When you look at Metallica’s catalog, there are any number of moments that you could point to for this series. The complete shift of attitude and direction on Load might have been a good one, and how can you forget the god-awful Lou Reed collaboration Lulu?
But there’s probably no moment in Metallica history that better fits the description of “meltdown” than St. Anger.
The 1990s saw huge shifts for Metallica, beginning with the stripped-down massive hit that was their self-titled album. They followed that up with Load, which brought a chorus of cries of sellout with its shift in music direction and overblown arguments about the length of their hair. Coming immediately out of that, drummer Lars Ulrich decided to take on Napster and illegal downloading of music. Right or wrong, that campaign certainly did even more to alienate fans from the band.
Though they were still selling out shows, it was clear that the band was beginning to fall apart. Bassist Jason Newsted left, and in a most un-metal move, they called in counselors to work with them as they recorded the album, as documented in the film Some Kind of Monster.
Despite all of the chaos and confusion surrounding the making of the record, though, I still don’t think it deserves the hate that it gets.
The band made a lot of questionable calls in the songwriting and production. Metallica needed a fresh start, and I understand the decision to strip it down and try to make it sound like a garage recording, but why not just go make it a garage recording? That certainly would have been better than trying to make a garage recording in a state-of-the-art studio. At least the terrible sound of the album would have been real and raw.
Then there was the decision to not allow guitarist Kirk Hammett to solo on the songs, so as to avoid making the record sound dated. WTF? Really?
Without the solos and shifts of the band’s earlier work, the songs are simply too long, and they get boring. And speaking of boring, can we get a song that’s not about guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield’s substance abuse?
So, with all of those things working against it, why do I actually like St. Anger? Simple, really. Because it’s the album that Metallica needed to make at the time. They needed to find some anger and fire, and while it’s far from a perfect record, it certainly had those things.
I still remember hearing “St. Anger” for the first time. I had, for the most part, given up on Metallica ever recording something I wanted to hear again, but then I heard that title track, and my interest was piqued. Was it a return to form? No. But there was a heaviness, an energy, an abandon in it that I hadn’t heard from the band in years. It produced a spark that made me want to go out and buy the album, even though I had decided that I probably wouldn’t.
Unlike other Metallica albums, I rarely listen to St. Anger these days. The only ones I listen to less, in fact, are Load (a song every now and then) and Lulu (not at all). But there are a still a few songs from it that I still dig and will still crank on occasion when they pop up in my shuffle.
I still love the slinky main riff of “Some Kind of Monster” and can’t help but bob my head along. The defiant anger of “My World” may be one of the most genuine moments on the record. A couple of other tracks I like that never seem to get any love (well, as much love as anything from St. Anger gets) are “Shoot Me Again” and “Sweet Amber.” I love the groove on “Shoot Me Again,” and that slightly bluesy feel on “Sweet Amber” is cool to me. I’m also a fan of album closer “All Within My Hands,” though like some of the other tunes, it wears out its welcome before it’s near nine-minute run time is done.
Despite its problems, I truly think St. Anger may be the most real and raw album Metallica has ever recorded. They dropped the façade and dared to expose their wounds to the world, and whatever you may think about that, it does take a certain amount of bravery.
More than that, though, without St. Anger, we would never have gotten Death Magnetic, which I do like quite a bit. Yes, it has challenges of its own, but I still say if you don’t like it, you may just be a hater.
St. Anger renewed my waning interest in Metallica, a band that I grew up loving and was ready to give up on completely. While they will likely never produce another record that I love as much as those first four, hope springs eternal, largely because of the anger and energy of this record and the rebirth that followed on Death Magnetic. For that alone, I think it deserves some respect.
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