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. The songs, ambition, and talent could not be obscured.
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. Worse, it even drones occasionally, something "speed metal" ain't supposed to do -- songs like "Invisible Kid" and "The Unnamed Feeling" are self-absorbed, wannabe nu-metal, and unlistenable crap as a result.
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Ultimately, the astonishing lack of solos by 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.