"Frantic" opens St. Anger with ferocious promise, roaring into a jackhammer riff as immediate as anything Metallica has come up with. Channeling the doubt and pain of the 12-step recovery process into his lyrics and screaming delivery, Hetfield brings a palpable sense of desperation to the harrowing tune. The singer's struggles with substance abuse and self-control fuel the recording, giving the best songs a vitriol that meshes well with the band's rediscovered instrumental fury. The caustic love/hate letter to booze found in "Sweet Amber" and the schizophrenic crunch of "My World" stand with some of Metallica's best work.
Unfortunately, much of the album lacks the cohesive songwriting of these highlights. The title track's patchwork quality, careening awkwardly from its brutal, neck-snapping beginning to Hetfield's crooning vocals before galloping off again with Lars Ulrich's double-time kick drums, points out the shortcomings of the new material. Too often, the disjointed tunes on St. Anger come off as compendiums of riffs and time changes in search of a song. No amount of raging intensity can hide the fact that several great guitar parts shoehorned together don't necessarily equal a finished piece of music. If producer Bob Rock hadn't gotten so close to the band and the project (playing bass and co-writing the entire album), perhaps he would have recognized this and some of the other sonic issues that plague St. Anger -- for instance, how Ulrich's clanging snare drum sounds like an empty keg pummeled with a ball-peen hammer. But for all its faults, the LP shows that Metallica still has some fire. If the band finds the right producer and the right songs next time, it just might capture it.