There are certain rites of passage that every Metallica fan experiences regardless of when they discover the greatest metal band there’s ever been.
The first live show. The first viewing of the ‘Harvester Of Sorrow’ video. The first time you see Cliff ‘Em All. So, so many more besides.
These moments – more than 35 years of shared history – are etched into our collective psyche as much as the songs that gave them meaning.
Something else we all know is that Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo don’t give a shit what you or I think they should do, which is precisely why I feel I have a right to critique their output but never to question their creative choices.
All of which brings us to St Anger, 16 years old today.
It’s important to set out my position early. Despite being a subscriber to the great John Hegarty’s way of thinking I very much zig instead of zagging when it comes to St Anger.
In dissecting it afresh in 2019 I don’t have any new arguments, any criticism that wasn’t identified the day it was released. You’d get as much from skimming /r/Metallica for an afternoon as you will from reading this.
St Anger was a landmark album for me. I was into Metallica relatively early in terms of age, but I came to them through my uncle and grazed rather than gorged initially. In terms of full albums I pretty much worked backwards from ReLoad to Kill ‘Em All, a love for a lifetime further cemented with every step towards 1983.
By the time Garage, Inc. was released I was a Metallica fanatic – not just an enthusiast but a self-appointed expert, the kind of fan for whom a double album of covers is catnip. When S&M arrived I damned near lost my fucking mind.
But I was gasping for a new studio album and the truth is I just wanted a modern Metallica. I’m no thrash elitist – I kind of am, actually, but not when it comes to this particular band – but I craved an album that sounded like ‘I Disappear’, Metallica’s single from May 2000.
St Anger finally hit the shelves in June 2003 and was the first Metallica studio album I could buy on the day of release with my own money from my own pay packet.
It should mean something to me. It leaves me utterly, irretrievably cold.
My opinion then and now is that ‘Shoot Me Again’ is the one song that really works, that feels complete, even if there are others held more fondly in the affections of the average Metallica fan.
‘All Within My Hands’ is mentioned often. The title track is said to be underappreciated. ‘Frantic’ is a popular choice, too, but I’ve never connected with any of these songs beyond my default position: Metallica can do whatever the fuck they want and I don’t have to like it to give it value.
Saying St Anger lacks quality isn’t the work of some kind of arch edgelord. Over the years the blame has been laid at the door of its production.
It’s tempting to agree because the overall sound and a great many details are problematic, but it would be unfair to hold Bob Rock accountable when what was really needed wasn’t a different producer – Rock is an excellent one – but some editing of ideas, of decisions, of songs themselves.
St Anger could have been more focused, shorter, tighter. There are passages that I personally don’t enjoy and which don’t need to be there. It makes me an anti-creative wanker to say it but the whole thing would have benefited from someone to rein it in.
Musically, there’s something there. Every song has flashes of what St Anger was all about: a free-for-all of experimentation and risk. But even those moments sound substandard because of the album’s infamous Ulrich snare sound. Again, that’s an idea that needed more forceful dissuasion.
It’s become a cliché to criticise the St Anger drum sound, and also to excuse it. I don’t like the sound; I also don’t like what’s played, for the most part. It seems to my ears to be unfinished, demo-like. It sounds – deliberately, one assumes – unrefined. The vocals are the same. I’ve long suspected that’s why it’s never clicked for me.
Really, that’s the core of my issue. St Anger just never clicked. Maybe it’s a style thing, maybe it truly is a question of quality, but it just never happened.
There is important context to acknowledge, though. Some Kind Of Monster shows that in all too raw detail. The extraordinary story of the album and everything that happened around it shouldn’t be used to explain away the flaws of the record, but it does hint at why the band was eager to throw caution to the wind.
St Anger is a product of that difficult time. The ideas are bold, especially for a band 20 years into a stellar career. Metallica don’t stand still. That’s why I love them, and it’s why I applaud St Anger for what it is and what it means.
I might never listen to it again.
St Anger came out in 2003 on Elektra.