Were You Wrong About Metallica’s ‘St. Anger’ All Along?
It's a brave soul indeed who announces their appreciation for St. Anger without expecting a barrage of negativity in response. Metallica's 2003 record is without a doubt the thrash icons' least popular release (if we don't include the giant question mark that is Lulu, their collaboration with Lou Reed). And yet, when it arrived on June 5, 2003, it was welcomed with some glowing reviews.
Aggregate site Metacritic reports a score of 65 out of 100 for St. Anger. OK, it's Metallica's second-lowest score (Lulu again, of course), but it's nowhere near as bad as many fans feel it should be. Rolling Stone gave the record four stars out of five, saying: "No wonder there's an authenticity to St. Anger's fury that none of the band's rap-metal followers can touch. Across 75-plus minutes of savage but intricate structures that recall those pre-Black glory days, Metallica go back to their brutal essence. There's no radio-size, four-minute rock here, no pop-friendly choruses, no ballads, no solos, no wayward experimentation. Recorded with longtime producer Bob Rock on bass, this is loud, expansive, unrepentant Metallica."
That wasn't the only thumbs-up. Uncut gave the LP four our of five, Entertainment Weekly awarded a B+ and NME concluded it was 9/10 work. Is it possible industry nepotism was at play? There are some harsh realities in the world of music journalism. If you upset a label or promoter by panning an album or a band, they may withdraw their advertising spend on the publication, putting its future in jeopardy. Many editors have reminded outspoken writers over the years that while their job is to write, it is also to maintain the profitability of the organization. In 2003, with nu-metal exploding and a regular audience in doubt, how many brave souls were ready to call the biggest album of the year by the biggest band of the past decade a dud?
Watch Metallica's Music Video for 'St. Anger'
If there's any truth in that, it's perhaps demonstrated by what might have been a cunning move by U.K. magazine stablemates Classic Rock and Metal Hammer. The former, for a slightly older demographic, called St. Anger "unfettered hell-for-leather nonsense pretty much from beginning to end" and explained: "You don’t review a Metallica album, instead you're invited to an opulent basement bar in Soho to eat and drink and to listen to it. While you're doing so, PR people study you intently for the merest flicker of emotion to register on your face; it's like being a hamster in a research lab." The magazine awarded St. Anger a 4/10.
At the same time, the more upbeat, younger Hammer gave the album 9/10 and said: "Both musically and spiritually, St. Anger is the most honest, stripped-down, soul-baring exercise that you're ever likely to hear from the world of Metallica. You can feel through every raging beat and pumping, nervous riff that St. Anger is the sound of a band seizing what they believe might be their last ever chance to stand in a room together under that name. And it's a gleeful racket that they emit."
Despite criticism over the years for St. Anger's production values, particularly Lars Ulrich's drum sound and the absence of guitar solos, music is about meaning — and whether it was heartfelt or not, some critics made sharp observations about what Metallica might have been trying to achieve. "The title track is a love song to anger itself, the pivotal line 'I want my anger to be healthy' just on the right side of self help," NME wrote, "while elsewhere there's the feeling in its many righteous hues: the slow burn of resentment through to the flashpoint of defiance." The review went on to describe the songs as "a stripped back, heroically brutal reflection of this fury.”
Watch Metallica's Music Video for 'Some Kind of Monster'
The band's global following discovered some of the devilish details behind St. Anger when the making-of movie Some Kind of Monster arrived in 2004. Not only was Metallica feeling betrayed by Jason Newsted's departure (he had his reasons), it turned out they hadn't managed to deal with predecessor Cliff Burton's death in 1986. As the documentary followed James Hetfield's escape to rehab and Ulrich's admission that he couldn't think of anything positive when he considered his band and its future, it became clear that St. Anger absolutely had to exist if there was to be any future at all.
"I learned a lot about what I don't like about me," Hetfield said later. "Which was good — it was a good mirror. And I think everyone involved in that movie pretty much felt the same way about themselves."
A superfan may not want to know that, though — in the same way they probably hadn't wanted to know Metallica's feelings about Napster a few years earlier. When an album is loaded into waiting ears, many have already predetermined what they want to hear and feel — and there's no way many listeners could have predicted how the music of St. Anger would enter their minds. So were people simply disappointed? If so, by the time they understood why the record was what it was, the damage had been done.
If you hate St. Anger, it's not likely another listen will change your mind. But perhaps, decades on, it's worth considering that many more listeners have since gone through their own midlife crises and perhaps better understand the circumstances of its creation.
Watch Metallica's Music Video for 'Frantic'
"I view St. Anger as an isolated experiment," Ulrich said later, adding: "We'd already done Ride the Lightning, which I believe is a fine record. It didn't need to be re-done." The drummer claimed the artistic intent had been "almost about hurting the listener, about challenging the listener," perhaps in the same way the members had put themselves and each other through challenges and pain. Later he argued: "I stand behind it 100% because, at that moment, that was the truth."
The record is worthy of respect if not enjoyment, even for those who aren't ardent fans, like Jimmy Page and Jack White. To do anything at all under those circumstances expresses an artistic bravery and a will to survive that eludes many artists (and fans). Every family has its skeletons in the closet. Perhaps St. Anger is the one in the extended Metallica family's closet, and perhaps some critics helped hide it under a pile of warm, woolly lip service.
Although what all that means for Lulu isn't even worth considering right now.