St. Anger is Metallica’s best record of original material in over a decade. Unfortunately - that’s not saying much. Recent efforts Load and Re-Load were an identity crisis of rock, alternative, blues, country and oh yeah - some metal thrown in here and there. St. Anger dispenses with the recent spate of radio friendly pleasantries in favor pedal to the floor thrash, staggered and extended song structures, quick changes and a muddled production that tries to harken back to the Kill ‘Em All days.
All attempts fail miserably.
“Frantic” starts off St. Anger well enough, with a signature thrash guitar riff playing in tandem with a strangely hollow and tinny drum, as if Lars Ulrich traded in his Tama kit for a Toys R Us model. Sounding somewhat unique at first, before it becomes clear; this isn’t some neat studio trick for the beginning of the song - the production is really that horrendous. James Hetfield starts to drop clichés such as “My lifestyle / Determines my deathstyle,” but it’s not until about 2:09 into the song when he squawks the doozy “Frantic tick tick tick tick tick tick tock” that “Frantic” loses every ounce of credibility. The singer, who used to describe time along the lines of “Millions of our years / In minutes disappears” (“Blackened” from 1988’s . . . And Justice For All) has sadly been reduced to simpleton nursery rhyme ramblings like “Tick tick tick tock?”
When not trying to be Mother Goose, Hetfield’s new found sobriety dominates the lyrical subject matter, but did the rest of the band have to give up something too? Kirk gives up solos completely, Lars gives up keeping time and tune, and former bassist Jason Newsted just plain gave up.
The title track, with portions bearing a striking resemblance to Megadeth’s “Hangar 18”, again delivers another great metal riff, speeding it up as the double bass pounds away before a break where Hetfield starts trying to sing in key, recalling everything that sucked about the Load records. Multiple riffs fall all over each other, creating a mish-mash that sounds like a jam session gone wrong.
The theme doesn’t waver much, save for a bright spot here and there, like the layered “Some Kind of Monster”, which buries an evil and almost bluesy guitar churner just below the surface of a classic speed metal attack and trademark Hetfield growl. Yet, just when it seems like they’re getting it right, a cog in the machine breaks and screws it all up. This time around, it’s Hetfield screaming “We the people” annoyingly off key. Who made the rule that the first, or for that matter worst vocal take had to be used - or was it another part of the “plan” to keep it real and raw?
Initially, it seemed like a shame that new bassist Robert Trujillo didn’t come on board until after recording had been wrapped up, as Bob Rock was apparently too busy handling bass duties to worry about producing the record. One week after it’s release though, Rock told MTV that St. Anger was meant to “sound like four guys in a garage getting together and writing rock songs”. That’s a unique concept - except Metallica has already done it. The Garage Days Re-Revisited EP in 1987. That album was “Not very produced by Metallica” according to the inlay, but sounds like a Phil Spector produced record compared to St. Anger. If Rock is telling the truth about designing the album to sound like five-year-olds just learning to play on coffee cans and Fisher-Price musical equipment, that may be worse than admitting to doing a shitty job on production. The old school Metallica fan that is apparently the demographic for this release wants to hear their favorite band get back to their roots - but not at the sake of becoming poseurs, which is what contrived rawness is equal to.
Critics comparing St. Anger to . . . And Justice For All had better pull the 1988 masterpiece out again for another listen. There is nothing on this CD that touches what remains the most focused, angry and pure Metallica record to date. St. Anger’s final moment of failure comes at the end of the last track, “All Within My Hands”, where Hetfield screams “Kill / Kill / Kill / Kill / Kill” over and over - off-key yet again, he sounds about as angry, threatening and authentic as Justin Timberlake, much like the disc as a whole. If Metallica wanted to sound desperate to regain their former fans, they couldn’t have picked a better method of going about it.