Metallica, La Boule Noire / Le Bataclan / Le Trabendo, Paris

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The Independent Culture

For years now, Metallica have used Ennio Morricone's "The Ecstasy of Gold" as their intro music. Given that they've taken great care to ensure that the income generated by their colossal album sales remains in house, that makes perfect sense. In July 2000, their Danish-born drummer, Lars Ulrich, testified against the MP3 download site Napster in the US Senate, his attack including a list of 335,000 people he believed had pirated Metallica's music with Napster software. When the most popular website in internet history was subsequently shut down, Ulrich became "the most hated man in rock".

His band, however, are still heavy metal's most loved; thus Metallica's latest album, St Anger, has just debuted at No 1 in the US charts. Heavy as Pavarotti in diving-boots, it's a frenetic and uncompromising record, and a deliberate volte-face from 1999's S & M, in which Metallica's bombast was somewhat sweetened by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

St Anger also arrives with an archetypal rock-lore back story: a spell in rehab for Metallica's front man, James Hetfield, reportedly cast doubt over the band's future but ultimately fired a rejuvenated return to the fray. Hetfield's wake-up call is said to have come in July 2001, when he found himself breakfasting on vodka while hunting in the Siberian wilderness.

Last month, the band took a leaf out of Johnny Cash's book, playing a gig at San Quentin prison, near San Francisco. Today's promotional approach is also unconventional: they are playing three Parisian venues in one day.

First stop: La Boule Noire, in the Pigalle district. It's 1pm, pitch dark inside, and 300 of France's most hirsute are baying for "Meta-leeka!". "The Ecstasy of Gold" strikes up, and the band make their entry through a slim, cordoned-off corridor. There's a sense of something grand and gladiatorial in the offing. Indeed, were the band to call for some Pop Idol entrants to feed to the lions, it would be wholly in keeping.

Hetfield is clad entirely in black. As he and his band-mates pile into the Hemingway-inspired anti-war song "For Whom the Bell Tolls", his legs are positioned at 20 to four. To his right, the new bassist, Robert Trujillo, Catherine-wheels his hair in a manner that would alarm chiropractors the world over. Metallica live are evidently a bludgeoning, pummelling force, but as "Sad but True" underlines, they bludgeon and pummel with great panache.

Gig two is the biggest and sweatiest. From my vantage-point by the front of Le Bataclan's stage, I can see fans being hoisted over the crash barrier by security, their exertions to Metallica's neo-classical histrionics leaving them drained and crumpled. "Who's got St Anger?" shouts Hetfield, this signalling a performance of the new album's self-explanatory stand-out track, "Frantic". It's about Ulrich's fear of an early demise and includes the fantastic line, "My lifestyle determines my death-style." One can understand Ulrich's concern: coupled with drumming as gung-ho as this, the Danish predilection for sausage and rye bread could potentially trouble his ticker.

By gig three, we're well behind schedule, and the Trabendo show starts at 11.45pm, not 10pm. It's dawning on me how much Hetfield looks like Gareth Hale, of Hale and Pace, and after three hours of clamorous metal, I'm starting to understand the work of Sergeant Mark Hadsell, who recently explained how Metallica's "Enter Sandman" was being used by the US Army to break the will of Iraqi captives.

Hats off to Metallica for sheer commitment, though, because they've saved the best set to last, and during the superb but ridiculously frenetic "St Anger", Ulrich sounds as though he's actually having that cardiac arrest. As his drumsticks make taut contact, beads of sweat are sent careering off in all directions, and he's hitting his snare drum just as hard as he did at 1pm this afternoon. Perhaps that's the kind of impetus that being "the most hated man in rock" gives you.