In many ways, "St. Anger" is the most anticipated, yet most dreaded, metal release since, well, the last METALLICA album. Twenty years (to the month) after the arrival of their monumental debut, "Kill 'Em All", this band still has the ability to command the attention of the entire metal community — from their legions of fans to their sizable army of detractors to fellow musicians to the ever-analytical media — with every musical move they make. And make no mistake, "St. Anger" is already as controversial a release as 1991's METALLICA and '96's "Load". It's also as different from those discs as they are from "…And Justice For All" and "Master Of Puppets". It's also one of the most memorable and powerful rock/metal albums of 2003, a fiery exorcism for this band of demons both personal and musical.
Let's get one thing straight: "St. Anger" is not a "return" to anything. The feverish rumors that swirled around the making of this album, signaling a retreat to the classic thrash sound of the first four studio efforts, were based, perhaps, on a mixture of wishful thinking and distorted snippets of information slipping out of the band's Bay Area headquarters. Anyone with any sense of how music works would have to realize that METALLICA could no more recreate "Ride The Lightning" today than BLACK SABBATH could recreate "Paranoid". The musical skills are different, the recording technology is different, but most importantly, the people are different. James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett are not the same musicians and human beings they were in 1984. To expect them to produce the same kind of material they did back then is unfair and illogical.
Moreover, it's doubtful they'd want to. Would you want to be back at the same job you were doing nineteen years ago, or back in the same class, or stuck in the same apartment? Life is about moving forward, and for music to sound alive, it has to move forward too. Listen to "…And Justice For All" now. It was great in 1988 (although not one of the band's best albums, and probably the least of the first four), but in several ways, it sounds dated and stiff, the product of a band slowly realizing that they needed to change, but not quite able to make the jump yet. Diehard METALLICA fans are well aware of the way that "Ride The Lightning", "Master Of Puppets", and "…And Justice For All" follow the same structural pattern: side one consisted of the fast opener, epic title track, sludgy slower third tune, and the powerful ballad. Side two invariably ended with a combination of a long instrumental and another fast thrasher. By 1988, the formula was getting predictable — and the band sensed it as well. For them to have kept that blueprint would have been creative suicide.
So METALLICA experimented. The black album, "Load", "Reload"…all variations on the original theme, some of them successful, some not. The black album was a masterful fusion of the band's monster heaviness with a new commercial sensibility, and still one of their best albums despite the groans of some fans who insisted on living in the world of "Kill 'Em All" forever. "Load" and "Reload", on the other hand, could only be deemed failures, despite some solid songs on both albums. For the first time, METALLICA were behind the times instead of ahead of them, trying too hard to keep up with the "alternative" wave and working overtime to distance themselves from their metallic roots. It wasn't organic, it was contrived, and it ultimately made those albums the weakest links in the METALLICA chain.
In the nearly six years since the release of "Reload", nu-metal reached its peak and died a quick, mostly deserved death, its own one-dimensionality and contrivances dooming it to self-parody within five years. Underground metal has continued to flourish on a small level, but with few bands having enough talent or ambition to manage even the slightest accessibility in their sound. And then we have the rise of "garage rock," supposedly the next wave of music that was going to literally save rock, but, with only one or two exceptions, has proven to be more of a hollow pastiche than a true resurgence of what made bands like THE STOOGES and THE RAMONES so vital.
What all this has lacked is real feeling, real humanity — there's no sense that you're hearing any true emotion on any album by STAIND or MESHUGGAH or THE DATSUNS, as capable (or not) as any of those bands might be. This is a sin that METALLICA has been guilty of in the past as well: masking true feeling with naked aggression, although they were far better at it than almost any other band of their ilk.
So now we come to "St. Anger": an album of raw, bleeding, naked humanity, full of mistakes and flubs and sloppy moments, engineered and recorded to frequently sound as if someone just hung a microphone in the band's rehearsal room and let them jam. The already-notorious drum sound does come remarkably close to the ring of a garbage can cover, while guitars rise and fall in the mix, crisp and precise one moment, muddy and distorted the next. There are audible missed cues and ragged edges. James Hetfield's voice is dry and unproduced, cracking, not hitting notes, and sometimes straining. There are moments in the 75-minute running time when any one of these things, or a combination of them, is actively annoying or distracting.
Yet this is also an almost unrelentingly heavy album, an in-your-face, nonconformist, uncommercial recording that sounds like virtually nothing else produced by a rock band in this young century. As bizarre as this sounds, only the WHITE STRIPES come close in terms of the kind of vibe that "St. Anger" puts across – and that's not to say that "St. Anger" sounds anything like "Elephant" (I could hear millions of jaws dropping there for a minute). After the last miserable few years of corporate nu-metal clones, trend-driven, model-fucking, "garage rock" posers, and regurgitating death metal wannabes, METALLICA has made an album that flies in the face of all conventional expectations of heavy rock music in 2003.
Again, the band hasn't retraced their steps to the thrash days of old, but there are signature styles that resurface here, filtered through the new, looser sensibility that dominates the album. There's plenty of double-bass, a major surprise from the questionable feet of Lars Ulrich. Vicious chainsaw riffing propels tunes like "Frantic" and "Sweet Amber", while the SABBATH-sized chords of doom made famous in classics like "The Thing That Should Not Be" are given a new spin on "Some Kind Of Monster" and "The Unnamed Feeling". The title track and "All Within My Hands" have the epic twists and turns of "…And Justice For All" or "Disposable Heroes". But the tightness of those productions is replaced by a raw immediacy that only a band finally comfortable with themselves as people and musicians could achieve.
"St. Anger" is not meant to be a perfect recording, and it's not. Like many great talents, METALLICA need an editor, but no one seems willing to take on the job. "Invisible Kid" doesn't need to be over eight minutes long, and some of the songs have perhaps one or two too many changes jammed into them. "Shoot Me Again" is, frankly, a mostly horrid faux-outlaw boogie that proves once more — as did similar songs on "Load"/"Reload" – that METALLICA just doesn't do blues well. While the production (or lack of it) suits the vibe of the material, the band still seems to have a problem with letting the bass be heard (even if it is producer Bob Rock playing).
But — "Shoot Me Again" aside — the songs are there. They have sweep and power and feeling. And yes, Hetfield has written and delivered his most personal, intimate lyrics and vocals yet — with all their imperfections intact. METALLICA fans have watched and heard this man struggle and evolve for two decades in his means of expressing himself, and this is perhaps the biggest step he's ever taken. He seems finally unafraid to show weakness or hurt or fear. Some of the lyrics drift a little too closely to nu-metal angst, but Hetfield doesn't blame his mom or his girl or anyone else for the torture he's going through: the responsibility falls squarely on his shoulders.
There's no way to tell where "St. Anger" falls in the METALLICA discography — it's too unlike anything else the band has ever done. A numerical rating simply doesn't sum up the album's many features and characteristics either, which is why I haven't given it one (which will surely piss off the editor). There's also no question that many fans will hate this album, while many will love it. Either way, this is a record that will trigger strong reactions.
That's nothing to take lightly. In a climate where more and more entertainment seems pre-packaged, pre-sold, and disappointingly predictable and generic, no other current metal band, and no other current metal record, will spark as much discussion, debate, opinion, and intense emotion as this band and this disc (just check the BLABBERMOUTH.NET boards for proof). Not for the first time in their long career, METALLICA has given us something to talk about. In the end, that alone makes "St. Anger" a success.
[The following note was added by the author after the original review was posted—Ed.]
P.S. I wanted to address a few readers who thought it odd that didn't give "St. Anger" a numerical rating. I find numbers or stars or "K's" or whatever people like to use to be increasingly restrictive, plus they have the effect of basically allowing people to grab a quick — and sometimes wrong — impression without seeing the context of the rest of the review. However, if I had to nail it down, I would give "St. Anger" an 8 out of 10. Hope that helps. — DK