Our good friends Metallica are releasing their new album, St. Anger, on Thursday. St. Anger will be the band’s first all-new studio album since 1996’s Load.

The Metallica releases since 1996 have been mostly of the “right before Christmas” variety, annoying otherwise dedicated fans who really wanted new studio material. 1997’s Reload was really the leftovers from the Load sessions, a distinction muddied by the fact that the CD had videos and a tour supporting it. 1998 saw the release of a 2-CD set, Garage, Inc.. The first disc was a series of cover songs recorded over the previous year. The second disc contained the limited edtion and widely bootlegged The $5.98 E.P.: Garage days re-revisited from 1987, as well as cover songs recorded in the 1980’s which never saw the light of day. In my opinion this is an underrated release. Then in 1999 we saw S&M (Symphony & Metallica) which was Metallica performing live with Michael Kamen’s orchestra. In my opinion this is a terrible album and concept. They contributed a new song, “I Disappear”, to the 2001 Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack, but that’s the last we’ve seen of Metallica material until now.

“I Disappear” was also the first Metallica material to be released after the departure of Jason Newsted, their bassist of fourteen years. Newsted left for “personal and physical reasons”, but shortly after formed a new band. Newsted himself had replaced original bassist Cliff Burton who was killed in a tour bus accident. In light of recent revelations (see below) it’s likely that Newsted left due to differences with the band.

Also in the years since a new studio release Metallica became caught in the MP3 crossfire. They were one of the few artists to speak up against MP3 piracy and the rise of P2P networks, most notably Napster. With drummer Lars Ulrich as their moutpiece, they obtained a court order ousting some 30,000 Napster users with Metallica songs for download. While other artists were silent, indifferent or even supportive of MP3 downloads (viewing them as publicity), Metallica was adamantly against them – many believe it was due to their better-than-average record contract, meaning that lost sales affected them more. In many ways the move backfired, since it led to the viewpoint that Metallica was “suing their fans” and “greedy”.

Which leads into the other thing angering Metallica fans. Metallica’s sound has changed and evolved over the years as most groups’ will. However, many view Metallica’s earlier material as their best, labelling anything after 1991 as substandard. Metallica was one of the few artists to be able to thrive in the 1980’s despite not releasing music videos. In 1989 they released their first video for the lengthy song “One” off of their fourth album …And Justice For All. The song was from the viewpoint of a man whose limbs were claimed by a land mine in a war, which also claimed his face. He discovers himself in a hospital unable to do anything. The video laced images of the band performing the song with those of a movie named Johnny Got His Gun whose plot was the same (and likely the source for the song’s inspiration).

Their 1991 album was named simply Metallica and was recorded at a cost of a million dollars (mostly due to the triple-digital recording process). It’s usually referred to as “The Black Album”, due to it’s nearly pitch dark cover and the fact that it was confusing to some newer fans since artists usually self-title their first album, not their fifth (it also tied nicely into a joke in the movie This is Spinal Tap). As part of subsidizing the costs, the group gave up their self-imposed ban on music videos (since videos help sell more copies). It’s the most successful album the band has done yet.

But then 1996’s Load came, weighted down by some ballads and more experimental material. Older fans didn’t go for it, and newer fans didn’t go for in en mass either (especially those who had since discovered their skateboard-fan-era earlier material). Then with 1997’s Reload came the aforementioned confusion that it was a followup album – while the CD had some gold on it, it had more chaff then the typical Metallica release. Couple all of this with the declining place of hard rock and Metallica’s attitude and you get today’s situation – a lot of former Metallica fans who would prefer it if they sounded a lot like their former selves.

And apparently internally Metallica wasn’t faring much better either. James Hetfield went into rehab and Lars let it slip that his problems might spell the end of the group. But in recent weeks it came out that the band actually went to therapy together to try and sort things out. The result was a hug between James and Lars and a resolve to record an album that returned to Metallica’s roots. Early word is that, while it’s not the second coming of …And Justice, St. Anger is easily the hardest album Metallica’s ever attempted and the best since The Black Album.

Its release date was originally June 10th, but it was bumped up to Thursday (the 5th) to “thwart piracy”. I’ve never understood the logic behind this – my best guess is that there’s a subsection of people who would only pirate it if they could do so prior to its release. This is following similar moves by Eminem and Beyonce Knowles. Some analysts say it’s really to make first week numbers look better.

The CD will come with a DVD with the band performing the entire album in the studio. This, too, is a recent trend. It gives the consumer “value added content” and extra incentive to purchase what you could otherwise download. While there’s nothing stopping anyone from ripping the contents of the DVD into a DivX file, most people don’t have the ability to burn this onto a DVD and recreate the experience, so it makes sense to incluide it.

Of course I can smell what’s coming. If the album sells less than they anticipate then it will be blamed on piracy (the piracy they think they’re avoiding). If it breaks records it will be “blamed” on the DVD (saying they have to now bribe consumers to buy what they used to buy ordinarily). I can’t help but wonder if it chaps the ass of the recording industry that now they have to include freebies from a (currently) more successful industry to entice people to come back to their product.

So I can’t decide if I want to buy this album or not. On the one hand I want to since I’m not really opposed at all to compensating artists. On the other hand, reinforcement of the physical-product industry is not something I’m sure I want to do. Plus if I do buy it, it means I went for their DVD bait hook line and sinker. However, a vote for Metallica is a vote for hard rock, especially this album.

Couple that with the recent reintroduction of Headbanger’s Ball on MTV2 (which I get now) and things are looking better for hard rock. I’m listening to 97.1 The Eagle in Dallas, which is the station KTSR used to be, and better to boot. Plus apparently there’s a lot of rock acts touring this summer (Ozzfest, Metallica, etc), and of course Dallas is one of the stops on every tour. Perhaps there’s hope for music after all. I guess the ultimate irony would be for music history to repeat itself and this wave of hard rock lead into a new alternative wave of the second coming of Grunge. And that would be just peachy, too.

Now all that needs to happen is for St. Anger not to suck. One way or another I’ll know soon enough.