St. Anger was Metallica’s fourth consecutive album to debut at number one on the Billboard Top 200. The album arrived at the tail end of a very public and very fucked up time for the band as is documented in the fascinating Some Kind Of Monster documentary that preceded the album’s high profile release.
The album features a number of major annoyances in a seeming attempt to redefine the Metallica sound. While Load (1996) and ReLoad (1997) took the band to a more hard rock extreme, St. Anger seeks to reestablish the band as heavy music’s most menacing act. The whole album is rife with “new twists” that fall flat at best.
For example, the completely unexpected change to Lars Ulrich’s near perfect drum sound. Easily the most consistent member of Metallica soundwise, Ulrich trades in his huge, pounding sound for a flat sound that is better suited to a garage band’s cassette demo recordings. Sad but true.
Another left of centre twist, is the near naked vocal work of James Hetfield. While Hetfield has never been a strong vocalist per se, he has masked his inabilities with just enough “magic” to fit the style well enough. Here he goes full-throttle in a valiant attempt to simply let the anger in his voice carry him. In the end it just doesn’t work at all. Again, the band just sound like they are making demos here and they further that idea by excluding guitar solos (which are often added in post-production anyway).
As unruly and unfocused as this album is however, there are some songs that are so strong that they are able to rise above the hollow sound. ‘Frantic’, ‘Some Kind of Monster’ and ‘Purify’, and also moments on the title track itself, contain some of Ulrich’s most interesting drum parts. I dare say that if the drums had been produced differently on these songs, it could have turned the whole boat around, despite the weak vocals. The band are much more intense and fast-paced then they have been in a long time and if the dirty guitars had offered a solo here and there then we may have seen a couple of Metallica classics in ‘Frantic’ and ‘Invisible Kid’.
Another great example of something that went right on this album is the lyrics. These are by far some of Hetfield’s best lyrics. It’s hard to get past the “new” sound, but if you can then some truly emotional lyrics await you. We are talking about straight from the heart, ugly, and ineloquent lyrics. ‘All Within My Hands’ and ‘Invisible Kid’ as well as the trio of inaugural tracks all boast memorable and easily relatable lyrics if you were a misfit kid, like many metal fans were… and are. Further, the album’s first line (from the song ‘Frantic’) where Hetfield snarls “If I could get my wasted days back, would I use them to get back on track?” is quite likely the key to the entire album, perhaps even this entire era of the band.
Overall, this is still unmistakably Metallica’s worst album. There is no way around that. With that said, there are some hidden moments of greatness here if you allow yourself to move past the overall sound. This album is almost like Spock’s beard from the original Star Trek series; it’s a flip flop. What you loved about Metallica is gone, but the things they were weakest at improved this time out.
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