riled, still ticked at himself and the world, and the album reflects a blast and a blur of agitation. It feels neither meticulous nor calculated.
But the lack of refinement is also this album's greatest strength, a re-assertion of metal's essential discontent, a howl of pure paranoia.
Greg Kot is rock critic for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
St. Anger (Elektra) ***