ANGER IS A GIFT… The hype on Metallica's magnificent new album St. Anger (Elektra) is that it's a return to the band's roots. Nothing could be further from the truth. Guitar solos? Not a one on this album. The career-long quest to improve James Hetfield's singing, first with echo and then with a generally successful attempt to actually learn the craft? Out the window-Hetfield's vocals are raw and forced and where they go off key, so be it. Multiple tempo changes? Only a few, even though the songs average around seven minutes in length.
What's left roars, with Lars Ulrich's furiously precise drumming anchoring the music. Hetfield and Kirk Hammett construct little gems of riffs that mutate into power chords, then devolve back into riffs that repeat and repeat and repeat. This is no garage band jam--the tracks were cut and pasted together with Pro Tools software, although you may not realize it unless you try to play air guitar to them (you might break your wrist).
Unlike, say, ZZ Top's Afterburner, the use of advanced technology here doesn't create its own aesthetic. The high tech manipulation on St. Anger merely enhances the emotion in the basic tracks. Proof of that is the accompanying DVD disc, where the band plays the entire album live in the studio and sounds more like Metallica than ever. This isn't the sound of the past, though. It's a bold step into the future.
As for Metallica's past, especially the attack on its own fans who download music files, it's implicitly addressed here in the two line chorus of "Sumkinda." It begins with "We the people"--a hoary cliché that still resonates when it has that throbbing megawatt power behind it--but then flips the script to ask "Are we the people?" Can Metallica and its fans be "we" if they are at war? These questions aren't answered directly but the band seems to be attempting to connect back to its street roots.
For example, the St. Anger DVD begins with James Hetfield acting out the role of a graffiti artist. It's partly a goof, but the expression of solidarity is unmistakable and Hetfield's graf writer is just a symbol of all those most hated by official society: taggers, skaters, hackers, and, yes, file sharers. On May 1, in what would have made a great addition to the DVD, Metallica played a show for 800 inmates at San Quentin prison, which is just down the road apiece from the studio where St. Anger was recorded. Hetfield, all tatted up like a convict himself, told the real cons that "We are very proud to be in your house playing music for you." At the end of the show, he added: "I'm not afraid to say I love you guys." Did Hetfield feel that without a few lucky breaks he could have been in the audience that day?
That same sense of connection is amplified throughout the new album. Lyrically, it centers on James Hetfield's struggle with drug and alcohol addiction ("My lifestyle determines my deathstyle"), but this is anything but a shiny, happy testimonial to sobriety. The songs are filled with self-hatred, false bravado, fear, doubt, denial, and the specter of creeping death. Nothing is resolved, there is no peace, and the attraction to the oblivion of "Sweet Amber" is still very much present. These feelings are presented with great force and skill, an outstretched hand to millions of Metallica fans ("I'm not afraid to say I love you guys").
Anger is presented as the antidote for all problems: "And I want my anger to be healthy/And I want my anger just for me/And I need my anger not to control/And I want my anger to be me/And I need to set my anger free."
While anger can be cathartic ("You flush it out, you flush it out") it can also become a dead end. Yet heavy metal at its best-which this album certainly is-makes anger feel like liberation.
If you're still not free when anger subsides, that doesn't mean the feeling was false, just that liberation is more complicated. Metallica's insistence that we can openly acknowledge our demons and wrestle with them, even to the death, takes us at least halfway home. St. Anger is a gift.-L.B
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