”Don’t worry about getting in touch with your anger — it’ll get in touch with you” is a bit of advice that recovering addicts who’ve been drug-free for a while have been known to offer clean-and-sober neophytes. The truth of that maxim can be heard on Metallica’s just-released CD, St. Anger, a roiling, assaultive 75-minute opus that was recorded in the wake of singer-guitarist James Hetfield’s recent, much-publicized stint in rehab. Apparently, Hetfield is on very intimate terms with his anger, and the rest of the band is more than willing to help him wrestle with it.
Not that Metallica ever had a problem expressing hostility or negative feelings — hell, they even called their 1983 debut ”Kill ‘Em All.” But ”St. Anger” is practically a concept disc about rage, a brutal extended meditation on the state of being perpetually hot under the collar. ”I want my anger to be healthy/And I want my anger just for me,” wails Hetfield on the title track, as protective of this loaded emotion as a new father of his infant child.
Musically, Metallica have stripped things down to pure grit and viscera, hammering their riffs home with single-minded, grim determination. The back-to-basics approach will no doubt please longtime fans who look back fondly at the band’s bludgeoning ’80s work and viewed, as we did, their move to a poppier melodiousness in the ’90s with suspicion (after all, they scored a hit with a Bob Seger cover). Paradoxically, ”St. Anger” sounds both supertight and wildly expansive: While 3 of these 11 songs clock in at over 8 minutes (and the shortest of the others is 5:25), there are no solos to be heard — just a relentless barrage of guitars, drums, and raw-throated howls. If you’re in search of a power ballad, you’re out of luck: ”Sweet Amber” is the closest thing to a genuine slow burner, starting out with some very pretty, wistful chords before the band veers headlong into its trademark dinosaur-in-heat stomp. Likewise, ”All Within My Hands” at first seems like it might be a cover of a forgotten Flock of Seagulls number (really!) before turning on a dime into another pounding, punishing epic of angst.
Metallica have often been accused of humorlessness, but odd bits of tongue-in-cheek fun shine through. On the ferocious ”My World,” Hetfield boasts, ”It’s my world, you can’t have it,” and you can almost hear the subliminal nyah-nyah-nyah in his delivery. On ”Shoot Me Again,” he sounds positively gleeful as he taunts an opponent: ”Shoot me again, I ain’t dead yet.”
No doubt more than a few Metallica fans have gone the rehab route. One gets the feeling that ”St. Anger” may have a special meaning for them, especially when viewed against the backdrop of Hetfield’s newfound sobriety. Indeed, the disc might well end up serving as a sort of aural totem for the Just Say No crowd (”My lifestyle determines my deathstyle,” runs a lyric from ”Frantik,” as pithy an anti-drug slogan as we’ve heard). Of course, metal has long been therapeutic in nature, functioning as a sort of primal-scream therapy for disaffected kids. But you certainly don’t need to be in recovery to benefit from an occasional session with a loud, hard-rock album. ”St. Anger” is arguably the season’s finest metal offering — and the band’s best since 1991’s ”Metallica.” And, at about $18 retail, it’s way cheaper than a session with a headshrinker.