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Metallica - Metallica's 'St. Anger'

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 27 / 3 / 2010

Metallica - Metallica's 'St. Anger'


Jeff Thiessen explains why he believes that Metallica's 2003 record 'St Anger' is one of the worst metal albums ever made

“I mean it’s clever and everything....but I don’t see what it does for anyone. I’m just used to having the drummer to the beat part, you know what I mean? Holding it together.” This is a quote from James Hetfield about halfway through the ‘Some Kind of Monster’ documentary in regards to an aborted studio track Metallica was working on during the ‘St.Anger’ sessions. The fact this simple (albeit, slightly close-minded) statement comes across as sort of brilliant within the context of the movie, tells us less about ‘Some Kind of Monster’, than it does about the actual music these documentarians were monitoring over the course of two long fucking years. I like one song on ‘St. Anger’, the opening track entitled ‘Frantic’. Its raw, kinetic energy is matched by only a handful of songs in the band’s entire catalogue, and sounded absolutely awesome live when the band led out their show in my neck of the woods during their ‘Madly in Anger with the World’ tour in 2004 (Yes, that’s actually what they called their tour). Of course it’s tough to ignore the lyrics, which teeter between inane macho-self loathing and drunken proclamations involving ‘lost days’ or some shit. Good thing I’m a Primal Scream fan and have grasped the skill of applauding the sonic qualities of a song many would consider bogged down by senseless libretto. What sucks is I have seen ‘Some Kind of Monster’, so I know the amount of work put into lines like “My lifestyle/determines my deathstyle” (a key, repeated line in ‘Frantic’). It was a lot. Not only did they spend a lot of time crafting this boneheaded crap. It was actually applauded by the group once they finally nailed down the wording. This, despite the fact it comes off as some twelve year old might write in English class when detailing his love of motorcycles, or completing a poem on Tony Starks. Still though...’Frantic’ is pretty gnarly. Unfortunately, the other nine songs are just unbelievably horrible, like the shittiness of the rest of the album is almost steeped in an anachronistic, disorienting place it’s so bizarrely inept. Actually, it transcends adjectives like ‘horrible’. ‘St.Anger’ is a prism of angelic catastrophe that survives outside the sands of time in some parallel universe where everyone just walks around bumping into each other. I’ll never grasp the full magnitude of ‘St.Anger’, but perhaps more than anything, I’m sad I’ll never fully grasp the inescapable fact that Metallica did indeed, create ‘St.Anger'. Metallica, the Led Zeppelin of our generation, at least in terms of a heavy band moving insane amounts of units to people of all demographics, even to those who don’t really like heavy music., actually put out ‘St.Anger’. For the record, this band has more money than god. They have sold close to a hundred million albums. Try and wrap your head around that number, I can’t. I work in the industry. I know exactly how big Metallica is, but I just cannot fathom the concept of them, or anyone whose band name isn’t Rolling Stones, selling that much product. But they have, and that’s what makes the existence of ‘St.Anger’ so perplexing. I think....no, scratch that. I believe, that if everyone in the world listened to ‘St.Anger’ from top to bottom on either an analytical or guttural level, but absent biases and preconceived notions, the universal consensus would be this is one of those benchmark releases that every terrible album in the future gets compared to, sort of an audio equivalent of ‘The Room’ film. Forget note-for-note, that sort of attention isn’t necessary. Most of my colleagues don’t like ‘St.Anger’, but even that is strange to me. Mere dislike of ‘St.Anger’ just isn’t proportionate to the music contained on this record, but I guess it might be the same thing if Tarantino released ‘The Room’ instead of Tommy Wiseau. Obviously it would be still be heavily mocked, but because of the driving force behind it, everyone and their brother would be looking for redeeming qualities that simply.....are.....not....there. ‘St. Anger‘ doesn’t have the makings of a bad album; it has the makings of a classically bad album. Oh where to begin....ok, perhaps the songs as a whole are as good a place as any to start. Some bands need structure. Sometimes members need clearly defined roles, a loose but understood framework of everyone’s job within the confines of whatever it is they’re going for at that particular time. Metallica are one of those bands, and ‘St.Anger’ is the product of them not really understanding this, or maybe trying really hard to forget. These are some of the most directionless songs I’ve ever subjected myself to, I mean there isn’t even really a beginning, a middle, and an end in most cases. It’s just a complete mishmash of totally unidentifiable and unmemorable segments that seemingly, have no actual connection with whatever section preceded it. This reminds me why I hate jam bands. ‘St.Anger ‘might be the ultimate and purest form of a jam record, and if it didn’t sound like an abortion hitting the floor, I might be able to applaud this accomplishment, even if I don’t particularly care for that particular genre. Say what you want about ‘Load/Reload’, at least with those Metallica never felt this petty need to never have a song less than six minutes. With ‘St.Anger’, the goal was clear: re-establish the group as something of a brutal powerhouse, something lose amidst the ‘Load ‘era, Napster lawsuit, symphony album, etc. I understand the goal just fine. I’m not sure too many people were too willing to buy into this sudden change towards a more aggressive direction after years of FM pussyfooting around and posing for pictures on their Hollywood Walk of Fame section, but I do understand the pragmatic side of it all. Now, part of earning back their tough identity, was the extended song lengths they swiftly abandoned, starting with the 'Black' album, and continuing through their next two studio releases. ‘St.Anger’ has exactly five songs less than six minutes, half the album’s tracks. And they’re not way below the six minute mark either; they all toil away just a shade under it. It may seem like I’m just nitpicking here based on my personal preference for brevity in metal songs, but that’s not the case (after all, I loved Machine Head’s ‘Blackening’ album which didn’t have a single track under five minutes). Instead it’s more of a snowball effect that can’t be ignored, and must be acknowledged. If you look at ....’And Justice for All’, or ‘Master of Puppets’, the tunes on those are all generally quite long, especially on the former. While it was, however, appropriate on those two seminal albums, it worked because the length of those songs was an offshoot of some pretty radical ideas in music for that time, and not some revolting bottom-line mentality (much like their ‘no guitar solos’ policy they instituted throughout the recording. I’m not saying every song has to have a 45 second shredding session, but forbidding solos on a Metallica album is sort of like if Jethro Tull decided to ban flutes from the studio). It fails miserably on ‘St.Anger’, based on the fact they were obviously striving to create songs prolonged in nature. I get the sense an egg timer was every bit as important to the overall sound of ‘St.Anger’ as Lars’ carved out drum kit was (Yes, another drum reference, I promise I’ll get to that later). The goal of returning to the ‘long Metallica songs’ era was never clearly defined, but obviously a focal point, which is one reason why it’s an incredibly misguided idea, but more than that, they just weren’t that group anymore. Metallica, for all intents and purposes, were a pop group. A riff-heavy one, but a pop group nonetheless. And let me tell you something. Pop groups don’t put out albums of seven minute songs, because pop songs, are designed to generally be in the three-four minute range. Metallica knew this, and that’s why they started writing songs in that area, and that’s why middle aged soccer-moms started singing along to ‘Whiskey in a Jar’ on their way home to their four-car garage mansion in Apache Junction. The mystifying clusterfuck on ‘St.Anger’ is largely a product of this development in the band. Yeah, good on you guys, you want to start giving your loyal fans the raiding-Mount Olympus album they’ve been craving for over a decade now, and I guess it’s commendable that you’re acutely aware that storming heaven can’t really be accomplished with radio-friendly song lengths, so perhaps that was a logical business decision. But full-time wimps can’t really deliver tales of apocalyptic warfare and hellish, futuristic revolution and make it sound convincing, and that’s what Metallica was by this point. So instead of retreading back to that era (which let’s face it, would have just been more awkward than anything), they just sort of chop up portions from some of the most accessible studio sessions they recorded over the gruelling two years, and assembled them into various ‘songs’. This is the main reason nothing on ‘St.Anger’ has any lasting power whatsoever, as indiscriminate cutting and pasting is a gross concept both in theory and execution. Put it this way: for two years I had a weekly poker game, and pretty much every third week I insisted we listen to ‘St.Anger’ in its entirety because we all found it so laughably bush-league it passed the time brilliantly in between hands. Now, consider the fact I still can’t distinguish any track on the album save for ‘Frantic’, the hilarious title track, and of course, ‘Some Kind of Monster’. I’ll never forget that song, partially because it has the same name as the DVD, partially because they say the chorus about twenty-eight times throughout, but mostly because at the seven minute mark Hetfield inexplicably breaks down into some sort of cultish chant I might hear when I wander into a Grand Hall of some murderous sect in ‘Resident Evil 4’. I’m usually good with remembering bad songs if I’m exposed to them more than once, and for the longest time I couldn’t understand why for the life of me, I could never identify individual tracks off ‘St.Anger’, but finally today I got it. It’s because it’s impossible to consciously recall bad songs within other bad songs, especially when they all succeed each other in gruelling, blitzkrieg fashion. This is a glaring flaw that should have seen a heavy backlash, bu,t like so many hugely successful contemporary groups, Metallica has a very large, and very, now how should I put this....simple fan-base (I could’ve used working-class, but I’ll save that term for the day I do a piece on Ted Nugent). If any of these simpletons ever took a break from shot-gunning Budweisers and drunkenly throwing random important camping equipment into their campfire, they might actually realize there are probably three genuinely good songs on ‘Load’, and at least that many on ‘Reload’ too. But for the most part, these are the kind of people who could fit their entire brain matter into a matchbox, so perhaps I’m asking too much here. But if I seem bitter, it’s probably due to the fact that this chop-suey of musical parts and no true whole, actually worked; fans ate it up as a return to form ad-nauseum. Congrats Metallica. If nothing else, ‘St.Anger’ made you terrific sticker replacements for that Calvin pissing on the Ford logo nobody flaunts anymore. ‘St.Anger’ is not inspired by rock n’roll tradition; instead it’s unbearably bound by it. This is more than a collection of misguided ideas: it’s a collection of misguided ideas played to the bone. Nowhere throughout the course of the album, does anybody realize what a monstrosity this is shaping up to be, and you know, offer even the slightest change of direction. This is truly a relentless pursuit of failure that succeeds on absolutely every level. The best moments on ‘St.Anger’ come when the band successfully manages to isolate either the rampant doses of stupidity or complete breakdowns into fleeting moments free of each other. The worst moments (and there are so many of them), come when those two defining characteristics provide us with some crass layered albatross that allows no introspection or assessment of any kind. I guess with lyrics like, “Court is in session and I slam my gavel down! I'm judge and I'm jury and I'm executioner too” followed by some manic meltdown in the name of completely slapdash rhyme schemes: “Projector/Protector/Rejector/Infector/Projector/Rejector/Infector/Injector/Defector/ Rejector”, the clutter and muddle that usually overwhelms the words, becomes a welcome reprieve. And those drums, my god those drums. Before I delve into that, let me share a quote from the immortal Lars Ulrich: “One day I forgot to turn the snare on because I wasn't thinking about this stuff. At the playbacks, I decided I was really liking what I was hearing — it had a different ambience. It sang back to me a in a beautiful way. But it’s crazy, that kind of closed-mindedness (regarding the fan backlash)”. As if this fistfuck of an album didn’t have enough to worry about, now we’re having legendary drummers forgetting to turn on a completely integral part of his equipment, and even better, when he realizes it’s off, he just shrugs his shoulders and tries to carry on as though there was a fraction of a chance this inane minimalism could improve even a millisecond of any single track. You know Lars, I suppose it’s possible the Metallica army isn’t being open-minded enough when it comes to embracing your radically avant-garde percussion sound; I’m willing to acknowledge it’s not likely, but possible. I think it’s infinitely more likely, however, that your fans don’t really like the backbeat of an album they’ve been waiting for the last five years, sounding like a hobo banging on some Campbell Soup cans he found in a back alley behind Ihop. I’m not saying everything has to be perfectly tuned and polished. Not at all. I remember reading Kurt Cobain loved the first White Zombie EP ‘Psycho Head Blowou’t, because everything was backwards and out of tune. I tracked this down somehow (in hindsight, seems to be dumb luck, since apparently it’s very difficult to find), and while I didn’t appreciate it on the level Kurt did, I saw his point. There was a certain appeal in the weird tunings and white noise found on the record. I got it. Some of the best records I own have that M.O. But Lars, when it comes to ‘St.Anger,’ don’t blame your fans for being ‘closed-minded’. Blame yourself for being a drummer in a heavy metal band, and trying to incorporate Andy Warhol’s most famous painting into a long-awaited studio album for a bunch of people who still see the mullet as a valid form of artistic expression. For all intents and purposes, Metallica seem totally committed to total extinction throughout ‘St.Anger’. I’m shocked by its very existence. Bands like Metallica simply do not make records like this one, and not only did these lunkheads create this mutant, but they documented it in video form. The producer Bob Rock, famously (sort of) described ‘St.Anger’ as being, “a band jamming in a garage for the first time, and that band just happened to be Metallica”. Well the garage bands I know, and I certainly know a few, don’t see hodgepodge patch-work as something to be commended as ‘raw’ or ‘brutal’, nor do they ever proudly assume the role of the fiddlers on the Titanic. ‘St.Anger’ shouldn’t exist, but it does, and it lurks somewhere between purgatory in ‘Tron’ and hell in ‘Channel X’. Its presence in this world shouldn’t necessarily make one question humanity as a whole, but the significant embrace of this album should at least fill you with the need to pay a perfect stranger good money to try and punch your head free of your body for twenty-four hours straight (a pink slip should be promised to him if he succeeds within the deadline, just a logical incentive). Nothing works on ‘St.Anger’. Nothing. It’s as if you bought a brand new Lexus right off the lot, took it home and when you got out of the car, every single part just collapsed in front of your very eyes. ‘St.Anger’ is broken. This is not a finished product. It’s the kind of thing that might, MIGHT, get released post-humonously, if let’s say, the entire band bit the dust with Cliff in 86’ and the inheritors of Metallica’s master tapes have a really, really macabre sense of humour/need money immediately. Not enough analogies? How about this one: imagine Rockstar, the creators of the (in)famous ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series, decided to make a long awaited sequel. But instead of creating a fluent, cohesive game, they just sent all their programmers into different rooms, let them wing it, and then jammed their finished products into the final cut of the game. Or, if you will, imagine a couple wombats fucking while listening to Pantera’s ‘Metal Magic’. If they produced a child, it would be ‘St.Anger’. At least Lars got his way. It certainly isn’t stock.

Picture Gallery:-
Metallica - Metallica's 'St. Anger'

Metallica - Metallica's 'St. Anger'

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