Let’s face it: Metallica’s career life-course has never been one that was smooth sailing, with the band no stranger to tragic passings, internal tensions, even sonic production values (oh the furor that ensued upon the release of …And Justice for All and Death Magnetic).
Yet perhaps the more salient ones (at least to regular fans) have been the marked shifts in playing style that have dogged the band since the release of their self-titled record, with all their successive albums marking a tangent to their archetypal thrash sound rather than an evolution of it as witnessed on their first four full-lengths.
And it is St. Anger that was right up there on the scale of “most flak drawn”, rivalled probably only by Load and its presentation of a more rock/blues/country style (hell, they even cut their hair!).
But who could have blamed the early detractors? I recall reading an online article that expressed disappointment following the reports of a music journalist at a pre-release private listening party of sorts who noted the album’s opener “Frantic” as matching the intensity of “Battery”!
A loaded statement, if there ever was one.
Needless to say, expectations soared — and we all know what happens after that. Immediately, the backlash began: that snare drum that sounded like Lars used tin cans; James’ unpolished vocals, sometimes even cringe-inducing when the high notes came; the apparent non-existence of Kirk (how can there be no solos?!). The whole thing seemed like a mess.
Fast-forward to 2014, however, and we see much of the prior negativity being tempered by quite some measure, something attributable I believe to good ole’ hindsight on the part of the fan base. Indeed, the significance of St. Anger stems from its highly contextualised birth, a product of a very specific set of circumstances that Metallica was embroiled in then.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it wasn’t made for us at all, what with the departure of Jason and the drug issues that James was battling. Clearly, there were demons in the Metallica camp — demons that absolutely had to be exorcised should they wish to stay together. And St. Anger became their prayer.
These days, I see the album as their most unabashedly honest one, not just in the lyrical and emotional department (“The Unnamed Feeling” has one of the most emphatic fucks I have ever heard, bar none) but also in the sense of them not attempting to polish it with layers of clean production. The songs are raw, dirty, and in-your-face. And make no mistake — they are sledgehammer heavy.
It has been said that had St. Anger been released by another band, it would have been phenomenal. But I reckon that that’s missing the point. Eleven years on, I actually like that it was Metallica that did it, for it was and is still a peephole into the imperfect lives of these larger-than-life personalities that we come to almost idolise. Who knew that these kings of thrash metal were very much the common man at the end of the day? At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, the record has made me feel closer to them.
But does St. Anger stand the test of time? Is it a ‘classic’ in the sense of being enduringly relevant? I’m inclined to think so, but only if one takes it on its own terms and appreciates the circumstances that led to its creation. And to my ears, the record’s sonic quirks only adds to its character.
After all, an intellectual figure once said something to the effect of: if your work is to be remembered through the ages to come, don’t make it perfect. ❒