It has been almost 4 full years since Metallica released St. Anger, and now that I have finally stopped laughing at the title track, I figured it would be a good time to give the album a full listen. After all, this band was very important to me in my formative years and I was a loyal fan up until they stuck a knife in my back and asked Bob Rock to completely neuter the band in 1991 with the release of their fifth (and by far worst) release, a self titled piece of crap with the thinnest and most moribund production possible – a stunning disappointment coming of the band’s two heaviest (and best) albums, 1988’s …And Justice For All and 1986’s Master of Puppets.
Since the new songs were so terrible and formulaic, the band finally started getting some radio play where “Enter Sandman” became a huge hit, made the album a huge commercial success and lead to 4 or 5 years of world tours before their divergent follow up album, Load, which was widely regarded as a flop. Many fans considered the album to be soft and thought the group had “sold out” as they had all cut off their hair, neverminding the fact that the only album on which they compromised their musical integrity for profit was the previous album. I have not listened to Load in a very long time. I remember liking it. It is definitely not the hard hitting metal that the band had produced early in it’s existence, but it did show that the group had the capability of writing layered, interesting songs, with a very obvious souther-rock influence evident in the song writing. In ’97, the band released Reload only a year after Load disappointed. Reload was a slightly more aggressive version of Load, as the bulk of material was written and/or recorded during the making of Load and never used on the album. It was clearly not the glorious return to triumphant metal that the many fans had hoped for, but most of them did appreciate the fact they had something to blast out of the rolled down windows of their pickup trucks again without feeling a certain degree of shame. After all, if you got caught cranking up “Until It Sleeps,” you may very well have gotten your ass kicked…so the silly-assed opening track “Fuel” on Reload came as welcome relief to some.
The band went on another long hiatus after Reload, and fan’s would have to wait until 2003 for the band to release some new material. A few quick footnotes about the band’s activities between ’97 and ’03:
-In 1999 they released a moronic live album in which the were accompianied by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra called S&M. Completely retarded.
–Lars Ulrich spent the bulk of 2000 telling fans to go fuck themselves for downloading their music “illegally” on Napster. He eventually managed to get the site shutdown and further alienated fans who had shelled out tons of money for merchandise and concert tickets to keep the band afloat during their long breaks between albums.
-In 2001 Jason Newstead (the last reasonable brain in the group) quit the band. He cited James Hetfield‘s insistence that band members stay out of side projects and the fact that, he felt, his bandmates had not accepted him as equal to Cliff Burton, whom Newstead replaced after a bus fell on Burton’s head and killed him dead. Newstead said the band’s decision to hire a psychologist was “Really fucking lame. And weak.”
Well, I do believe that brings us up to speed on the whereabouts and happenings of one of the largest and most successful bands of all time…just in case you weren’t in the loop.
When the title track from St. Anger was released as a single before the album hit stores, there was a single fixation everyone had, and that was the odd choice of snare sound. I was among the many critics who did not quite understand how and why a band with seemingly unlimited resources could sit around in the studio, listen to the song and think, “Yes. I like the loud, shrill pinging sound we have achieved by using a thin layer of aluminum on Lars’ snare instead of a conventional drum skin.”
Bob Rock strikes again.
As I mentioned…Metallica is one of the largest, most successful and, consequently, wealthiest bands ever. One would think that they would aspire to have an album recorded and produced in a manner that would not sound like it were done is some guy’s basement on a Tascam 4-track…but, alas, the album, from start to finish, sounds like ass. I am not sure what the idea behind the production value of this album was. I respect an artist experimenting and trying new things, but how anyone could come to conclusion that this stuff sounded good astounds me. On a positive note, the guitar tones on this album are pretty raw and I rather enjoy them. Unfortunately, the guitars completely dominate the mix and the only time any part of the rhythm section cuts through is when the annoying snare drum kicks in, and even then, that is only in certain parts of certain songs. The way the drum sounds change from track-to-track and even within certain songs is very distracting (and patently stupid). I am reading that Bob Rock played bass on this album, but try as I might, I cannot fucking hear it. I am not sure what Bob’s disdain for low-end is all about, but if you are trying to create a heavy sound you cannot do it with all treble. Even Lars’ kick drum is barely audible.
The funny thing is…the wretched recording/production/mixdown is not even the worst part of this album. That distinction belongs to the lyrics. Now, I am not the type of person who gets all huffy when the lyrics suck. Bad lyrics do not preclude me from liking a band or a song, but I can assure you that when I hear a 40 year old man singing lines that sound like they were taken from the diary of a 15 year old stepchild, it is quite hard for me to take it seriously, and to liken Hetfield’s lyrics on this album bitter adolescent poetry would be a slander against stupid teenagers everywhere.
Don’t believe me? See how far you can get through this without rolling your eyes.
Never see what he did
Got stuck where he did
Fallen through the grid
Got a place of his own
Where he’ll never be known
Inward he’s grown
Locked away in his brain
From the shame and the pain
World down the drain
Suspicious of your touch
Don’t want no crutch
But it’s all too much
I hide inside
I hurt inside
I hide inside, but I’ll show you
I’m ok, just go away
Into distance let me fade
I’m ok, just go away
I’m ok, but please don’t stray too far
Open your heart
I’m beating right here
Open your mind
I’m being right here, right now
Open your heart
I’m beating right here
Open your mind
I’m being right here, right now
Ooh, what a good boy you are
Out of the way and you’re kept to yourself
Ooh, can’t you see that he’s not here
He doesn’t want the attention you give
Ooh, unplugging from it all
Invisible kid floats alone in his room
Ooh, what a quiet boy you are
He looks so calm floating ‘round and around in himself
So…if you get hung up on lyrics…this album is not for you.
Another major issue I have with St. Anger is that a lot of the songs are patchwork quilts with ill-fitting transitions and lacking proper flow. This is one area of major regression for the band. It is as though they all came to the rehearsals with different riffs and piecemealed them together as best they could to meet a deadline. Some of the tracks work, but the majority of them are written childishly and far-too simplistic. Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Other Part, Verse Chorus. This is supposed to be Metallica…not a punk band. They did not even bother trying to maintain the illusion that they are good musicians on this album.
Now that I have covered the bulk of the negatives, I feel compelled to spend a little time giving credit where credit is due. I already alluded to the guitar tones on this album, which are not the high-gain, over-processed tones you might expect. Very well rounded with good mid-range, the guitars sound more southern/stoner rock than they do heavy metal, and I love it. The dropped tuning becomes distracting every now and then, prompting me to look at my iPod and make sure that I did not accidentally upload a Slipknot song, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your feelings on Slipknot. There is definitely an undercurrent of heavier, more hardcore riffage on this album, though, with numerous psuedo-breakdown parts that were likely included to appeal to a younger audience. I can take em or leave em. I don’t typically think of Metallica as a “breakdown band,” but they go about it ambiguously enough about it to be acceptable.
Also, there is a distinct lack of guitar solos on this album. Some view that as a bad thing, but considering how terrible Kirk Hammet‘s solos have gotten over the years, ll I have to say about it is “thank you.”
Despite the fact that every word Hetfield sings on this album is complete tripe, his vocals have remained distinct and are far more commanding on St. Anger than they were on Load and Reload. Whether or not you are a fan of his raspy style, I do think that credit needs to be given to the rawness of his performance, as it compliments the “edgier” music very well.
Overall, I would say that I was surprised by St. Anger. Not because it is a good album, but because it is not nearly as horrible as I was expecting. It is not something that will find it’s way into my normal rotation of albums, but I will keep it on my hard drive and in my iTunes with the Metallica albums that I do like, a distinction that cannot be claimed by the Black Album. The main drawbacks on this album are definitely the retarded production (esp. of the drums) and lyrics, but if you can work your way past those two obvious flaws, I would say you might actually enjoy this album. After listening to it a couple times through now, I view it as an attempt by the band to reinvent themselves yet again, and while I won’t say that they completely missed, I do think this effort smacks of “trying too hard.” As much as I would like to blame Bob Rock entirely (just because I hate him), the band themselves deserve equal share of the criticism for allowing themselves to put out something sounding so repulsively bad, and I think they came to that conclusion themselves, as they announced Rick Rubin will be producing their next album, due out late this year.
I won’t recommend this album on the basis that it is good music, but I will say that, if you liked this band at any point in their existence, it is worth it to listen to just for the sake of comparison. I also apologize for not citing specific tracks in this review and for not embedding any audio…but after Lars and the whole Napster debacle, I figured it would be best to not tempt fate and post Metallica songs on the internet. I will, however, include this parody song that came out shortly after the first single was released. It was created by Matt Smith of the band Theocracy, and it kills me every time.