Unpopular Opinion - Metallica's St. Anger
Metallica is a band widely regarded with bringing metal (and to an extent, Thrash) to the forefront of popular music. In 1991, they released their eponymous fifth studio album (also known as The Black Album) to critical and commercial acclaim. Tracks like “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” and “Nothing Else Matters” - still played on the radio today - cemented Metallica as a heavy hitter on the radio and on the charts.
Five years later Metallica released the controversial albeit successful Load, followed by Reload a year later. These albums shrugged off their heavier metal overtones in preference of a more “Hard Rock” sound and feel. Reload sold 436,000 units in its first week alone and went on to become 4x platinum by the RIAA for shipping 4 million copies in the U.S. Following the release of Reload came a covers/compilation album and a live album, then silence. Metallica would go into hibernation for nearly 6 years before a new studio LP was to be released.
June 5, 2003. Metallica’s final Elektra Records release and last collaboration with long time producer Bob Rock was unleashed onto the public like…Some Kind Of Monster. (See what I did there?) St. Anger. This was the album where Metallica would go back to their thrashy roots and give us, not hard rock, but some mother ‘effin Metal! And boy is it divisive! While critically it’s a generally moderate to well-received effort, people - especially long-time fans - took some serious issue with the new (old?) sound. Listening back through it, I can sort of feel it’s date - swimming amongst the era of Nu-Metal and Rap Metal and Disturbed (gross). However, it is of my unpopular opinion that this is the greatest Metallica release to date. Why? Let’s dig in.
The biggest complaint I’ve ever heard about this record is the sound of the snare drum that drummer, Lars Ulrich, decided to stick with throughout the entirety of the release’s 75 minutes. My biggest complaint about Metallica is that Lars Ulrich is a giant douche who has no more skill with the sticks as does any given chimpanzee with chopsticks and the will to rock - but I digress. The story goes that during a practice session, one of Metallica’s drum techs forgot to turn the snares on. When Lars sat down to play, he was pleasantly surprised by the tinny metallic ring coming out of his snare drum and decided to leave it the way it was for the album. Minus 1 or 2 tracks, I think the snare sound (as well as the productions values as a whole) actually add to the experience in a positive way. One of my favorite aspects of the album is how “garage rock” the production values are. Think White Stripes except it’s freakin’ Metallica. I can understand how this sound could turn people off to this album, but I like how it immerses me in a way that none of their other albums do. When I’m listening to St. Anger it’s like I’m sitting on a lumpy couch in someones garage in suburban America circa ’98 listening to the neighborhood Metallica cover band. I dig it.
Let’s start with the debut track, “Frantic”-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tock. Chugging on some distorted guitar - an excellent reminder that we are here for METAL, let no one declare otherwise! But seriously, it’s songwriting like this that gives me a deep appreciation for the skill Metallica has in their craft. Not Lars though. F*** that guy. After a brief introduction as to what we can expect from this album - and it really does a good job of setting the tone - the guitar chimes in with the melody that will be a steeple for the remainder of the track. “You live it or lie it! You live it or lie it!” compliments the melody further along following a verse and pre chorus. Hetfield’s voice maintains the raspy melodic yell Metallica fans have come to appreciate and brings a nice edge to an already edgy track. No complaints here, this track is solid and an excellent introduction into my favorite Metallica Album.
Oh boy. Despite my better judgement I’ll not skip the next track, titularly named “St. Anger”. Now here’s where things get weird. I really don’t like this track. This track that hit number 2 on the U.S. Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks and won a freakin’ Grammy for Best Metal Performance. That’s the same award later given to Ghost B.C. for their FAR superior track “Cerise”. Well anyway, let’s dig into this garbage. Everything starts out great. A simple riff chugged out in the left-hand speaker. In come monkey drums that (and keep in mind I usually try to refrain from complimenting Lars’ performance) perfectly accentuate this riff and turn it into a real down-to-earth, mother-of-God, heavens-to-betsy head banger of track! And then, add some thrash! It’s Metallica agai—wait, what? Where did all the heavy go? Why is James Hetfield crooning like he’s in a Jim Morrison sound-alike competition? What ARE these lyrics? “Saint Anger ‘round my neck, He never gets respect…You flush it out…I’m madly in anger with you…” (ok, I’ll admit that last one is kind of clever.) This is the track that makes me feel just how old St. Anger is. Nu-Metal, now a thing, was bound to play some role in influencing this release in some way and let’s just be happy that this track is pretty much it. The…chorus?…adds a little bit of a rap/rock flair interchanging the main crooney theme (“Saint Anger ‘round my neck”) with a heavy handed, spit-in-your-face, Linkin Park-esque mini-rap (“You flush it out, you flush it out). Underneath the “look at us, we can be Nu-Metal too” pretense of this song lies a really cool riff with some really cool thrash elements that do shine when available, but all-in-all this is by far the weakest track on the album. Moving on!
Following up the titular “St. Anger” is “Some Kind Of Monster”. Remember that joke I made earlier? No? I’ll let you scroll up. Now it’s pretty clever, eh? This song is heavy metal incarnate! Just sit back and let it take you on a ride. Hetfield and Hammet string us along an assortment of heavy guitar riffs while Hetfield explains to us what exactly “this” is. With thrashy elements throughout, this song is all about showcasing exactly what Metallica is all about (circa 2003, anyway). I don’t have much else to say about this track, just let the heavy riffs wash over you as Hetfield unleashes his monster on your face. Wow…I should probably re-write that last sentence.
Moving along we have my favorite track from my favorite Metallica release: “Dirty Window”. As lame as it sounds, I frequently find myself running through the intro in my head over and over while at work or out and about. It’s a simple little rhythm but addictive and pulled me in from the start. “This is gonna be quite the ride” is what the intro is telling me. It’s a simple riff too, yet effective. It has motion, it moves us forward. Hetfield’s mad ramblings (read: lyrics) are dished out with such intensity that it’s hard not to feel the passion behind this number. The tempo drops, the quiet moments (“I’m judge and I’m jury and I’m executioner too”), heck - even the drums are pretty great here. Please don’t tell Lars I said that. If after this review you still refuse to give this album a chance, at least listen to this track. Hands down my favorite Metallica performance.
While going into every track would make this review much too long, I’d like to at least touch on one more. That does not mean the other tracks on the album aren’t worth the listen, however, and I’d like to take this opportunity to quickly run down their merits. “Invisible Kid”’s lyrics and drive, the chaos of “My World”, the scratchy intro leading into one of the coolest riffs on the record on “Shoot Me Again”, “Sweet Amber”’s addictive melody, arguably the most Metallica-y track “The Unnamed Feeling” with it’s incredibly heavy guitars, and bringing everything to a close, “All Within My Hands”. Not a single track on this record is what I would consider “filler” and as a whole they work together in so many great ways thematically, musically, and lyrically. Now let’s talk “Purify”.
The second to last song on the album, “Purify” has more of that thrash sound that Metallica has made an effort to reintroduce into their catalog. This is the song where I find the snare drum most distracting. On other tracks, I kinda like the metallic sound but here it just rings on - heavily apparent during any brief silences. This is what I imaging would be the track that most people probably have a problem with when it comes to the drum sound. Looking past the metal ringing, however, is a great track with some great riffing - especially in the middle and end sections of the song. Despite the minor annoyance of Lars’ steel drum technique playing what I perceive as a larger role in this track, it’s still easily my second or third favorite track from this release.
So there you have it: St. Anger in all it’s glorious garage/thrash/metal/steel drum glory. Between Hetfield’s yelping puppy approach to the lyrics and Lars’ tropical vibe approach to the drumming, you’d think I’d have some serious issues here. In my opinion though, this is the purest of the Metallica albums. It’s genuine. It’s what you get when a band, already wildly popular, decides to do something different. It’s Metallica revisiting their roots in the most literal way they could get with a (likely) multi-million record deal, and that’s what makes this so special. It is the best of Metallica’s records. Give it a go and thank me later.