In 1988, Metallica made an album called ... And Justice for All, and it was extraordinary, filled with layered lead-guitar harmonies, whipsaw chord changes, near-orchestral structures and focused ferocity. It was, quite simply, one of the greatest metal albums ever made, despite terribly thin production. The songs, the ambition and the talent could not be obscured.
St. Anger, Metallica's latest reinvention, recalls... And Justice for All, because once you hear it, you'll want to rediscover the older work to remind yourself just how great this band once was. After more than a decade of simplifying its music, catering to a pop listenership and forgoing its '80s populism for life as a roving, litigious corporation, Metallica is out to reclaim its soul. It just wants to rock and rock hard again. At that, at least, it succeeds. St. Anger is heavier, uglier and more out of control than anything Metallica's ever done. Lars Ulrich's drums bang like aluminum barrels, steel pipes and trash cans. The double-tracked riffs, near industrial in their composition, burn like melting steel. James Hetfield, fresh from rehab, sounds naked, almost psychotic. "Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tock!" he screams maniacally on the breathtaking album opener "Frantic." In spots like that and on the eight-minute masterpiece "Some Kind of Monster," St. Anger is startlingly and enjoyably unpleasant.
Yet nowhere on the album will you find the element that made Metallica so important -- nuance. In a way, the band seems so desperate to win back the modern metal faithful that it's fallen into the artlessness that took hold of the mainstream in the late '90s. As exciting as the initial shock of the new direction may be, the riff-bang-riff-bang-riff bores quickly, and the album embarks on long stretches without any drama or memorable musical phrasing. Worse, it even drones occasionally, something "speed metal" ain't supposed to do -- songs like "Invisible Kid" and "The Unnamed Feeling" are self-absorbed, wanna-be nu-metal, and unlistenable crap as a result.
Ultimately, the astonishing lack of solos from Kirk Hammett, he of the gazillion-notes-a-minute majesty, isn't really the problem here -- there is a way to make rhythm stacking sizzle (see: Korn). St. Anger, plainly, is not the work of a confident band; it is too defensive in its construct. With ... And Justice for All, Metallica wanted to take over the metal world, and the result was so intense, it sounded like it could crack pavement. Now, the band hopes not to fade into irrelevancy.