The chaos that lead to the release of Metallica (opens in new tab)'s sixth album, St. Anger, in 2003, is well-documented. Following a period of intense soul-searching, emotional upheaval and writer's block, as well a lengthy recruitment process to replace the recently-departed Jason Newsted, Metallica finally knuckled down and, like blood from a stone, got an album made.
The result was one of the most divisive albums in metal history.
When St. Anger finally found its way to release, it was as if the Gods of Metal had taken a gigantic cleaver and hacked the assembled metal-listening public straight in two. Half Metallica's fans lauded St. Anger as precisely the album they'd spent six years waiting for – a masterpiece from a band returning to the full force of their powers; half wished the band would've just heeded the words of Papa Ulrich when he famously advised they "delete that", and denounced it as the most bitterly disappointing album in the band's history (boy, would they get a shock when Lulu surfaced eight years later).
Nowhere was this more evident than in our own coverage of the album upon its release. While Philip Wilding, writing for Classic Rock called it "unfettered hell-for-leather nonsense pretty much from beginning to end," Metal Hammer correspondent Chris Ingham dubbed it "both musically and spiritually, the most honest, stripped-down soul-baring exercise that you’re ever likely to hear from the world of Metallica."
Now, we hand the decision over to you. We look back on both reviews below, so you can decide once and for all if St. Anger is an underrated classic or the sound of a band truly losing their way. Cast your vote at the bottom of the page.
St. Anger: A clanger
Art, it’s said, is often wrestled from the travails of adversity. In their own way, Lord knows, Metallica have suffered for theirs. Bassist Jason Newsted left recently, and couldn’t quite resist pulling the tiger by the tale with a series of well-publicised jibes that snapped at Metallica’s heels. James Hetfield – for whom the term ‘brooding’ was probably invented – gave his ex-colleague very short shrift indeed and, like a child taking his ball home, told Jason he was never playing with him again. So there.
For his part, Hetfield entered into rehab. And then band and entourage, possibly encouraged by his success, entered into some kind of collective healing and counselling programme to work through the process of losing original bassist Cliff Burton (in 1986) and being one of the biggest and richest bands in the world. I’m guessing at the second bit, but in the band’s latest press release Lars Ulrich talks about having to face up to the possibility of the demise of Metallica. He probably furrowed his brow as he said it; he does a lot of brow furrowing. But this was serious: what if James never came back? And who was going to be the new bass player in the band? And why wouldn’t all those pesky kids stop downloading their music over the internet?
It’s easy to laugh at Metallica – it’s easy to laugh at anyone blessed with occasional musical brilliance and millions of dollars who complains about their lot in life. Which is not to deny them their pain; most great bands have stumbled along the way. It’s been 20 years since the Kill ‘Em All album and Metallica have barely put a foot wrong. Their evolution has been inspired and somehow meticulous. They never fell victim to fashion or trend (which does for most bands on a five years cycle) because they simply didn’t adhere to any.
When they played acoustic guitars on stage at Hammersmith Odeon (as then was) to promote 1984’s Ride The Lightning album there were cries of heresy that rivalled the catcalls aimed at Bob Dylan when he went electric. Metallica were right, of course, and dragged thrash metal (or whatever it was called that week) into the future. They gave it dispassion, weight and heart. And they waited for everyone else to catch on. But unlike most visionaries they did reap the rewards commercially and critically. They haven’t released a studio album since 1997 (and that was primarily out-takes from Load), and they’re still one of the most influential and enduring bands on the planet.
Whether Metallica are still any good or not, however, is another matter entirely. You don’t review a Metallica album, instead you’re invited to an opulent basement bar in Soho to eat and drink and to listen to it. While you’re doing so, PR people study you intently for the merest flicker of emotion to register on your face; it’s like being a hamster in a research lab, or a Big Brother contestant. The scrutiny is okay, it’s the music (you suddenly realise) that’s unbearable.
I think it was around the seventh song that a fellow sufferer whispered: “There are no guitar solos.” And up to that point, at least, he was right. In fact there was very little guitar generally; it was mired in the cacophonous, tinny wail of drums and Hetfield’s unbalanced bark. Which, now I read that back, sounds like Metallica at their most bloody-minded and strident. Bloody-minded, possibly – there has to be a reason that Lars has chosen to swamp every other instrument with his, and that Hetfield has decided to forego lyrics and instead spout inanities and slogans. This, you reason, must be the sound of a mid-life crisis.
It’s unfettered hell-for-leather nonsense pretty much from beginning to end. Forget nuance or gravitas – or Metallica, for that matter – this is latter-day heavy metal pulverised into a risible mush that owes as much to rock music’s deviation in the last three years, as to the credible legend that Metallica have built and cultivated since the early 80s.
I’ll wheedle out the high points for you: the title track is poised and cleverly layered, just like Linkin Park might be; Hetfield’s voice is double-tracked, spoken and sung; the riff is reminiscent of Battery, the snare drum like it’s made entirely out of steel (that isn’t a compliment). Purify plays with a rhythm that shows more invention than most of the rest of the album heaped together but, like the rest of the 74 minute album, it’s unnecessarily lengthy. All Within My Hands (the song titles read like a teenager’s diary) is playful and experimental, but ends in a murderous dirge that runs out of ideas and right off the record.
Hetfield credits anger as the creative impulse behind a lot of this album, and it’s easy to pick up on the insolence and fury sparking off its surface. But Metallica’s strength lay in their ability to embody and empathise with more than one emotion, then convey those feelings through a series of disparate elements sewn together cleverly to impart their ideas (I think they called it songwriting). History has shown us otherwise, but there’s nothing here to suggest Metallica might ever try that again.
St. Anger: A banger
It might have taken six years for a new Metallica album to arrive, but even just one listen is enough to convince that had they had just a two-week start to finish, do-or die deadline, then St. Anger would surely have been the result.
Both musically and spiritually, St. Anger is the most honest, stripped-down soul-baring exercise that you’re ever likely to hear from the world of Metallica. You can feel through every raging beat and pumping, nervous riff that St. Anger is the sound of a band seizing what they believe might be their last ever chance to stand in a room together under that name. And it’s a gleeful racket that they emit.
Make no mistake, St. Anger is by far the most pissed-off Metallica record since the fading chords of 88’s …And Justice For All and – no word of a lie – it features some of their thrashiest material since 86’s Master Of Puppets era classic Damage, Inc. No bull. That good.
St. Anger is a pummelling, very metal record of the highest vicious standards, that can stand toe-to-toe with System Of A Down, Disturbed, Godsmack, Korn and all manner of platinum lined pretenders. St. Anger can do this, because it’s the painful howl of a wounded band hell bent on protecting their turf. Metallica were listening when they heard the best form of defence is attack, and this time they’ve come armed with MOABs.
Opening song Frantic hits like a high explosive round. Imagine Ministry stripped of their technology, right down to their primal punk metal roots, then add that Hetfield guitar, and you’ll begin to feel the dark place where Metallica 03 are at.
The title track clocks in over the seven minute mark, with almost as many time changes and riffs to boot. Gone are those Black Album days, when producer Bob Rock insisted the band concentrate on one riff per song if they harboured any serious intentions of cracking the mainstream. Back are those long yearned for years of monstrous progressive workouts, with ebb and flow with numerous riffs and complex time changes. The song St. Anger is a crunching tour de force of snatched riffs and a melee of drum sounds., but for all its surface chaos still coveys the simplest of messages: Metallica are back – don’t fuck.
Some Kind Of Monster (surely the album’s unofficial title) builds from a looser, almost bluesy lick, but no sooner are you into the comfort zone than down comes the pain, as Lars and Kirk smash the vibe to pieces in full rage. It’s a complete minutes before James’ vocals even start, a point underlining the fact that this is a record written in Metallica time, not radio airplay accessibility time.
Dirty Window at 5:42 is one of the few potential singles, and it locks back into the album’s early pounding groove. Though certainly less intense than Frantic and less complex than St. Anger, Dirty Window’s inherent simplicity lends the song a brooding, boisterous edge. When an accusatory Hetfield snarls, ‘I’m judge, jury and executioner, too!’, the shivers that’ll flood down the spine let you know that you can believe it.
Invisible Kid and My World (another possible single choice) lie at the centre of the record’s wounded soul. Both are layered with odd drum fills and jarring, edgy time changes that suggest good drummer Ulrich has been spending much of his recent down time listening to System Of A Down if nothing else.
If the Black Album was about fulfilling Metallica’s potential, and the Load/Reload albums were an attempt to tap into the cool, alternative markets, then although St. Anger is largely written for the band’s enjoyment first and foremost, it is undoubtedly a compromise between them and their hardcore fans. Metallica will give you those multiple riffs per song, they’ll up the tempo to maximum levels, and they’ll even extend the songs beyond the reach of the musical fast food consumers on MTV, but this is still Metallica, and they won’t make it that easy for you to follow. Around the point of My World, when Lars’ increasingly strange drum sounds filter through, and James’ frenzied punk riffs pile up, you’ll wonder just what the hell this band are playing at. While the band may look at St. Anger as their contract to the faithful, which should renew belief in their passion once again, this is still a band who are beyond having any interest in repeating old glories; they’re just pushing back the boundaries once more.
The sublime bass intro to Shoot Me introduces the monster groove of St. Anger. That whole ‘groovy sound’ that Lars claimed would define the Load sessions can be found better executed on this one tune than on any of the previous 27 attempts, for sure. As Kirk’s scratching leads and James’ slicing riffs tear scars across the mood, Shoot Me rapidly turns into an angry, throbbing wound of a song that – like the voyeuristic scene of a car crash – is impossible to ignore.
That said, the uptempo Sweet Amber is a more conventional rocker reminiscent of Fuel’s chrome-polished nu Metallica, and such also adds little to the edgily compulsive new sound of the record. With nearly 80 minutes of new music on offer, you have to wonder why something so traditional made the final cut.
The Unnamed Feeling – a band favourite – gets its hooks into a lazy, almost feel-good kinda vibe over the firs half of its life, before getting the veritable shit knocked out of it during an unexpected final, frenzied attack.
Any notions of leaving a record such as St. Anger bereft of an emotional high are ground into dust by the twin finale of _Pure If I _and All With My Hands, a song to match the classic, closing adrenalin spike of either Damage, Inc. or Dyer’s Eve. Where Pure If I recreates the breathless and basic savagery of Frantic, via a series of simple electric shock Discharge-style riffs, All With My Hands unleashes a complex battery of piss ’n’ vinegar. With just two minutes to go, and just when you think that this most mean spirited of junkyard dogs has finally barked itself hoarse, comes the final deadly reprise: yet another new tank sized riff is ground out, as a foaming Hetfield, clearly in the midst of some berzerker-type battle frenzy, unleashes the way cry “Kill! Kill! Kill!…Kill! KILL!” that’s guaranteed to leave you bouncing off the walls in an exhausted, sweaty-faced state. Friendly, violent fun for all.
You can be proud that Meallica cared enough to make St. Anger the way it is. Indeed, you can be proud that Metallica are still pissed at the world enough to make St. Anger at all. But you can definitely be proud that Metallica wanted to make a lasting difference to their own legacy that they were prepared to drag the spiritual depths to come up with a record like St. Anger.
You can, once again, be proud of Metallica.