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It has been five years since Metallica last released an album of original music, and it’s been nearly a decade since many metal fans wrote them off from the genre for good. After the meandering boogie experimentalism that defined the Load and Reload sessions and the naked commercialism of the group’s hit “I Disappear” from the Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack, it seemed that Metallica would settle comfortably into middle age, closing out their career delivering a series of bland (if inoffensive) hard rockin’ tunes owing more to Lynard Skynard than Motorhead.
Then things began to fall apart. Longtime bassist Jason Newstead left the band in a huff over the strong-arm bully tactics of frontman James Hetfield, leaving Metallica unable to tour or record. Hetfield, for his part, entered a legthy period of rehabilitation for alcohol and drug abuse, uncertain he would ever return to the touring lifestyle. Amidst it all, drummer Lars Ulrich thoroughly ruined the band’s fan-friendly reputation by leading the charge against the mega-popular copyright meddlers at Napster. From any angle, Metallica looked finished.
It was this period of turmoil over the last year that Metallica created St. Anger, a strange collection of 11 songs once again helmed by “Black Album” producer Bob Rock. Though many fans set themselves up for disappointment after word spread early on that the album featured a return to Metallica’s classic, Master of Puppets-era sound, St. Anger is nothing less than a step in a new, unprecedented direction for the band. It is their largest musical leap (and risk) since Ride the Lightning succeeded Kill ‘Em All in 1984.
Some of the changes on St. Anger are obvious immediately. For one, there isn’t a single solo from Kirk Hammet’s down-tuned guitar on the entire disc. Another unexpected change is the extraordinary double-kick drumming of Ulrich, who clearly had something to prove to the world on this release. But the most notable change on the record is the raw production style employed by Bob Rock, who also played bass on the Newstead-less St. Anger. Unlike his most famous work, Metallica and Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood, Rock has kept these newest songs brassy and vulnerable, without the extraordinary polish he is known for. On a number of tracks, Hetfield’s vocal cracks and imperfections are left untouched by Pro-Tools overdubs, and Ulrich’s clanging metal snare drum rides high in the mix, giving the disc a rough feel of desperation and honesty that was touched upon in the Load era but never fully explored. This air of vulnerability in the songs created by Rock’s production work is perhaps St. Anger’s greatest strength, matching the intimacy of Hetfield’s rehab-inspired lyrical explorations.
“Frantic,” the album’s opening track, quickly sets the tone for the new direction taken with the disc. A stuttering guitar riff leads into a verse heavier than anything the band has done in the last ten years, and a disjointed series of choruses, bridges and rhythm changes lead into a whipping finale, challenging the listener to check the name of the band on the cd’s spine again. A microcosm of the entire album, “Frantic” is extremely long and dense, with several different styles crushed into a single tune. Lines like “Could I have my wasted days back/Would I use them to get back on track?” clearly explore Hetfield’s uncertainty following rehab, and Rock’s loose production helps the music convey the song’s unique intensity. Welcome to St. Anger.
Though tracks like “St. Anger” and “Purify” follow the strange, lurching not-quite-thrash style of “Frantic,” many of the better songs on the album feature a Metallica unafraid to fucking jam. “Some Kind of Monster” features a good, heavy Sabbath-esque groove that sounds even better played over Ulrich’s hyper-speed pounding, and “Invisible Kid” employs a heavier, faster version of the boogie rock of Reload. “My World,” the strongest track on the album, finds the band stretching into odd-timed rhythms with fluid transitions, creating a great metal song in which Hetfield sincerely relates his uncertainty without sounding forced.
Other tracks on the disc suffer by comparison. The structure of “Dirty Window” isn’t too different from the rest of the record, but the song never really comes alive. “The Unnamed Feeling” isn’t bad, but drags a bit without offering much of interest, reeking of an unfinished idea. “Shoot Me Again” simply stinks, with Hetfield delivering one of the least-effective and corny vocals of his career. The poor tracks on the disc are essentially failed experiments; Metallica is stretching, but sometimes their reach exceeds their grasp. Rock’s biggest failure in his role as producer was to allow the majority of these songs to run far longer than they should have. There’s simply no reason for many of the repeats and false endings to be found on St. Anger. Metallica needed an editor, but Rock’s “rough cut” approach towards the feel of the disc apparently precluded that duty.
Overall, St. Anger is a strange, interesting and unexpected album from Metallica. Unlike Load and its twin, this new record is definitely heavy metal, but thematically it is clearly the work of middle-aged men. While many of their elder peers in the thrash scene (Slayer) remain in perpetual arrested development, Metallica has emotionally matured healthily, and St. Anger could almost be a tribute to that fact. This record sounds nothing like anything the band has done before, which is a brave step for a group whose imitators (Godsmack) are pulling more weight with the public than the originators these days. St. Anger is not an instant classic; it’s flaws are numerous and, at times, obvious. It’s not brutal, evil or sexy. Instead, St. Anger is sincere and earnest, which is a surprise from a band that so relished rock-star excess during their height in the 90s. St. Anger demands attention and patience to be enjoyed, and many underground metal fans will quickly dismiss it after realizing that this release can’t touch the speed and fury of many modern acts like God Forbid or Darkest Hour that Metallica’s early work inspired. But St. Anger is worth a listen because it is the sound of a band declared dead by fans and members alike being reborn into something new. Metal fans looking for anything like Mater of Puppets are going to hate it; but Metallica fans who have stuck by the band and listened with open ears through the thick and thin will love it... Eventually.
Nate Smith is a Contributing Writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.