Mercury - 2003 - 75 minutes

The Napster saga, the departure of bassist Jason Newsted, frontman James Hetfield's admission into rehab - Metallica's entrance into the new millennium was far from a glory ride. That they would come back roaring with a new album was always to be expected, that it would sound so confused wasn't. Written in the studio as a unit (with producer Bob Rock on bass), 'St Anger' has the band trying to rediscover a rawness that has eluded them for so long, but the quest has more wrong turns than right moves. And even repeated visits will leave some of the hardcore scratching their heads harder than the time before.

No-one should think 'St Anger' is the work of desperation because it has a bloodymindness that deserves praise. Harder to deal with, however, are the contradictions and trip-ups that surround it. This is a stripped back album, which takes 75 minutes to get through. That requires endless riffing from guitarist Kirk Hammett, though no solos. It's powered by a live-right-now attitude but forces the listener to go back again and again and again to try and make the pieces fit. When they do, what they'll hear is mostly Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich (whose motto here, cynics could say, is "if in doubt, hit the cymbals"), a situation that recalls 1988's much derided 'And Justice for All'. The difference being that 15 years later, bass or no bass, many of that album's tracks still stand up. Don't take bets on time being so kind to this record.

Bob Rock's talents as a producer (hard to say anything about his bass because he's so low in the mix) has helped create some of the greatest songs of Metallica's career but 'St Anger' screams that he can't do a raw-sounding album. What he's captured here is too dry, with too much grit, not enough groove and drums that sound like hastily arranged oil cans. Metallica have been working with him now since 1990, and if this album was all about letting go, why wasn't someone else at the control desk? During the barrage, it's hard not to think that producers like Billy Anderson (Neurosis, Sick of it All) or Steve Albini (Nirvana, Shellac) would have done a much better job with the challenge. Or even the band by themselves: listen to what has been achieved here back to back with their work on 'Garage Days Re-Revisited EP' and see which you prefer.

It may be hard to find consolation in the midst of all this criticism but it's there. Opener 'Frantic' is the right mixture of mayhem and memorable and is followed by the title track, which makes the most of Hetfield's vocals and whose aggression works all the better because it's focussed. There are also moments elsewhere (the stoner rock riff on 'Some Kind of Monster', the killer chorus on 'My World', the opening of 'The Unnamed Feeling') too and they work because they're kept simple. Ultimately that's the biggest letdown of this album: an inability to decide between what's good enough for now and knowing what to leave out before deciding.

With the challenges Metallica faced in the lead-up to 'St Anger' it's only natural that their creativity would take on a new dynamic. But exuberance has always to keep guard on excess and there are enough ideas for three albums here, not one. With the recent addition of bassist Robert Trujillo and the undeniable and life-affirming proof that they can still cut it onstage, Metallica will again be the force that no-one can reckon with. This is the document of where they were in 2002 and the best advice any fan can give them after hearing it is not to look back.

Harry Guerin

Tracklisting: Frantic - St Anger - Some Kind of Monster - Dirty Window - Invisible Kid - My World - Shoot Me Again - Sweet Amber - The Unnamed Feeling - Purify - All Within My Hands