Every Metallica fan has nightmares of James Hetfield singing “Frantic tic tic tic toc” over Lars Ulrich playing drums on a set of trash cans. Every Metallica fan will want to forget that Metallica ever released St. Anger. While it may have gotten mixed reviews from critics, the album was universally hated by the band’s fans. The general consensus among fans was that St. Anger was a musically irrelevant album. For all its flaws, the album still managed to sell 6 million records on pure hype alone. To put that into context, Justin Timberlake’s eagerly anticipated The 20/20 Experience has sold 4.5 million copies. But how does such a polarizing album hold up more than 12 years after it release?
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. The lyrics are just downright atrocious with “it’s my world / suck it” and “not only do I not know the answer / I don’t even know what the question is” being stellar examples. The production was described by producer Bob Rock as “raw and gritty,” but it just sounds muddy and sloppy in some places. The drums sound terrible, with the snare tone, in particular gaining legendary notoriety. And there are no solos! As impossible as it is to believe, a Metallica song sounds incomplete without Kirk Hammett’s trademark wah-infused solos that sound exactly the same on every song.
But I still prefer St. Anger over Load/Reload. As flawed as St. Anger is, its predecessor suffered from an even bigger problem – it was mediocre music. It was by the numbers, standard, power chord-driven hard rock. It was anonymous music that is played by thousands of bands. It was not something that you would expect from a band as innovative as Metallica. This was a band that had written the 10-minute instrumental masterpiece “To Live Is To Die”. To hear it settle for mediocrity was disappointing. It was not bad music. It was average music.
The album does have some strong points – as it does not have any solos, it is a very riff-driven album. James Hetfield may have lost a step or two lyrically, but he showed that he was still a riff master on this album. An example is the song “Sweet Amber.” It is chock full of great riff after riff, especially in the intro. That song gives a brief glimpse into Metallica’s vision for the album. One of the criticisms of the album was that it ventured too much into the nu metal territory. To me, it sounds more like a neo-thrash record. It contains quick rhythm changes, breakdowns and groovy riffs that were all new aspects to Metallica’s repertoire. This is perfectly exhibited in the songs “Invisible Kid” and “The Unnamed Feeling.” The tracking of drums on the album is unimpressive to say the least, as there are multiple instances of Lars Ulrich failing to keep time. But the drum parts themselves are very well written and suit the songs well with impressive transitions and fills.
The vocals on the album are polarizing. Producer Bob Rock has foregone the use of vocal tuning on this album and it shows, as James’ voice is noticeably off key in certain places. But his singing has always been more about his signature vocal style and his ability to convey his feelings, which he does very well in this album. Some of the vocal overdubs in the choruses are slightly distracting. Overall, this was the best performance that Bob Rock could have extracted from James, given that he was undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction and could only work on the record for 4 hours every day. The lack of solos and melodies is more of a problem, as the album suffers from too much low end, and the presence of at least a few melodies could have broken the monotony.
A way to describe St. Anger would be – novel idea, flawed execution. Kudos must be given to Metallica for not playing it safe and taking a risk. They wanted to do something they had never done before and this album is exactly that. As a Metallica fan, St. Anger was definitely something that I would not expect from the band, and if that was the band’s aim, then they have succeeded. Metallica should be proud of the album, as, even though it may not be that great of an album, it sees them strive to do something new.