By David Browne
March 08, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Those who like their music manly, their guitars brawny and ear-drum piercing, should have reasons to be cheerful in the new year. Rock is back — or, at least, it’s on its way. Money-mad, gold-plated hip-hop and perky Swedish bubblegum are wearing out their welcome with the public, and a new generation of musicians — ones who don’t rap, don’t employ DJs, and don’t always wear baseball caps backward — is mounting an assault on radio and the charts.

Now here’s the less-than-encouraging news. After spending quality time with current albums by four of the most prominent nouveau-rock acts — Puddle of Mudd, the Calling, Default, and Hoobastank — one walks away with certain impressions. Every day is the same old gauntlet of abject, intense, horrid torment from which there is no escape; even worse, no one listens (Puddle of Mudd, Default). Your friends can’t be trusted or counted on; the ones you thought loved you, in fact, don’t (Hoobastank). Even when you go back home, the old aggravations haunt you; your parents still don’t understand (the Calling). Everywhere is a bleak, ink-black hole of loneliness, pain, rejection, and two-faced friends (all of them).

And I thought I was depressed in high school.

Such sentiments will sound familiar to anyone who’s spent time cranking metal records, and the new breed owes a lot to the brutalizing sonics and pessimism of metal’s darkest side (and rap-metal’s pent-up rage). But this new rock — grudge as opposed to grunge — has identifying characteristics beyond musicians who can’t seem to spell. Each band is fronted by a wailing-wall singer who repeatedly tells us how anguished he is; each band unleashes a barrage of oppressive sound that’s as generic as store-brand canned vegetables. Each band uses the Nirvana formula — soft verses giving way to jet-blast choruses. And each has at least one acoustic track in order to show they’re not such macho men after all — they have feelings, too.

And each album is utterly numbing. On Come Clean, Puddle of Mudd peel off the intermittent decent riff, but they specialize in sulky, Seattle-style moroseness. In ”Basement,” lead singer/guitarist Wesley Reid Scantlin begs Mom not to come down ”and see me this way.” Their current single, the midtempo brooder ”Blurry,” opens with ”Everything’s so blurry and everyone’s so fake.” Their idea of humor is ”She F — -ing Hates Me,” which possesses all the subtle humor of their mentor (and occasional producer), Fred Durst. Default’s debut, The Fallout, is more up-tempo and burly, yet they still manage to use the word never 32 times in one cut (”Slow Me Down”). The song titles — ”Sick and Tired,” ”Wasting My Time,” ”Live a Lie” — say it all.

Hoobastank have a somewhat lighter touch; on the back cover of their first album, Hoobastank, singer Douglas Robb even ditches the standard stone-faced stare in favor of an actual half smile. He’s also given to goo: ”Let the two of us be one,” he incants at one point. But, ultimately, he’s just another whiny young white guy, grumbling that he’s ”a cold unhappy man/I’ve come to realize the life I have I hate.” In light of seemingly weekly terrorist warnings, it’s easy to understand why record buyers would relate to such dire dispositions. But these discs amount to an indictment of rock pre-9/11: They now sound solipsistic and self-indulgent.

True to their name, the Calling aim higher. Camino Palmero is stuffed to the gills with the kind of steroidal anthems and power ballads (the hit ”Wherever You Will Go”) destined to incite stadium crowds to do the wave. But petulant singer Alex Band seems to have a rather turbulent love life judging by the women in his songs, who drop him, leave him for others, or engage in ”games of sweet denial.” ”Once again, you used me, you used me,” goes the chorus of ”Adrienne.” His voice, all emotive strain, is overbearing, as are the nonstop fancy-pants guitar licks. The Calling are so stiflingly earnest that their love song playing off the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire catchphrase — ”Final Answer” — is dead serious. You, new rock, are the weakest link! All four: