It’s indisputable that Metallica are one of the greatest metal bands of all time. They boast at least three all-time classic records – including the greatest thrash metal album of all time in Master of Puppets – and brought metal well and truly into the mainstream with the all-conquering Black Album. Yet, despite such successes, they are a band who polarize both their fan base and the wider metal community. Having been metal gods throughout the ‘80s, the ‘90s heralded a band looking to experiment with their sound, image and attitude; a band which had seemingly lost their way. St. Anger was meant to be the return to the band’s thrash metal roots and, more importantly, a return to form. Instead, they delivered a record which has been battered from pillar to post both popularly and critically since its release in 2003. The butt of many a joke, including one of our very own this past April Fools, it’s about time someone came to its defense and outlined why this album can actually be considered good.
Throughout this piece, we will address the key criticisms of St. Anger, namely the songwriting, lyricism, production and THAT trash can snare drum. Now let’s make one thing clear from the outset: different does not necessarily mean bad. We’re not listening to And Justice For All… Vol II here. This is a different album, and it should not be written off simply due to this fact. When looking at the songs themselves, the main criticisms are that the riffs aren’t memorable enough, there are no guitar solos and the songs are too long. Looking at the riffs themselves, as a whole it’s quite clear that the songwriting isn’t to the same standard as their first five albums. In saying that, not hitting the heights of their previous material doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that it’s not as good as what has come before. There is still killer material to be found, such as main riffs to “Some Kind of Monster,” “Invisible Kid” and the title track. However, the raw nature of the production can obscure the riffs on display, and so this criticism is perhaps misaligned: as far as the riffs are concerned, it’s more an issue with production than it is songwriting.
The songs were clearly written without guitar solos in mind, and consequently, it is rare to come across a passage where a guitar solo would drastically improve the quality of the track. Instead, this is an album that looks to strip away anything potentially deemed as superfluous; a record which puts the song first at all times. Looking to song length, even the most ardent Metallica supporter must admit that the songs are simply too long. Most feature sections which are repeated too often and for too long, and St. Anger certainly would have benefited from a stricter editing process, one which trimmed the fat and kept things punchy to prevent riffs from wearing out.
The lyricism has rightfully come under harsh criticism. Lines such as “My lifestyle determines my death style” and “This house is clean baby, this house is clean” are now infamous, and if you’re the type of listener for whom lyrics are extremely important, then you probably won’t like this record. The lyricism is clearly flawed and sub-standard in certain passages, though there are still a few gems to be gleaned here and there. Context is crucial with any album, and none more so than with St. Anger. The issues the band faced during this period were well documented in the film Some Kind of Monster. The band were without a bass player following Jason Newsted’s acrimonious departure, whilst the relationship between James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich had fractured almost to the point of no repair. In this context, the vocal delivery of “Frantic” makes a lot more sense, as Hetfield imbues the track with the frenzied chaos which was engulfing his life at that point. Similarly, lyrics such as “Not only do I not know the answer? / I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THE QUESTION IS!” don’t truly hit home until one has personally experienced their world falling down around them, a situation where seemingly everything that could go wrong does go wrong. Overall, the lyrics are not a highlight of the album, and there are certainly passages which are simply awful. But thankfully, they’re not all like that. At best, the lyricism is inconsistent, which shouldn’t be enough to put somebody off an album completely.
Finally, we can turn our attention to the production. Whilst it may serve as a smokescreen above the music, limiting the audibility of the underlying instrumentation, it seems somewhat fitting given what the band was going through at the time. The following hypothetical conversation is how one could envision a Q&A with the band panning out if they were interviewed soon after the record’s release:
Random Person: James’ voice sounds raw, strained and cracked.
Metallica Person: Good, because that’s how he would have felt.
RP: The guitars are muddy.
MP: Good, because it’s representative of their clarity of thought.
RP: The snare sounds shit.
MP: Fuck how it sounds, the fans can get fucked if they don’t like it.
That is the kind of attitude which shines through in the production and, love it or hate it, it’s genuine and, in spirit, it’s as metal as you can get. Ultimately, there will be many who will struggle to enjoy this album due to its production, though it would be misleading to thus label the production as poor. It wasn’t a mistake; it’s what the band wanted it to sound like, as it’s reflective of what they were experiencing and it conveys that to the listener.
Make no mistake, nobody is claiming that this record is perfect. It is certainly flawed: the songwriting isn’t at the same level as their peak, the lyricism is inconsistent, the production is muddy and the snare, whilst tolerable for the most part, is undeniably grating. However, the other side of this coin is often forgotten. There are still memorable riffs to be found, not all of the lyrics are dreadful and the production is representative of where they were at. Collectively, the record is indicative of chaos, and it truly works and makes perfect sense when taking into account its context and approaching it from that angle. I’m sure some will leave this page wondering what on earth they’ve just read, unsure as to whether this piece is satirical in nature. It most certainly is not. St. Anger certainly isn’t as bad as it is made out to be. When looking at it the right way, it can even be considered a good album.