In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “It’s one of the most unique and individual Metallica records the band has ever made.”
After the one-two, wet fish slap that was Load and Reload, Metallica took what was then the longest hiatus in their career between studio albums. It was 2003, and everything I knew about the band was based on the biggest, best known singles. But I shared a flat with a dude who was obsessed. He was trying to track down a copy of every version of every single from every country the band had ever released. And was doing a pretty good job of it.
I was working at a radio station and managed to score an advance copy of the band’s first single in six years. The entire contents of which was the album version and the radio edit of the one song. For the month or two in between that and the album coming out, those two tracks were literally the only songs my housemate listened to. So, with one song firmly ingrained in my brain, I was more prepared than ever for the release of a new Metallica album when it came time for my housemate mate to bombard me with every track of St Anger over and over and over again.
From the instant Frantic kicks things off, it’s very clear that Metallica had no interest in remaking any of their old hits. This was a totally fresh sound for the band, and for heavy rock. Lars Ulrich’s formally tight drum sound is so loose, the snare rings out like a bell on each and every hit. The guitars are more dirty and overblown, where they used to be about extreme metal fuzz. And Hetfield’s vocals sound like they were all recorded in a single take. And I mean that in the best possible way. Hearing him struggle to fit words in, or sneak in a quick breath, gives these songs so much more life than anything o the over polished previous two records.
It’s a sound that continues on the title track, with a kick drum that’s as loose as a windsock on a still day. But I think this strange, risky new drum sound works. It makes me hear Ulrich’s power and aggression in a way that the studio polish of the last few albums glossed over. This is the song that I scored the advanced copy of and heard countless times. But even with all of those listens and all of the years that have passed since, it still packs a real punch.
Next up is Some Kind of Monster. It’s not only my favourite song on St Anger, it’s one my favourite Metallica songs off all time. It takes the loose, sludgy sound this record was experimenting with, and ads a certain tightness to the arrangement and riffage that the preceding songs don’t have. It was still totally new for Metallica at this time, but I could hear the classic version of the band its core.
There’s an episode of the amazing documentary series Classic Albums that charts the recording of Metallica’s Metallica. In it, we see producer Bob Rock and lead guitarist Kirk Hammet agonising over take after take after take on a particular solo. I remembered that when the first few notes of My World rolled out of St Anger. While the pre-millennium Metallica were fussing over every single note and beat, this song and record sounds like they setup their instruments in the studio once, and recorded the entire album with that setup. No intricate combos of guitars, amps, effects pedals and mixing desk tricks being changed, tweaked and finessed for every song. Just a band cranking out songs.
Made at a time of crisis, the album was written and recorded with Hetfield fresh out of rehab for alcoholism, and under the supervisions of the band’s live in group therapist. That doesn’t sound very metal. Not only did that make for one of the greatest rock documentaries ever, it made the band write together more than they ever had, and made them all write more honestly than they ever had. The metaphors are thin, and few and far between. Instead, Metallica wear the emotions and issues prominently on their sleeves and the result is sometime a little on the nose, but always honest and raw.
Whenever I think of bands I like and try to determine what my favourite album of theirs is, it’s almost always either the first one I heard, or the first one that came out after I was into them. St Anger is the first Metallica record to come out after my housemate forced a whole lot of their back catalogue on me. And listing to it beginning to end for the first time in years, I was surprised to discover that it might just be my favourite.
The first few records are great, but they sound like three parts of one massive album. Their self titled break through is a legit classic, but it sounds like the inevitable conclusion those first few albums were working toward. Load and Reload are just straight up terrible. Not only is St Anger awesome, it’s also one of the most unique and individual Metallica records the band has ever made. And I love that about it.