Metallica – St. Anger (2003): On Second Thought

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At first, I was lamenting the death of a band I grew up with, reeling from hearing that horrible snare Lars is using, making fun of James Hetfield’s weak singing, poking at the plodding rhythms and overlong songs.

But after spending several days with a set of mp3s ripped from the commercial release (a fact which would send Lars into convulsions), I found that this gamely, unlovely new Metallica sound had wedged itself in all the odd spaces in my brain I reserve for those things which I inexplicably love, like the Shaggs. I kept hearing that horrible snare, like someone banging a metal spoon on the back of a copper pot and that odd, almost out-of-tune guitar that opens the album and the song “Frantic” — and Hetfield’s cloying play on the last syllable of that word (“Frantic — tic — tic — tic — tic — tic toc.”)

Yes, it’s overlong, yes it’s overdone, yes, it’s cheesy in spots, and yes, it doesn’t measure up to the Metallica of the past. (It does, however, please much more than either of the Load albums did — two spotty albums that, combined, would have probably made one quite good album.) What got me was that I felt that I was giving in to the anti-hype. As bad as falling for the hype that comes out with a major release is falling victim to the unavoidable anti-hype.

For every rave review, there is an uncountable number of “long time fans” who fight back, armed with examples of past greatness from the band’s back catalog to refute any claims of high moments. And it’s so easy to join into that — so easy to be negative, and it’s fun, too. Metallica had made fools of themselves over the previous 8 years or so, adopting the oh-so-alternative look by getting piercings in weird places, wearing dark eye-makeup, and, of course, cutting the long metal-head hair — then savagely attacking fans who downloaded the music. It’s easy to let those political and stylistic choices affect your feelings about a band. But as a self-appointed music critic, it’s not my job to take the easy route. I put aside my distaste for the occasional behaviors of members of Metallica, put aside my memories of … And Justice For All and Master Of Puppets, and attempted to listen to St. Anger as if I’d never heard this band before, as if they had no past to live up to.

After all, the past is a double-edged sword — the past carries along with it fans, and fans have expectations. While a band can look back at those career- and even genre-defining moments with pride, as Metallica can, the fans will use those same moments as if they were an albatross around the band’s neck. “Fans” very often prevent a band from truly progressing, as they will often be fickle and simply not respond: A good example would be Def Leppard’s Slang, a mature change of pace that contained few of the indulgent examples the band was so known for in the 1980s. Fans balked, sales slumped, even while critics raved and praised the grown-up style, and by the next album, the band was churning out songs filled with riffs lifted right out of their old hits. Fans loved it.

There are moments when a band does something truly perplexing, as when Metallica released Load and Reload, because it was uncertain who the band was appealing to. Metallica had a bit of a mid-life crisis, attempting to cash in on current trends in such a way that it didn’t appear convincing in any way, and the changes were so sudden that the band, understandably, upset a large number of very loyal fans. Remember that albatross, because this is when it was hung around the band’s neck. For every praise of songs like “King Nothing,” “Fuel,” “Fixxxer,” etc., fans would happily fling out duds like “Mama Said” in retaliation. The two albums, while certainly not classics, are unfairly judged by this period where upset fans took out their frustrations. Like I said, had Metallica been logical and cut out the dull, questionable material, the two shaky albums could have been combined into one solid follow-up to the multi-multi-platinum self-titled album. Instead their catalog is marred by not one, but two flawed albums issued in quick succession.

Is it possible to regain your former status after the flogging they received? If so, the band did nothing to help themselves by issuing an orchestral album (S&M) and a two-CD set of covers in the form of Garage, Inc. — always the death-knell of any band. (And yes, I do realize that much of it is a much-needed reissue of the legendary Garage Days EP. Regardless, a covers album signals the creative death of a band, a desperate, scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel move to get a few more big hits under their belt before disbanding.)

So hopes were understandably high when news that the band would soon release a new album, claimed by the band themselves as the heaviest thing they’ve done in 10 years or more. Can it possibly live up to that kind of hype? Metallica builds its own hype now, untended by record company PR. Fans were eagerly hoping for a Master 2 or the Justice follow-up, and not another Load by any means — and the band did everything but promise it outright. So, obviously, when the new album comes out, fans will practically riot because Metallica will never reach those heights again. Whatever magic a band possesses in its peak burns out, fades away, turns to dust — name your cliche’ — and it will never return in the same form.

Bands turn corners, and the black album for Metallica was that important corner. By writing more conventional song-structures, by incorporating more catchy choruses, the band fundamentally altered the very fabric of what makes up the Metallica sound. Like riding a bike, it’s simply impossible to not do it once you’ve gotten the hang of it. (Have you ever tried to ride badly, like you did the first time you sat on one? Try it and see what I mean.) The easiest thing a band can do is re-address what they’ve done in the past, rewrite those old songs with slightly different melodies and new lyrics. (That’s what Iron Maiden did with Brave New World, after all.) Or they can try to do something completely different, and that’s what Metallica did.

Oh, sure, some trademark riffs were noticeable here and there, but essentially the band’s sound on St. Anger was all new, and as such I had to listen to this as if the band was new to me too. And what I heard was, if not especially groundbreaking, an aggressive, honest assault that was straining to free itself of the past while doing the very things the band knows the fans love about them. So there were no ballads, no Southern-rock anthems, no Marianne Faithful. Lars laid it on thick with his double-kick drums, and fast, heavy riffs abound. But the band was still writing songs rather than epics, and the compromise was made by limiting the scope of each song. They may have played on and on — I did say much of this album is overlong, didn’t I? — but they didn’t stray very far from where they started out on each track.

There were very few tracks that really needed to go on the seven and eight minutes they do, and more often than not, it was the shorter (5+ minute) tracks that worked the best. As with the double Load offerings, there was simply too much here. Judicious use of fades and the delete button in the studio would have strengthened songs like “Invisible Kid” and “Shoot Me Again” (which had one of the most annoyingly repetitive choruses I’ve heard in a long while). But there were more than enough moments where Lars was pummelling his drums like he used to, where James and Kirk Hammett were flailing at their guitars, to invoke some of the old feelings Metallica stamped into you when you first heard them.

So it’s still not perfect: James Hetfield’s singing is not a highlight by any means (where is that growl we all loved so much, James?), and there’s nary a guitar solo out of Kirk Hammett to be found. But if you give it an honest chance, it might just work its way into you the way their old material did. It may not resurrect the scary despair Master of Puppets could, but it also won’t leave you cold like Load and Reload.

Most of all, it sounded like the band was trying for the first time in a long time — and that’s enough for me. (Oh, and Lars, if it wasn’t for those mp3s you so hate, I wouldn’t have bought St. Anger at all.)

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Johnson
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