Put plainly, Metallica's last album, 1996's Load, made me angry: To see a band that I had always valued for its integrity change its music for what appeared to be commercial reasons was deeply frustrating. But after catching the quartet in concert earlier this year, I was able to listen to Reload with fresh ears -- and after doing so, I appreciated the decent band Metallica is rather than pining for the really good band it used to be. Make no mistake; the speed-metal days are a thing of the past for these guys, replaced by boogie tempos, cleaner riffs, and vocals from James Hetfield that growl only occasionally.

Hetfield's new style can be disconcerting at times: He actually croons the opening section of "The Unforgiven II," which sounds for all the world like Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)"; executes an unexpectedly accurate Robin Zander impression in the Beatles-by-way-of-Cheap Trick middle section of "Carpe Diem Baby"; and willingly gives himself over to the Alice in Chains harmonies that mark "Where the Wild Things Are."

In the tidy sonic environment created by producer Bob Rock, this approach is effective. Although a few nods are made to Metallica's once relentless style, most of them are purposely brief. The playing of Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Jason Newsted, however, remains slashing and concise, and there's still passion in their professionalism. If you're waiting for another Master of Puppets, disappointment is assured. But considering the limp quality of today's heavy rock, Reload is well above average. Live with it or move on.

-- Michael Roberts

Juan Carlos Quintero
The Way Home
(Size 11 Records)

After a five-year hiatus, guitarist Juan Carlos Quintero is back with a disc that offers a new approach to his smooth jazz compositions. By choosing to remain deep within the grooves of Latin rhythms, Quintero has captured the spontaneous feel of previously lauded live performances while creating music that is at once gentle and passionate.

He has enlisted a fleet of percussionists to carve out these grooves, including Munyungo Jackson, who worked with Quintero during his days with now-defunct Nova Records, and Angel Figueroa, who has been known to hammer his bongos with Herbie Hancock. With Walter Rodriguez of Herb Alpert's band behind the trap set, Ron Powell doubling on world percussion, and Tiki Pasillas covering a variety of Cuban instrumentation, The Way Home shuffles from beginning to end.

"Libre" is a composition of rich emotional texture that has been constructed, so it seems, to literally breathe. A guitar ripples and drums commence, then drop out briefly only to resume with renewed vigor, eventually giving way to a galloping groove. Quintero's guitar solos mimic this inimitable pattern, soaring and then withdrawing into a delicious intimacy. Whether exploring the rhythm of cumbia ("El Pueblo") or the syncopation of cha cha cha ("Caminando"), Quintero achieves a delicate balance between the energetic release of his soloing and the elegant architecture of his compositions.

The magnificence of his touch can be heard and felt on the title track, a brooding bolero, in which Quintero's style extends from his native Colombia to the more melancholy style of his ancestral Spain. The Way Home comes to a lively close with a rumba tickled to life by drummer Walter Rodriguez, "APorque Si!" Quintero double-notes his solo so intricately here that the composition remains dynamically transparent, like a silk skirt worn by a girl lost in dance.

-- Victor Cruz

Gian Carlo Menotti
The Medium

Never before on CD, Menotti's lightning-quick opera blends calculation and camp drama. If Joan Crawford had been a diva, she'd have killed for the title role.

Menotti's music sounds like Americanized Puccini. The first act is close to musical and dramatic perfection. The second has its creaky moments, but on the whole The Medium is strong stuff. Aided by her daughter Monica and a mute boy named Toby, Baba, a bogus medium, bilks credulous clients trying to get in touch with their dear departed. One evening Baba feels a hand on her throat. Terrified and guilty, she drives her guests away and questions Toby. Did he see anything? Did he touch her himself? She tries insinuation, bribery, threats, and physical violence to get him to "speak."

By the end of the opera, Baba mistakenly shoots Toby and cries, "I've killed the ghost!" Monica runs for help, leaving her mother hoarsely whispering, "Was it you?" over the dead body. End of opera.

The Chicago Opera Theater has done an excellent job bringing this work to CD. As Baba, Joyce Castle has an impressive singing voice, and she brandishes it like an actress. Patrice Michaels Bedi is a tender Monica, and the bereaved parents are well sung and superbly characterized. The recording has been produced like a radio play, with sound effects added to keep the listener in touch with the action. The recording quality is vivid -- maybe too vivid, given the whippings and shootings in the second act.

-- Raymond Tuttle

G. Love and Special Sauce
Yeah, It's That Easy

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