Torn, torn, torn.
So I thought I’d try something a little different this time. As people who’ve known me forever will attest (and people who’ve known me only a short while invariably find hard to believe), I’m a longtime fan of Metallica. I know all the words to “Creeping Death,” I can air-guitar along with “Leper Messiah,” and I once considered “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” the one song in all the world with which I most identified. I bought their stupid home videos (even the one with several versions of their then-lone video, “One”), and I believe (though I’m not sure) that …And Justice For All was the first album I waited for, and bought on the release date.
So yeah, me, James, Lars, Kirk and the ever-changing bass player go way back. Which means I’ve also suffered through the dreaded black album and watched as the group turned into video whores while parlaying moderately toughened-up boogie rock for the last decade. I even really liked some of it. But like many longtime fans, I longed for a return to the complex, heavy, lightning-fast Metallica of old, knowing in my gut that they, like Megadeth, would never grant my wish.
But lo and behold, they have.
Just out from the Metallicamp is St. Anger, a 75-minute album that’s billed as a trip in the Wayback Machine, a seriously heavy slab of old-time thrash and rage. And it is. Except it isn’t. Yet often, it is. And round and round I go, debating with myself on whether I’m hearing the best damn Metallica album since the ’80s or a pile of shit dressed in the emperor’s new clothes. And then I thought, why not just bring my inner debate to you, live and uncut?
Hence this little experiment. Two reviews, point and counterpoint, both of which I seem to believe. My hope is that other longtime Metallica fans share in my joy and frustration with this album, which could have been titled Be Careful What You Wish For. Herewith, the voices in my head battle it out over St. Anger:
Why St. Anger Rules
Let’s start with history, most of which points to the inescapable fact that Metallica was really starting to suck. Their first three albums with bassist Cliff Burton are legendary, not just for the music but for the attitude. Metallica was an undisputed success years before they got a record deal, and they managed to last six years on a major label without making any videos or doing the usual promotional bullshit. This band toured their asses off and played challenging, powerful music with conviction, and that’s all they needed to do.
Plus, they were fucking heavy. Just check out “Fight Fire With Fire,” or “Damage, Inc.” to hear classic Metallica on overdrive, drummer Lars Ulrich flailing away like an epileptic octopus while singer/guitarist James Hetfield growls and bellows with unrestrained fury. Try to find moments like that on any of the band’s ’90s releases. You can’t do it. The black album was simplistic and boring, Load and Reload had glimpses of excellence but basically plodded along like stretched-out ZZ Top records, and Garage Inc. was all covers, the heaviest of which were recorded in 1987. And that symphony thing was cute, but…
Now try finding moments like the early days on St. Anger. Jesus, they’re everywhere. The record opens with Ulrich playing the double kick drum as if he’s warming up to play “Whiplash,” and nearly every song contains sections of pure thrashing metal, the likes of which haven’t been heard on a major label release in ages. Here’s Hetfield, in his 40s, whipping out killer riffs and snarling into the microphone again with force, feeling and power. And here’s 11 songs that twist and turn and change tempos and do everything but just lie there, separating them instantly from just about every Metallica tune since 1988.
But that’s not the best part. It’s the vibe, the aggressive fucking vibe that permeates this record. Metallica has suffered setback after setback in recent years. They lost bassist Jason Newsted, who was with them for the whole of their boogie-rock phase, to inventive thrashers Voivod. Hetfield himself nearly crumbled due to addiction, and checked himself into rehab. The band’s future has been in doubt before, but they’ve never come this close to packing it all in.
Hence the glorious rebirth that is this album. Give some of the credit to new bassist Rob Trujillo, formerly of Suicidal Tendencies, but the lion’s share belongs to the three core members. This is now a band playing like their lives depended on it. The sound is raw, furious, and best of all, live. They’ve stripped everything away, even the guitar solos, and given us the real shit. For the first time in a decade, Metallica sounds like a real-live heavy band again, and also for the first time in a decade, they’ve made a record that isn’t predicated on how many MTV-watching teens like it. St. Anger isn’t an ad for the Metallica Marketing Machine, it’s a genuine work of expression, and that in itself is remarkable considering how far this band had fallen.
At its core, Metallica has always been about finding inner strength through dealing with rage, and St. Anger‘s lyrics read like an anger management class. This is a meditation on fury, with the final lesson being that you are stronger than anything if you want to be. It naturally deals with addiction – “My lifestyle determines my deathstyle,” Hetfield spits out in “Frantic,” the self-descriptive opening track, and the record is filled with similar hard-won truths.
What’s impressive about that is the vulnerability that James Hetfield lets show on most of the record. He channels the Hetfield of Kill ‘Em All in places here, but retains the melodicism that has marked his best moments as a vocalist. St. Anger is his most remarkable performance – he snarls, screams and whirls all over this album, his voice cracking and showing naked emotion even over the most punishing of the band’s riffs.
No, Metallica hasn’t made a sequel to Ride the Lightning here, but what they’ve done is even more impressive. They refused to disregard their melodic evolution, yet went back to their roots and found the old fire again. Just watch the accompanying DVD, which consists of the band playing every song from the record live in rehearsal, and you’ll see rebirth before your eyes. The focus is back, the drive is back, and the anger is back. St. Anger is without a doubt Metallica’s best album in more than 10 years. Their redemption is complete.
Why St. Anger Sucks
Simply put, there’s a definite difference between revisiting the old fire and recapturing it completely.
It’s true that this band was starting to suck, and suck hard. The problem is, I think they were (and still are) making the best music they are physically capable of making, and they’re just not as good as they once were. It’s not their fault. They got old. But to make an album like St. Anger, which purports to fit right in with their older, better albums, and to fall this short of accomplishing that goal is just sad.
What’s wrong with it? Well, your worst moment listening to St. Anger will likely come early on, like in the first two minutes, when you realize that that pinging sound is the snare drum tone they’ve chosen for the entire album. It honestly sounds like two paint cans being clanged together, and it’s mixed really loud, so there’s no escaping it. In fact, for most of this record, the fine line between raw production and indistinct mud is gleefully crossed. Who knows what James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett are playing during those snare-ping-infested middle sections? Who can hear new bassist Rob Trujillo at all?
Then there’s the songs. I understand that the band has tried to go back to the roots of their sound, and they’ve certainly amped up the aggression in places, but for a depressing stretch of St. Anger‘s running time, they fall back on mid-tempo repetition. Take the eight-and-a-half-minute “Invisible Kid,” which runs out of ideas one minute in and basically sticks to three notes throughout. Or try “Some Kind of Monster,” which really wishes it was “The Thing That Should Not Be.” But it isn’t.
In fact, the bits of blistering speed here and there only serve to underscore how average most of the songs here are. The title track, for example, quotes both “Damage Inc.” and “Hit the Lights” in its lyrics, but fails to measure up to either of those songs in the Furious Explosion category. The chorus hinges on the line “fuck it all and fucking no regrets,” pulled straight from “Damage Inc.,” but in comparison, Hetfield sounds like he’s whining that sentiment on the new song.
Oh, right, James Hetfield. There’s another big problem. The guy has spent so much time over the last 10 years writing little melodic ditties that he’s forgotten how to scream and bellow without sounding silly. He’s basically unrestrained here, which means we get to hear his loony laugh, his hillbilly sing-speak trick, and his oh-so-metal “hah!” He likely thinks he’s channeling the Hetfield of the Kill ‘Em All era, but in reality he sounds like James Hetfield at 40-something, not 20-something. And hearing him screech the line “I’m madly in anger with you” on the title track is like listening to a loved one go senile.
Basically, while it would be nice to hear Metallica make an album as good as their first four, St. Anger just isn’t that album. The band really tried, and it’s obvious. Some of the record is quite good, but most of it drowns in mediocrity that even the flashes of the old fury can’t salvage. In fact, it’s those very flashes that make the album an even bigger disappointment, since they invite comparison. No one compared Reload to Master of Puppets – there’s not even the thinnest of similarities between them. But Metallica wants you to think of St. Anger in those terms, and ultimately, that’s what kills it. I do believe that this is the very best album Metallica can make at this point in their career. It’s just not a very good one, unfortunately.
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In the very un-metal film Mumford, Loren Dean’s character, Dr. Mumford, makes the observation that holding two opposing thoughts in one’s head at once can cause splitting headaches. It seems he’s right – after typing this up, I’ve been afflicted with a monster cranial ache, so that’ll do it for me this week. But hey – birthday went well, I’m 29 (it’s pretty cool…no one but Mainers will get that reference), and there’s a buttload of new music awaiting review. Next week should be another long one, including Radiohead, Bruce Cockburn, the Violet Burning, Wayne Everett, Eels, Type O Negative, and anything else I’m forgetting at the moment. Hope you missed me, ’cause it’s good to be back.
See you in line Tuesday morning.