St. Anger aims to be Metallica's rebirth, the reclaiming of its throne. The group's members enthusiastically report that this record is the hardest, heaviest thing they've ever done. That it's going to kick everyone's ass and regain all the cred the band has spent a decade or so throwing away. That it's the new Ride the Lightning. They really said that. No, really.
St. Anger is definitely the noisiest, ugliest record Metallica has ever made. It scrapes and slams and crunches and screeches. Lars Ulrich's drums crash like empty barrels whacked with steel rods. James Hetfield's guitar chops the air with the fury of a prizefighter. (Kirk Hammett's guitar, by contrast, is apparently sitting in Jason Newsted's garage -- there's not one solo anywhere on this album.) The vocals are sometimes distorted, Ministry-style; other times, though, Hetfield's voice cracks as he strains for long-lost notes.
The mix is punishing. Too often, the guitars and drums blend into a wall of raw noise. Sitting and listening to this record (under the gimlet eye of a surly, paranoid publicist -- Ulrich's hatred of the Internet forbade mailing advance copies to critics) isn't cathartic the way the old albums were. It's painful. Eventually, you start wanting to escape, to run from the noise and let a different room's empty, silent air caress your eardrums.
And make no mistake, St. Anger is big: 11 songs, 75 minutes. Many tracks approach the nine-minute mark, bloated with extra choruses, false endings and tacked-on final sprints. There are false beginnings, too -- the fourth track, "Dirty Window," opens with a huge, doomy riff, but it's abandoned almost immediately in favor of the one that actually anchors the song. Four minutes in, another riff is announced. And don't forget the pre-chorus, all soft percussion and crooned vocals. The whole hideous mess is patched together with the Pro Tools equivalent of staples and Scotch tape.
But let's start at the beginning. "Frantic," the album opener the band previewed on its MTV Icon special, encapsulates everything wrong with its new music. Announcing itself with a hard, slashing guitar tantrum, it suddenly stops, leaving behind a six-note bass figure that repeats twice. Every time the song roars to life, the bass figure crashes it again. The trouble is, the riff is a good one. It's loud and mean, and it makes your heart jump in your chest -- but the bass part is flaccid. It's not a crescendo or even a fanfare; it's just six notes that sit there while the band rests up for the next fast part. It drains away all the momentum.
The best song is "Sweet Amber." A swampy slide guitar introduces the hardest thrash riff on the disc. Four minutes in, it gets "Battery" fast, but the vocal is sung at half-speed. It's a great juxtaposition. And unlike the rest of the disc, the lyrics aren't embarrassing.
For the most part, St. Anger is a solipsistic wallow in James Hetfield's pain. The songs are full of self-pitying therapy clichés -- My lifestyle determines my deathstyle and, from the title track, I don't want my anger to be me. What's he talking about? Hetfield's anger was half of what made Metallica great. These new songs make Henry Rollins seem profound by comparison.
The old Metallica was as fast and as riff-happy as Exodus, Anthrax and Slayer, but its sound was clean, gleaming like razor wire. St. Anger is coated in all the digitally simulated grime millions of dollars can buy -- the trash-can drums and tinfoil cymbals are the worst of it. Nothing here sounds like it came through an amp. All the fine-tuning that once kept the Metallica machine street-legal is gone, replaced with stolen Helmet riffs and lyrics that sound cowritten with Hetfield's AA sponsor.
St. Anger introduces the fourth version of Metallica. There was the Metallica that took thrash metal aboveground, from Kill 'Em All through ... And Justice For All; the Metallica that got arena- and radio-friendly for the Black Album; the Metallica that embraced boogie-rock and Marianne Faithful on Load and Reload; and now, here's this Lazarus Metallica, which wants to be hard and heavy again, like in the old days. But that was a long time ago -- and its members were pretty drunk. Metal's gotten faster, harder and grittier in its absence, and the new, middle-aged Metallica can't compete.
Deep down, they probably know it. On MTV, the only group member worth watching was new bassist Robert Trujillo. Of course he's excited. To him, it's all new music. To his three bandmates, though, being Metallica might be starting to feel like more trouble than it's worth. That's how St. Anger sounds: resigned and more than a little self-doubting. They're dressing up in old, ill-fitting clothes and hoping metal fans won't be able to tell the difference. We can.