Difficult Listening

Metallica, St. Anger

It’s hard to imagine whom Metallica is trying to please with its new album. The band had last released original material in 1997 (Reload), and in the meantime tried to sate fans with collected cover recordings (Garage, Inc. from 1998) and a de facto best-of set (the live-with-symphony S&M from 1999). Then did-you-ever-even-hear-him bassist Jason Newsted left under what seemed like less-than-amicable circumstances, and James Hetfield went into rehab.

After all that, the metal pioneers came back with St. Anger last month. The band and producer Bob Rock seem to be trying to re-claim something on St. Anger, making a statement that the three-album “rock” (as opposed to “metal”) phase the band went through starting with Metallica was a detour rather than a destination.

And it is quite a statement, although not very successful.

On the plus side, the band has created its most distinctive sound since ... And Justice for All, and there’s not a single guitar solo in the whole 75 minutes. (It almost sounds as if the endlessly masturbatory Kirk Hammett got kicked out of the band, which would be a good thing.) Hetfield finally sounds like he feels something, nearly unhinged at certain points — particularly the album-opening “Frantic” — and he eschews that annoying bite he tacked on to nearly every line.

On the downside is just about everything else. St. Anger is an interesting record in the way that accident scenes are interesting. The album sounds ugly, with tuneless guitars and a percussion track that’s so unusual it dominates the whole affair. The tracks are all long (the shortest clocks in at more than five minutes) with structures that follow an A-B-C-D pattern more often than verse-chorus-verse. Most bands can finish a song in the time it takes Metallica to churn out just one of these progressions.

Those things wouldn’t be so bad if the material were better. But the album lacks the harmonics that elevated and gave breathing room to Master of Puppets and ... And Justice for All, and Hetfield is so lyrically inward and bilious (and he’s never been a particularly strong writer anyway) that St. Anger becomes as tiresome and exhausting as listening to some fevered talk-radio host without any callers or commercial breaks. I can appreciate that Hetfield has been through some rough times in recent years, but the woe-is-me snarling seems pretty disingenuous from somebody so rich.

Yet I don’t doubt that Hetfield believes all the bullshit he’s spewing. St. Anger feels personal — made for the performers themselves as a cleansing or exorcism. And that type of record has its place. But fans deserved more from a band that has made them wait so long.

Radiohead, Hail to the Thief

Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief was released five days after St. Anger, and it’s also frustrating. But in this case it seems willful. After the rightfully beloved OK Computer, Radiohead has gone to great pains to keep rock critics and fans off-guard. Kid A and Amnesiac were accompanied by reams of hype and discussion — Rock Geeks Go Techno — and the albums have a certain background-music charm. But they’re so self-conscious and cipherious (don’t bother looking it up) that they’re ultimately unsatisfying.

Hail to the Thief arrived with the usual Radiohead buzz (see the straining words pile up here), and in many ways it’s equally off-putting. The album lacks the single-mindedness of the group’s last three studio efforts, and if it weren’t for Thom Yorke’s idiosyncratic warble, you’d be hard-pressed to identify the tracks as coming from the same band. (You might be able to hear Radiohead in all of them, but which Radiohead?)

Opener “2+2=5” is a great rock track with a beautifully realized aural arc, followed by “Sit Down. Stand Up,” which starts almost as a soothing lullaby sung to a demon child before degenerating into cheesy video-game sound effects. “Sail to the Moon” simulates a night sky with bits of space debris noiselessly burning up as they fall to earth. And so it goes for the course of the album, with each track invoking a different texture and sonic M.O.

Track-for-track, I think Hail to the Thief is pretty terrific. The songs seem more organic, and the band no longer sounds as if it’s looking over its collective shoulder, searching for a reaction. But there’s no integration, no synthesis. Radiohead is perhaps just following its muse, in the process showcasing its versatility, but it makes it difficult to get comfortable in the album. Each song jars you out of the state of mind that the last track so carefully crafted.

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