without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
This album is like an unprivileged autistic child. Truly brilliant, yet so different from its fellow children, to the extent where very few understand its brilliance, or even sense any speck of wit beneath the difficult-to-penetrate surface of unlikeness. Everyone notices the child sticks out like a sore thumb among its peers and cannot but compare it. Because this child was unprivileged growing up it never had the chance to develop expressing its true cleverness in ways easily perceptible. The child never had a piano or computer they could dazzle skeptics with their aptitude of using it, or a guitar on which it could learn classic 80s Metallica solos for that matter. So it had to learn to express itself on its own terms. It expressed itself in a language few could read, and so only a handful of people understood that the child was truly a saint.
Most of you are likely familiar with the fact that Metallica has changed a great deal since it first rose to fame in the early 80s. The band evolved a great deal in that decade, but this evolution was largely accepted by their fans, partly because standards of what metal should be were not as set in stone at that point. With an even greater change in their sound, 1991’s more rock-oriented Black Album was their first album to draw a great deal of backlash, and each album since has drawn more backlash, and multiplied the uncountable amount of times they have been accused of “selling out”.
St. Anger is often negatively pointed out by old-school fans as the epitome of what can result if a band “sells out”. But in the metal world, “selling out” usually refers simply to a band changing their style from what they defined themselves as when they became popular. In reality, they were probably largely in it for the money from the time they made “Kill ‘Em All”, and certainly were by the time they signed to Elektra in 1984 - not that this negatively impacts the quality of the music at all. Furthermore, I would argue that St. Anger is actually a much less accessible album than their 1980’s efforts. What Metallica accomplished in the 1980’s was taking thrash metal and smoothing it out, writing/playing it in the pristine calculated way of mainstream rock music – they were the first (and arguably only) band to make serious thrash metal truly accessible to the masses. Their later 80s albums utilized even more accessible pop-like song writing, but managed to do this within the rules of serious thrash metal, which is the other reason why these albums were still accepted by much of Metallica’s old-school fan base. In the 90s, Metallica decided to make albums which actually were rock - instead of metal that was written and played like rock - and this was deemed unacceptable.
The backlash behind St. Anger is for different reasons though. This time Metallica attempted to reincorporate elements of the thrash metal which made them famous, but because they had already evolved their sound so far from that, the end result was completely different. But what was particularly unusual is that this album ended up sounding different from not only their 80s material, but from any other metal recording.
In “Some Kind Of Monster”, the documentary about the making of this album, it is made clear that the members went through an insane amount of emotional turmoil during the making of this album. They had so much difficulty working together that they even had to a have a psychologist with them in the studio. The breed of anger which they were experiencing during this process was so intense and extreme, it transcended the emotional spectrum of traditional thrash metal and could only be expressed in an entirely new kind of metal. The reason this album is so unique is because no other band has ever made an album under such circumstances. Any other band would have simply given up, broken up, and not made an album. But, for reasons financial or otherwise, Metallica knew they simply HAD to make this album and went to the greatest lengths (such as having the shrink in the studio) to ensure that it happened.
Most of the album is in drop-C tuning, creating a much lower guitar sound than Metallica’s earlier works. This tuning and the fact that it is more groove-oriented have caused some comparison to the alternative and nu- metal genres, bands like Mudvayne and Hatebreed also heavily utilizing drop-C tuning and groovy syncopation. This comparison has generally been negative because many people who are intensely into traditional thrash metal cannot understand metal which has evolved to a direction so drastically different from theirs. While there is some similarity to these sort of bands in the guitar sound and in the general feel of certain songs like “Shoot Me Again”, this album does include a few riffs which are quite thrash-based, often played at faster tempos than they would be in groove metal. Riffs from “My World” and “Frantic” come to mind. However, there are also many songs such as “Dirty Window” and “Sweet Amber” which are based around bluesy rock riffs, the sort one might find on their rock albums Load and Reload. But playing these in the downtuned style and mixing them with thrash and groove metal elements make the whole thing sound like a whole new subgenre... anger metal? Alright, not the best name...
The drum production is also something many people have reacted to negatively. The drumming itself is solid, not very technical, but composed with a primal brutality effective in keeping the angry guitars in time, and it does contain several interesting patterns, such as the opening to “Frantic”. But the sound of the drums is extremely innovative. The snare sounds like a very tonal tin can which many fans of traditional metal production find obnoxious and weird, but if you listen with an open mind you may find it creates a unique atmosphere and even works as an unconventional countermelody at times when the snare is prominent. The other drums are also triggered unconventionally to make the whole thing sound more primal and raw. While most metal bands would simply underproduce the album if they were going for a rawer feel, Metallica, as previously mentioned, have always made metal from the perspective of rock musicians. They don’t think like the average metal musicians. So instead they heavily produced the album to give it a completely unique aesthetic which evokes those feelings in an unconventional way.
Like I said before, St Anger is actually much less accessible than any other album band has ever made. The strange production contributes to this greatly, as do other elements which differ from the pristine quality of their 80’s pop thrash work. The vocals are often crudely performed and out-of-key, which adds to the aesthetic of the album but is deemed unacceptable by their fanbase because it is imperfect according to convention. The songs are structured to have an extended length and a repetitiveness which is not broken up by any solos. Solos were another pristine characteristic of their earlier work that would have simply detracted from their expression of “The Unnamed Feeling” they were experiencing, this extreme strain of anger few have ever known.
The relentless repetition reinforces this expression, and like all the other unconventional elements, work perfectly to one who knows how to take in – how to enjoy this album to its fullest. However, I believe that this album sounds to the average metalhead similarly to what metal sounds like to someone to doesn’t listen to metal, and this is precisely where the brilliance of the whole thing lies. Every aspect of the album reflects this, with vocals that are considered grating (just as people who don’t listen to metal often cite to the vocals as being too listener unfriendly), repetition that is considered unnecessary, a drum sound that is considered obnoxious, and a guitar sound which is considered too heavy (frankly this is what the detractors really think). Basically, this album is too much of a BEAST for most people to handle, even for those that listen to heavy music. While most music listeners don`t even understand metal, most metal listeners don`t understand this album. So this is like metal squared, because in addition to the regular level of tolerance required to enjoy any metal at all, this album requires an additional dimension of tolerance.
Based on what I’ve heard about the members and their interactions in “Some Kind Of Monster”, as well as listening to the techniques they used in all their earlier work, I think it is safe to say that spitting in the face of convention this stingily was not quite the band’s intention. Birthing an autistic child is not the average parent’s intention, and Metallica do not seem like they would be interested in making their music avant-garde. If somebody with a Mike Patton sort of reputation made this album, it would be interpreted quite differently – though I’m definitely not saying that this fits in the niche of something the average Patton fan would enjoy. It`s a very different kind of avant-garde. I think these guys simply wanted to express an anger which consumed them to the extent that it became holy to them, hence the album title. And the result was an extremely unorthodox album which yields many rewards for those who happen to know how to listen to it.