DETROIT, July 2 (UPI) -- Metallica's new album may be called "St. Anger," but these days happiness -- and relief -- are far more prevalent emotions running through the headbanging San Francisco quartet.
The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, selling 418,000 copies after being rush-released in early June. And earlier this month, Metallica set off on its Summer Sanitarium tour, joining fellow mosh pit favorites Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Deftones and Mudvayne.
But what the four musicians are mostly just pleased that there's still a Metallica.
That wasn't a certainty a year and a half ago. Already reeling from a nasty public backlash to its legal assault on the Napster file-sharing service, Metallica -- which has sold more than 80 million albums since forming in 1981 -- lost bassist Jason Newsted, while frontman James Hetfield committed himself to rehab for addictions to alcohol and other substances. At that point, guitarist Kirk Hammett says he and drummer Lars Ulrich simply didn't know "whether we'd have a band or not to play in."
"That was the biggest issue on the plate," says Hammett, 40, who joined Metallica in 1983. "All of a sudden I woke up one day and there was just two of us, just Lars and I.
"So I had to ask myself some very sobering questions. Am I ever going to have an opportunity to play with these guys again? Will Metallica still exist and have a future? That was an awfully big plate on my table to kind of consider."
The turmoil, Hammett says, was largely the case of unresolved issues piling up on each other and finally imploding, despite group sessions with a therapist. Newsted resented the creative control Hetfield and Ulrich held over Metallica during his 15 years with them -- particularly Hetfield's ban on outside musical projects.
And the group's schedule was so fast and densely packed that channels of communication broke down, which meant that -- among other things -- none of the band members were attuned to each others' situations.
"The dynamic changed in between our relationships," explains Hammett. "We believed the myth of the Mighty Metallica. We thought we were unstoppable. We thought that the machine would take care of everything. But we ended up realizing the machine was eating us up."
That realization came too late to rescue Newsted's situation, though the bassist -- now working with Voivod and Ozzy Osbourne -- says that despite his leaving, "I'm still Metallica's biggest fan -- I just happened to have been in the band for 15 years. I want them to do well. We all need to be rooting for and supporting Metallica; Metallica can make metal alive again. I want nothing but the best for those guys."
That's what Metallica set out to achieve after Hetfield's emergence from rehab -- as "a whole new James," according to Hammett. In fact, Hetfield was even open for the first time to input from others for the song's lyrics.
The music, meanwhile, lives up to "St. Anger's" title. With producer Bob Rock playing bass (Robert Trujillo from Ozzy Osbourne's band joined subsequent to "St. Anger's" completion), the songs are furiously fast, long and heavy -- in many cases hearkening back to Metallica's thrashy beginnings but played with musical chops that had grown more precise and sophisticated in the intervening years.
"That aspect kind of surprised me and scared me a little," Hammett admits. "We were a little taken aback and a little surprised that it felt so good to be playing fast and aggressive again.
"But these songs, to me, sound wildly different than anything else we'd ever done. It felt familiar, but it felt different enough for us to feel excited about it again. It felt like we were moving forward."
The group is also moving differently these days -- especially with touring plans that stretch well into 2004. Hammett says that in light of all that preceded "St. Anger," Metallica is taking careful measures to identify and deal with problems and to make sure its might is never again diminished.
"We just check up on each other and have these get-togethers to see how everyone's feeling," he explains. "If anything is getting in the way of us connecting with each other, it's really important that we take the time to make sure everyone's comfortable -- emotionally, physically, musically, whatever.
"That really makes a big difference. I do believe that we had to go through all these trials and tribulations just to in this good spot. But I really don't want to go through it again."