As Metallica’s controversial album St. Anger turns twenty years old on June 5th, 2023, guest columnist Nik Cameron (The Glacially Musical Pouredcast) reflects on where this album lands in history. Is it a triumph, as Lars Ulrich wants it to be, or a tragedy?
Twenty Years of Hallowed Enmity
To properly tell the tale, one needs to head back about 22 years really because that’s the genesis of St. Anger. Imagine if in the space of about three hours, the luckiest man alive decided that he decided unlucky was better than being with you and then you realized you were headed onto a path of destruction and you had to stop the juggernaut that was your fame.
This is what happened to Metallica in about 2002-ish. Jason Newsted, the luckiest man on the face of the earth, decided it was time to leave Metallica. Years later, he spoke about it at length. In the near future following that, James Hetfield started his first stint in rehab, and a lengthy one at that.
At this crossroads, the choices were few. In the end, through therapy, anger, and discord, St. Anger was birthed.
Just to make things crystal clear… I, your friend and humble narrator is one of the seventeen people in this world not named Lars Ulrich who thinks Lulu is a work of brilliance. This seems like important information to impart to you.
Let’s get to what decisions were made. First of all, the bass guitar duties were handed to one Bob Rock. This was a very poor choice. The album was only allowed to be worked on, while James Hetfield was in the studio. He only worked four hours a day. This was the right choice with a very poor outcome. The band decided to make a rule stating Kirk Hammett, the lead guitar player, was not allowed to play lead guitar. This was a very poor decision. The band decided to write in concert, including the lyrics. This was a wonderful decision. Metallica, as a unit chose to follow trends. This was the worst decision of them all.
Let’s get to the results of these decisions. Bob Rock is not a bass player. Any guitarist can play the bass, that’s true, but few of them have the feel to play the bass rather than play the guitar riffs on the bottom strings. Case in point, once Robert Trujillo played bass to the tracks, the quality improved tenfold. Rock’s bass playing cannot hold a candle to that of Trujillo. It comes off closer to that of Ace Frehley.
As the work on the album was completed at a snail’s pace, it ended up with the band never having had played one of the songs all the way through on the album. Though Metallica has always been chasing perfection, the songs sounded like their hands were playing them all the way through. Instead, in this case, the riffs weren’t played, but dubbed and duped. This takes the life and soul out of the music and reducing it to techno. Another side effect was that James never finished the vocals properly. The album sounds closer to demos than a finished record.
Hammett is one of the most lauded soloists of his day. To leave him on the sidelines took “the Metallica” out of the songs.
As the band wrote the lyrics together, it created some amazing results, like “my lifestyle determines my deathstyle.” That lyric is brilliant, though lacking in subtlety. As a fan, I think this process should continue, but likely it did not. The lyrics have always been under Hetfield’s purview.
For the sound of the record, the snare was turned off, the guitars tuned down, and the vocals dirty. Essentially, this band of trailblazers didn’t make their own way. They became followers.
The vanguard had fallen.
This album fails as an album. Some of the songs succeed on their own, but when placed inside of a 75-minute record, they become nebulous. They lack the definition and character that Metallica songs are known for. Perhaps that was due to there not being a bassist handling the bass guitar and the lead guitarist being kneecapped. Or perhaps, the riffs don’t pop strongly enough over the trash can lid snare drum.
Live, the songs often pop and snarl in a way they never did in the grooves. The live tracks have advantages. The bass is better. The drums are better. The vocals are better. The guitars sound better.
As a fan, I year for a re-recorded St. Anger. As a realist, it’s the only Metallica album I don’t own and will never own. That is because I simply never want to hear it again.
Buy St. Anger and good Metallica records here: