It’s mid-November, meaning lots of people are starting to get really excited about Christmas. Me? I’m bouncing up and down with giddiness about the new Metallica album coming in the next couple of days.
Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is set to land on November 17th, and from what I’ve heard so far, it sounds nothing short of incredible.
But then, what else could you expect from Metallica, a band who -despite their multitude of critics- have never released a bad studio album?
Sure, there was that thing they did with the late Lou Reed that was actually physically painful to listen to (David Bowie liked it though, apparently), but when it’s just James, Lars, Kirk, and either Rob, Jason, or Cliff tearing up the studio, Metallica consistently produce good stuff.
That includes St. Anger, an album that was released to much fanfare back in 2003, and then was widely chastised by purist metal fans whose main source of complaint was that St. Anger wasn’t Ride the Lighting.
Oh, and they were angry about those snare drums too, this despite the fact the snare sound was exactly the kind of thing Slipknot had used to great effect on their journey to the peak of the nu-metal mountain.
Still, much like the fact that St. Anger not being Ride the Lighting is hardly a solid argument that it’s a bad album, it’s hardly a solid argument that it’s good one, either, so let’s make a much better argument now, shall we?
When it was first released, I was among what felt like only a handful of people who actually liked it. 13 years later, I still think it’s a great album, and far better than most people have given it credit for over the years. Here’s just a few reasons why:
Songwriting at its Purest
Hear me out here. Let’s say that, in its purest form, the purpose of songwriting isn’t to generate megabucks for the artist. Let’s say that it isn’t even about entertaining or inspiring the people who hear it. Let’s say that, in its purest form, right at its very core, the real purpose of songwriting is to capture, reflect, and represent the emotions or state of mind of the artist.
Just recently, I wrote that I create poetry as a ‘snapshot’ of my thought process at any given moment. Whilst I’m certainly in no way comparing myself to Metallica, I do believe that this is essence of any creative medium, be it poetry, music, or art. I believe that,this is essentially what songwriting is essentially all about -“Here’s how I feel, here’s what’s going through my mind, all set to some chords and a drumbeat.”
If all of that is true, then St. Anger is basically songwriting in its purest, most raw form. From what we’ve seen, read, and been told about the state of Metallica’s world at that time, turmoil reigned supreme, and rage, chaos, and anger.
The result? An album that was ruled by rage, chaos, and turmoil. St. Anger perfectly sums up the state of the band at the time. It’s pure, it’s raw, it’s honest, and in this fan’s mind, it’s all the better for it.
There’s Some Very Good Songs on the Album
I’ll concede the point that some of Metallica’s weakest songs can be found right here on this album. Album opener, Frantic leaves a lot to be desired, whilst there are moments elsewhere on the album when the lyrics veer off into the angst-ridden world of teenage poetry.
Those are just moments though, and when you sit with St. Anger for any length of time, it becomes obvious that even at their worst, Metallica are still better than many other bands’ best.
Sweet Amber, Invisible Kid, and The Unnamed Feeling all stand out as great tracks in their own right
Songs like this aren’t an accident. The Unnamed Feeling isn’t a fluke, a rare gem on album otherwise lost in its own mediocrity. Rather, it’s a reflection of the overall quality to be found on St. Anger, a reflection of the urgency, aggression, and hostility that was such a part of Metallica’s mindset at the time.
Every time I listen to St. Anger, what I hear is the soundtrack to terrible nightmare, not the kind of nightmares they make horror movies about, where the fear is neatly structured and laid out with a basic plot. I’m talking about real nightmares, where the fear stabs out at you from a cyclone of confusion and terror, where anxiety rips at your throat and forces you, face first into an ocean of chaos, drowning you to the point of death, then letting you up again for that last, desperate gasp of air.
That’s what I hear when I hear songs like those posted above. For me, that’s the hallmark of a great song -something that makes me feel something, that makes me feel alive, even if the kind of alive it makes me feel is ahem, like some kind of monster.
St. Anger is Exactly the Kind of Album Metallica Needed to Make at that Time
As I alluded to above, one of the biggest criticisms hurled in Metallica’s direction is that they no longer make albums like Ride the Lightning or …And Justice for All.
Yes, those early albums were incredible, masterpieces of their era, but that’s exactly the point. They were albums of their time. If Metallica were still writing stuff like Fight Fire with Fire, Welcome Home (Sanitarium) or ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ in 2003, they would only be further criticised for being old, out of touch, and either unable or simply unwilling to change.
Instead, the band have continuously evolved. Huge riffs and snarling vocals have always lay at the heart of Metallica’s sound -even on ‘softer’ albums like Load, but how the band present that combination has changed, and Metallica’s catalog has benefited because of it.
If Metallica had stuck with their 80s thrash roots, we wouldn’t have beasts like King Nothing, Fuel, Sad But True, or even the stuff coming up on the new album.
St. Anger was exactly the kind of album Metallica should have been making at the turn of the millennium. It was raw, dirty, the sound of a band purging their past, exorcising their demons, and preparing for a new phase in their career.
It was the sound of a band who were ridding themselves of the excesses of playing with orchestras, of writing sprawling blues rock jams the likes of which were found on Load/Reload, and of indulging in a little hero worship with Garage Inc. It was the sound of a band learning to live in a world of Napster and digital downloads, the sound of a band learning to work and live and love together in the aftermath of addiction, it was the album Metallica needed to make, and it sounds far better than it would have done if this had simply been another Master of Puppets.
St. Anger is Of Its Time
To continue with this point, St. Anger sounds like Metallica’s take on how heavy metal sounded back in 2003.
I’ve been listening to other albums that came out in the same year. DevilDriver released their self-titled album, Korn came out with Take a Look in the Mirror, Machine Head kicked some ass with Through the Ashes of Empires.
OK, so each one is unique in its own right, but listen to St. Anger alongside those releases, don’t you notice something? Doesn’t it just sound like an album that was very much of its time? Like the sound of a band looking at the heavy metal landscape as it was at that time and painting their own raw, ugly, portrait of said landscape?
It’s Only a Bad Album by Metallica Standards
I’m certainly not the first to suggest this, but if St. Anger had been released by any number of other bands around at the time, it would have been received far better than it was. System of a Down, the aforementioned Slipknot, a whole host of bands around at that time could have put their name to St. Anger and received critical acclaim, but because this was from the same band who wrote Master of Puppets and Creeping Death, it received more than its fair share of criticism.
You know what? That’s fine. The more time I spend looking through the various comments people make, the more I realise one thing: There are people who will always criticise the band no matter what they do, whose appreciation for the band begins at Kill ‘Em All and ends with ..And Justice For All. Quite honestly, I feel bad for those people, because they’ll never be able to appreciate what a brilliantly brutal, brutally brilliant album St. Anger really is.