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After two new bass players, dozens of expensive haircuts, a Bob Seger cover and a bloated experiment with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Lars Ulrich promises that the next Metallica album is going to be “a goddamn inferno.”

Lars was recently quoted in a radio interview saying that “St. Anger,” the band’s first studio record in five years, will have “high levels of aggression, very fast songs” and that it finds the band “coming back full circle” to the old school thrash of days past.

On one hand, that sounds kinda bad ass. It’s been absolutely excruciating to watch what the mighty Metallica has allowed itself to become. It would be cool if this new record were a case of their one day catching a glimpse of themselves in the mirror and telling the eye-liner wearing fashion plates staring back, “My God, look at those pansies! Fuck this. Who’s ready to rock?”

At the same time, it’s kind of pathetic that after all the fame and fortune they so calculatedly sold their burnout metal souls to achieve, that they woke up, smelled their own irrelevance and believed they could simply go back and make a massive ass-kicker of a metal record. Although the new kinder, cuddlier Metallica has held onto that thick, power-chord crunch (arguably the supreme heavy metal device of the past two decades), these guys have long since transformed into a mainstream Lollapalooza-playing hard rock/pop band, and it's hard to imagine that they will put out a metal record with any more soul than the rest of the crap they've released over the past decade.

Looking back through the catalog, the accessible, Bob Rock-produced Black album clearly marks Metallica’s abandonment of their thrash metal roots. But if that record stands as the first manifestation of the change, the catalyst was “…And Justice For All.” Horrible production on that ambitious double LP turned new guy Jason Newsted’s bass into an inaudible mess and made Kirk Hammet’s brilliant guitar work sound like it was trapped inside a soup can. After hearing the glob of shit that their hard work resulted in, it doesn’t take a genius to understand why they sought the help of a high-gloss producer for their next record.

But “…And Justice For All” also represents a turning point for another, more important reason. The militantly anti-mainstream Metallica broke a cardinal rule when they shot their very first video for “One,” and they were rewarded by earning a Top 40 single. At the time, scruffy Metallica fans who spent their adolescent years being ostracized by trendy Izod preppies, greasy I.O.U.-clad gang bangers and vapid Aqua Net cheerleaders viewed that video as vindication.

The die-hards’ beloved Metallica, for whom most would gladly have sacrificed their own lives, was finally getting some much-deserved respect. At last, the rest of the world had come to its senses and realized what the stoners knew all along: Metallica fucking ruled. Besides, video or not, Metallica didn’t compromise the music. Seven of the nine songs on “…And Justice For All” clocked in over 6 minutes, and while “One” may have gotten steady rotation on MTV because of its dark, captivating melody, everyone knew that tune was all about the brutal, machine gun guitar ending.

But James Hetfield’s harmonizing on the Black album’s radio-friendly songs made it clear that “One” was not a victory at the end of a long fought war, but the beginning of the mass commercialization of Metallica. Songs were shorter, catchier, shinier. The ballads stayed ballads till the end, never exploding into a "Fade to Black" frenzy. The purity that made “Master of Puppets” a Top 40 LP without a shred of radio play was being buried by a stack of glossy photo shoots—and eventually, a huge pile of sheered off hair. Eventually, many of the fans old enough to remember the band’s former affinity for relentless eight-minute instrumental works of jaw-clenching art looked back and decided that Metallica had ostensibly died the day they lowered Cliff into the ground. The band’s reason to exist was no longer simply to shred people’s eardrums. They were now eager to turn their backs on the loyal outcasts and miscreants who supported them during the peanut butter and jelly sandwich days if it got them invited to hang out with the cool kids at the Grammy after parties.

Even the blindly loyal supporters were tested in 2000 when the band threatened to sue fans for trading Metallica songs on Napster (a decision that Lars Ulrich, the commander-and-chief of Metallica’s MP3 war, has since expressed some reserved regret over). The band that once thrived solely from word of mouth joined the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), which in rock ‘n’ roll is the establishment, and threatened to sue Napster and several universities for facilitating the piracy of their music. The sickest part of the lawsuit was that it included the students of these universities (who were, of course, the devoted fans that made Metallica rock stars in the first place) for being the “last link in the chain.” It seemed that once they had an endless stream of videos and radio singles, Metallica prioritized the lost dollars in album sales (a paltry sum in the grand scheme of multi-platinum record sales, no doubt) over the blue collar sense of community that marked the thrash years.

Those old Metallica records were more than just a collection of fast, aggressive songs. You can hear ethos. Ethos is the reason that the Ramones’ idiotically simple chord progressions and inane lyrics are genius. Ethos elevates to greatness the sound of Johnny Rotten puking all over stuffy British society while Steve Jones and Sid Vicious bang on dime store guitars with all the proficiency of a couple of junkies with dime store guitars. Ethos is the reason that the Stone Temple Pilots sucked, even though they sounded almost exactly like great bands like Soundgarden and Alice and Chains. Ethos is what makes discerning people say, “I don’t care what it ‘sounds’ like. Justin Timberlake is in ‘N Sync. He is a fucking pussy. This record sucks.”

Now, some 20 years after introducing themselves to the world with “Kill ‘Em All,” Metallica is releasing a heavy metal “inferno” that lacks the heavy metal ethos that really made those early years so beautiful. Back in 1985, while radio was still obsessed with synth pop and the epitome of MTV badness was Vince Neil banging his bleach blonde head and prancing around in pink tiger stripe panties, Metallica’s sole purpose was to jam metal up the ass of any greasy haired stoner kid who would listen. It was about being so fucking heavy and so fucking loud that parents literally tried to have them jailed. There was no mellowing up, no love for those who did, and there certainly wasn’t any hairspray or lip gloss.

You can’t blame Metallica for trying their hand at real metal again. They probably miss those good old days as much as any of us. But midlife crisis and sell-out guilt are poor substitutes for young, unbridled rebellion, and nothing they put out could ever ameliorate the damage done by Lars’ repeated claims that he truly loves and respects Limp Bizkit.

I have no doubt that “St. Anger” will be more palatable than most of the shit Metallica has signed their name to over the past 10 years. But I also think that fans hungry for the old school are better off watching a group of meth-snorting 19-year-olds play thrash-era Metallica covers at a bar in Des Moines, Iowa than they are paying good money to hear these rich old farts try to fake something that just simply can’t be faked.