A post-rehab record is sure to be unlikable, more off-putting than even a musician’s late-career discovery of Eastern spiritualism or electronic music. The rehab record always features pop’s least appealing values—introspection, maturity, coming to terms with demons. So it is somewhat of a shock that Metallica’s new album, St. Anger, much of which was recorded after lead singer James Hetfield’s long stint in a substance-abuse program, is so utterly raw and rocking. There are rehab references everywhere—“who’s in charge of my head today, dancin’ devils in angel’s way,” Hetfield sings on “My World”—but the sentiments are sparsely expressed and usually not too literal (typical of Metallica’s lyrics, they’re almost billboardlike in their economy). And Metallica’s music is unrelentingly furious, a near wall of sound of metal. Producer Bob Rock, who helped mainstream Metallica with albums like Load, allows rough edges. Lars Ulrich’s snare drum reverberates with a thwong, and the band’s stop-on-a-dime dynamics are traded for live-sounding musical rupture. It’s that messiness that makes St. Anger so great. For Metallica, noise is one of the twelve steps.
Some time ago, I saw a bootleg video of a Led Zeppelin concert from the early seventies. Though the footage was grainy, something incredible emerged: a band so mammoth in both its sound and stage presence it rivaled an illicit tape I’d seen of the Sex Pistols. I got that thrill again from a CD/DVD Led Zeppelin boxed set called How the West Was Won. Particularly great is the first DVD of a 1970 concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Here, Zeppelin’s desiccated grooves—not its more bloated, late-seventies blues—take full, snaky shape. How the West Was Won proves that Led Zeppelin was nearly peerless in creating gigantic, thunderous rock. It’s this outsize sound—one borrowed by producer Rick Rubin in the late eighties and imitated by countless metal bands—that gives rock and rap their elbow grease.