Its Napster Battles in the Past, Metallica Works Up a New Rage
By Chris Hopfensperger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2003; Page N06
Metallica couldn't have done much more to alienate fans in the last 10 years.
Starting out by stunning legions of old headbangers, the boys in the band cut their hair and chased the Seattle sound with a pair of uninspired albums. Confusing all the straight-ahead young rockers, they sat down with an orchestra for a two-disc live set that only seemed to soften their edge. And in a move that turned off music lovers of all ages, drummer Lars Ulrich became the leading, greedy face of the anti-Napster music industry.
Add bassist Jason Newsted's increasingly acrimonious departure to the slow slide into irrelevance, and it's easy to understand the rage that suffuses "St. Anger," the band's first studio album since 1997 and its best in more than a decade.
The disc rips open with "Frantic," a brutal back-and-forth battle with the scorching guitars of James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett punctuated by Ulrich's heart-attack drums. The song's energy pounds you square in the chest, offering just a hint of the full fury to come.
"St. Anger," the radio-unfriendly first single, quickly builds on the emotion. Behind a growing tide of sound, the track ebbs and flows, slowing down just enough to make way for Hetfield's low growl before racing off with a breathless drum roll. Hitting you like a sudden burst of adrenaline, the song gives a clenched-fist credibility to such otherwise-lame lines as "I'm madly in anger with you."
Most troubling for Metallica, though, may be the generation gap it must bridge to fans who actually have time for this much animosity. Convincing today's high-tech teenagers to lay down cold cash for a band with roots in the cassette age won't be easy -- especially after Ulrich's escapades on Capitol Hill. Last week, when the album started popping up around the Internet, the label rushed it into stores several days early to squelch the "don't-buy-it, burn-it" backlash.
There are also musical missteps. Like the ill-fated alt-rock "Load" and "Reload," "St. Anger" falters when it ventures into other bands' arenas. Take the Korn-y "Some Kind of Monster": Eight minutes of rolling monotony, in Metallica's hands it is less song than strategically placed filler padding out the hour-and-a-quarter running time.
But as "All Within My Hands" closes the album, it slowly cauterizes whatever painful wound "St. Anger" flowed from. The song shakes with restrained rage as Hetfield -- fresh from his own real-world rehab stint -- screams of crushing, squeezing, choking, trapping and killing everything close to him.
And there, at the end of "St. Anger," it finally becomes clear what's at work here.
Rather than try to regain the breakout drama of ". . . And Justice for All" or the commercial sensation of 1991's self-titled "black album," Metallica hopes to make a fresh start by recapturing the energy of "Master of Puppets," the band's classic third album. They come frighteningly close -- overshooting instead, to 1983.
"St. Anger" is a more polished version of the band's flawed first discs, stripped of the high-flying guitar solos, dotted with moments of raging glory and full of the unbridled confusion of teed-off teenagers who have discovered girls but not yet gotten to know them. Unfortunately for Metallica, most young listeners think of it as the band that rocked with the San Francisco Symphony and railed against file sharing. They're the ones who have to be won over, to be convinced that this is real rage and not just rough-hewn rock.
We'll see if they buy it.