Metallica fans have had a rough go of it in recent years. In fact, in retrospect, the past twelve years have been pretty lousy. Their idols, easily one of the most influential bands in hard rock history based on their first four albums alone, didn’t exactly put out a strong catalog of music in the 1990s: 1991’s much-lauded Black Album is horribly overrated, with five classic songs masking the fact that the rest of their commercial breakthrough was nothing more than mediocre at best. The much-maligned Load/Reload albums have their share of moments, but are marred by too much filler, and some remarkably lazy playing by the band (what they laughably called “groove oriented”). Metallica’s strongest releases from the Nineties are all either live releases, such as the stupendous Live Shit box set and the underrated symphonic experiment S & M, or cover songs, represented by the excellent Garage, Inc. compilation. As bad as that decade was, the real nadir for Metallica happened in the 21st century.
In a move that practically spat in the faces of every single fan who was introduced to Metallica in the mid-‘80s via tape trading and word of mouth, the band sued Napster, instantly metamorphosing into grumpy old men, greedy celebrities, and a laughing stock all at the same time, with drummer Lars Ulrich becoming one of the most reviled people on the internet. Then, after 14 years of loyal service (in the face of some extreme abuse at the hands of his bandmates), bassist Jason Newsted, the one good guy in Metallica, abruptly left the band. And if that weren’t enough, singer/guitarist James Hetfield entered rehab to deal with his alcohol problem. When Metallica headed back into the studio in 2002, it was no secret that their next full-length would be a crucial one. If it flopped, it would all but declare to the fans that their best days were behind them. If it succeeded, the band could begin to regain something they need much more than money: respect.
It’s been nearly a six-year wait between albums, and like every single album Metallica has put out in their career, St. Anger instantly makes fans think to themselves, “What the hell?” This time around, though, after years and years of disappointment, that thought is a reaction to hearing a band that’s been reborn. A ragged, cacophonous, raging beast of an album, it’s not the most perfect album Metallica has ever produced, and it’s a very bumpy ride for listeners, but the album’s handful of high points are thrilling to hear. Simply put, they’re playing with a fire under their butts for the first time in 15 long years.
The first minute of “Frantic” drives that point home. Easily the most ferocious album opener since “Blackened”, it begins with an extended intro of Ulrich’s machine-gun drumming, and Hetfield’s and Kirk Hammett’s staccato guitar licks. Hetfield’s vocals are surprisingly rough, harkening back to his tuneless growl from ...And Justice For All, as he snarls the album’s central theme of the search for redemption while trying to deal with inner demons: “If I could have my wasted days back/Would I use them to get back on track?” Gone are melodies, sing-along choruses, and Hammett’s guitar solos. Metallica have some pretty intense stuff to deal with here, and there’s no time for messing around. The sheer focus of St. Anger is unsettling at times, but it expertly shows every single little nu-metal band out there how to get rage across on record.
The album’s more memorable moments rank as some of the best songs the band has done since the early ‘90s. “Some Kind of Monster” is one of the heaviest songs Metallica has recorded since 1986’s “The Thing That Should Not Be”, a lurching, lumbering song that alternates from some ultra-low, churning riffs to double-speed beats provided by Ulrich. “Dirty Window” puts the foot on the gas, Ulrich drumming at a ferocious pace, while “My World” starts off as a metal-by-numbers tune, only to give you chills during a bridge that equals the work of Slipknot, with its blast of venomous intensity, as Hetfield whispers, “Not only do I not know the answer,” and then hollers over a sudden blast of noise: “I don’t even know what the question is!” “Sweet Amber” is especially strong, boasting a slinky blues-rock opening riff, and some of the deftest time signature changes on the album, evoking memories of their old prog-metal days.
But of course, Metallica never seem to know how much is too much. An album a direct and no-frills as this one is best suited to a running time of around 45 minutes, but the band carries on for a draining 75 minutes, and the sound gets so stale, that you’re mentally exhausted by the time you get to the end. “St. Anger” is an interesting song (Hetfield quotes two older songs, “Hit the Lights” and “Damage, Inc.”, in the lyrics), with a spectacular opening and conclusion, but that feeling is nearly extinguished by awful, maudlin verses that sound obviously tacked on by Pro Tools software. “Invisible Kid” is dullsville, and it’s not helped by Hetfield’s lyrics, easily the most ridiculous on the album (“Invisible kid/Never see what he did/Got stuck where he hid/Fallen through the grid”). “The Unnamed Feeling” is a boring exercise in recycled Slipknot riffs, and the goofy “Purify” sounds like a work-in-progress.
Of course, Metallica is Hetfield’s and Ulrich’s baby, and both members are especially strong on St. Anger. Ulrich’s drumming is energized, his best since the Black Album, sounding like he’s ready to make up for the incredibly lackadaisical drumming on the band’s last two albums. Meanwhile, every song on the album has Hetfield dealing with his personal problems, not to mention some serious rage issues, and for the most part, he is able to avoid both the “poor, poor, me” whining, and the blind, antisocial sentiment of mediocre nu-metal, yet he doesn’t get too syrupy, either. It all comes to a head on the stunning, harrowing “All Within My Hands”, as Hetfield bares his soul, barking, “I’ll die if I let go/Control is love, love is control,” as the song concludes with his anguished screams of, “Kill! Kill! Kill!”
In an effort to prove that they’re not really so mean, the band has given fans a real treat of a bonus feature along with the album, in the form of a special DVD that features the band performing every song in their rehearsal studio. It sounds as sloppy as the album sometimes, but there are times where the band, joined by new bassist Robert Trujillo (producer Bob Rock played all the bass on the album), completely blow away the album, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re still one of the best live bands on the planet.
It’s probable that no band has worked harder, longer, to craft an album with the intention to make it sound as rough as possible. Bob Rock’s production, aided by Pro Tools, has the guitars sounding considerably muddier than any other Metallica album, and Ulrich’s hollow snare drum sounding like he’s pounding relentlessly on a hubcap for an hour and a quarter. Audiophiles will definitely take issue with the album’s sound, but it works very well with the songs’ roughshod structures and blunt subject matter. However, although they’re playing with the same intensity as Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, there are absolutely none of the creative guitar and bass melodies underneath all the noise that defined those two masterpieces, and in the end, that’s what longtime Metallica fans will miss the most.
St. Anger is flawed, but it’s not anywhere near the disaster many people have been expecting. It’s like Metallica is starting from scratch, trying to erase what has been a hellish three years, and what you hear on this album is the sound of a band playing with passion for the first time in ages. It’s an ungodly mess at times, but that passion wins you over.