The Anniversary

St. Anger Turns 20


Metallica have existed in the public eye for 40 years, and it seems like they’ve been battling over the meaning of their own existence for 35 of those years.

Their first album, Kill ’Em All, was released on July 25, 1983. Their first four albums — Kill ’Em All, 1984’s Ride The Lightning, 1986’s Master Of Puppets, and 1988’s …And Justice For All — were some of the most pathbreaking releases in ’80s metal, establishing thrash as a viable sound concurrent with more mainstream styles (Kill came out just four months after Quiet Riot’s Metal Health and two months before Mötley Crüe’s Shout At The Devil) while also demonstrating a clear and trackable artistic progression and selling a whole lot of records, concert tickets, and T-shirts. With each album, their songs became more complex and intricate, from the Judas Priest-meets-Motörhead crunch of the debut to the crisp, charging anthems of Ride and Master, to the bone-dry, machine-like prog-thrash of Justice. Then, having gotten arena-sized on their own terms (no music videos until Justice, absolutely relentless touring), they made their pop move.

Metallica’s 1991 self-titled album changed everything. Since the so-called Black Album’s release — more than 30 years ago now — they have been one of the most popular bands on Earth. They’re so popular that I’m not even sure how much of an introduction I need to write to this piece. I mean, who doesn’t know who Metallica are? But since I’ve been wrestling with the meaning of their music and engaging in almost Talmudic pondering of their motivations behind making it for four decades, I’m gonna keep going.

I was aware of Metallica from the beginning; I didn’t own Kill ’Em All when it came out, but I owned the import “Jump In The Fire” 12″. I heard Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets from friends, but didn’t buy anything else of theirs until 1987, when they put out The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, which I listened to obsessively for most of my sophomore year of high school, and …And Justice For All, which I had on vinyl, which meant I listened to it at home, with even greater care and attention. I bought the self-titled album, but I didn’t like it beyond the first three songs and one or two more; I was more interested in heavier, noisier industrial metal like Ministry and Prong at that point. I didn’t buy Load or ReLoad when they came out and didn’t listen to them until years later. When I did, I was surprised by how strong their best moments were. Metallica had found real joy in exploring sounds, from country to blues-rock to doom to grunge, that they were presumed to exist in conflict with.

But we’re here to talk about St. Anger, the first album where the conflicts that had roiled within the band for well over a decade, if not from the beginning of the band’s existence — James Hetfield vs. Lars Ulrich, Hetfield and Ulrich and to a lesser extent Kirk Hammett vs. Jason Newsted, Hetfield vs. himself — burst out like pus from a blister and became the story. Released 20 years ago today, it was the beginning of Metallica the soap opera, which has been running for two decades now.

The album was supposed to be recorded in early 2001. Things were already rough in Metallica-land, though. Their public image took a big hit when Ulrich launched a campaign against online file-sharing, and Napster in particular. This wasn’t unjustified from a business perspective and was honestly prescient given where we are now, but it was easily and relentlessly mocked at the time. Bassist Jason Newsted quit the band in January 2001, saying that years of onstage headbanging had caused him serious injury but also telling MTV, “We spent more time in fuckin’ court last year than we did playing our instruments.”

In April 2001, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries had used Metallica’s music on their soundtracks, began filming the recording sessions. But in July, Hetfield went into rehab, and the album and the band were put on pause for nearly a year. He came out of rehab in December 2001 but sharply limited the number of hours per day he was willing to devote to music. They resumed work in April 2002 and finally completed the record a year later, in April 2003. It was recorded with producer Bob Rock playing bass; Robert Trujillo was hired afterward and has remained with the band ever since, their longest-serving bassist.

All of this is covered in exhaustive detail in the movie Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, which I’ve only seen in full once. It’s a deeply uncomfortable thing to watch if you prefer to think about Metallica as larger-than-life metal gods blasting out riffs in packed arenas. The key to separating the art from the artist is not knowing much about the artist, after all, and the more you know about Metallica, the more you can find yourself feeling sorry for them. In 2001, they didn’t seem to like themselves very much, nor did they like each other very much. In order to work some of that stuff out they hired a “performance coach,” Phil Towle, who over the course of two years or so of group therapy sessions developed a weird parasocial relationship with them to the point that — on film, anyway — it starts to seem like he considers himself a fifth member of the band. In some ways, this mirrors the relationship a lot of older Metallica fans have with them, which is what allows people to shrug off everything from the ’90s onward as inferior to the first four albums. But who cares? Fuck that guy, and fuck those fans.

Listening to St. Anger 20 years later — really listening to it, instead of filtering it through the media narrative of the time or treating it like the soundtrack to the documentary — reveals it as a purgation. Hetfield had a lot to get out of his system, and it came out bloody and raw. It’s astonishing that this album was the product of nearly two years of sessions, because it sounds like they recorded it in about a week. Hetfield’s vocals are both rough — describing them as “off-key” would imply that a key was discernible in the first place — and radically experimental. He sings in styles he’s never attempted on any other Metallica album, jumping from whispers to roars to post-grunge howling and overdubbing multiple vocal tracks so he’s not only harmonizing with himself, but lecturing himself, fighting with himself, shouting at himself, mocking himself. Taken as a whole, it’s a genuinely unhinged performance, closer to David Yow, or Eugene Robinson of Oxbow, than a conventional rock/metal frontman.

The lyrics are wild, too. Hetfield’s always had a dark and introspective side, going all the way back to “Fade To Black” on Ride The Lightning, but for the band’s first four albums he mostly kept it hidden, choosing instead to explore big manly themes like war, drug addiction, insanity, the corruption of the justice system, etc. Eventually, the shell started to crack, though; “Dyers Eve,” the last track on …And Justice For All, was a stinging indictment of his parents’ Christian Science faith, a topic he returned to on “The God That Failed” from Metallica.

But St. Anger songs like “Dirty Window” and “Invisible Kid” are where Hetfield turns his blade on himself. On “Dirty Window,” he attacks and even mocks his own judgmental nature, while on “Invisible Kid” he paints a portrait of himself as a vulnerable child hiding behind a mask of toughness (“Invisible kid, suspicious of your touch, don’t want no crutch, but it’s all too much”). There are some lines that could have used a second pass, like the oft-mocked “my lifestyle determines my deathstyle” from album opener “Frantic,” but overall St. Anger is a road map of Hetfield’s personal issues, conveyed with the intensity of a breakdown. It’s amazing he was able to sing these lines in public. (It’s notable that after the initial tour in support of St. Anger, most of its songs disappeared from the live set forever.)

The music is just as boundary-breaking — by Metallica standards — as the lyrics. At the time of the album’s release, many fans and critics called out Ulrich’s use of an extremely sharp, ringing snare drum. But that was the way snare drums sounded all through the 1990s! Listen to Soundgarden’s Superunknown; listen to Helmet’s Betty; listen to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Now I Got Worry; listen to the goddamn Spin Doctors. (OK, don’t listen to the Spin Doctors.) Ulrich may have pushed it a little farther in the direction of Unsane or Ministry than some metal fans were prepared to deal with, but honestly, it’s not that extreme, and it matches the generally punishing nature of the rest of the music.

St. Anger is deliberately ugly, but it’s also really varied. Hetfield, Hammett, Ulrich, and even Bob Rock are throwing all kinds of things at the wall. “Frantic” and “Dirty Window” sound like Filth Pig-era Ministry. There’s an unbelievably nasty-sounding guitar riff about 45 seconds into “Some Kind Of Monster,” like an MP3 of John McLaughlin circa 1972 playing out of a flip phone. “Invisible Kid” is sludgy noise-rock with an almost rockabilly edge to its riffing, as if the Reverend Horton Heat had joined Killdozer. There are moments on this album that incorporate everything from doom to shoegaze (on “All Within My Hands”) to the bluesy boogie-rock of the Load and ReLoad era. There are even some bursts of straight-up noise, and surprisingly, given that he’s only there because the band didn’t have a bassist at the time, Rock does much more than just thicken the album’s low end. Hetfield and Hammett are throwing truly nasty, jagged riffs at each other from the far left and right of the stereo field, and Rock’s bass is often dominant in the middle, an ugly, almost postpunk rumble and roar. Listen to him on “Shoot Me Again.” Listen to him at the end of “My World.”

Now, I’m not gonna lie. I didn’t like this album when it came out. I wrote an extremely negative review for the Cleveland Scene, which was then syndicated throughout the New Times chain of alt-weeklies, so it wound up running in something like a dozen cities across the country. It ended like this:

St. Anger introduces the fourth version of Metallica. There was the Metallica that took thrash metal aboveground, from Kill ’Em All through …And Justice For All; the Metallica that got arena- and radio-friendly for the Black Album; the Metallica that embraced boogie-rock and Marianne Faithfull on Load and ReLoad; and now, there’s this Lazarus Metallica, which wants to be hard and heavy again, the way it was in the old days. But that was a long time ago — and they were pretty drunk. Metal’s gotten faster, harder and grittier in their absence, and the new, middle-aged Metallica can’t compete…They’re dressing up in old, ill-fitting clothes and hoping metal fans won’t be able to tell the difference. Well, we can.

I was wrong back then (and that line about being drunk was pretty dickish, all things considered). I was judging St. Anger based on what I wanted it to be, instead of what it was. It’s never going to be my favorite Metallica album, because it’s just too punishing to get through — 11 tracks, 75 minutes, and yeah, I wish it had just one fucking guitar solo — but when you dive into it and listen carefully, as I’ve been doing for about a week now, it’s a hell of a thing. It has more in common with ugly, hostile records like Filth Pig or Helmet’s Aftertaste or the Jesus Lizard’s Shot (compare the beginnings of “Thumper” and “Frantic”) than with any of the band’s putative peers. Megadeth and Anthrax would never have made an album this ugly and alienating. They didn’t have it in them. And the death metal bands that came up in the wake of thrash might have been heavier and more dissonant, but the emotional vulnerability, the raw terror that emerges in Hetfield’s voice here, was completely out of reach for them. I don’t love St. Anger, because it’s deliberately unlovable. But I respect the hell out of it as a gesture. Which is more than I can say about fuckin’ Lulu.

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