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Right, honesty time here. I used to absolutely LOVE St. Anger. It was my first ever Metallica album and my bible for ages upon ages, but after a year or 2, I collected the rest of their albums and St. Anger fell out of favour. When I decided to dig out St. Anger again for this review, I was sceptical. I was going to listen through it then just give it a 60% rating on the basis that "It's pretty poor, but I like it for some reason. It's Metallica, it's good. End of." But something unplanned happened. I began to recall just how good this album was and it climbed in percentage with nearly every song and I've remembered why I loved this album in the first place.
Now, the above paragraph is tantamount in the metal community to saying that Bruce Dickinson sucks big fat ones and that Trivium are the greatest band of all time, with Atreyu second. It will most probably get you lynched. The derision for this album is unreal. Imagine Cold Lake, Swansong and The Unspoken King wrapped into one big fat package of hate. Then times it by a million. This album was being hailed as "a return to their roots" and when the previews hinted at 8-minute long epics, people started comparing it to ...And Justice For All and Master of Puppets. The first couple of weeks were positive, with Number 1s in Charts all over the world and mostly Positive reviews. But then something happened. I don't know what but SOMETHING did happen. Everyone turned on the album. Critics who had hailed it as a return to form started panning it, the fans were decidedly unpleased and the album withered away.
But why? Well, where do we start? There's so many tired-old excuses raised about the flaws of this album. But the main one is usually about the production. It's not very good, and not in a Darkthrone kind of "not very good". It's just not very good. They've certainly succeeded in achieving a "raw, garage sound", and it is a good production to an extent. But it's TOO raw. It's too rough and muddy, there is many parts during this album where the infamous "wall of noise" comes into play, where it's all just one big lumpen thrashy mess. It can be good at times, but not at others. It sort of depends on what mood you're in and it varies from song-to-song. The drums ARE REALLY FUCKING LOUD IN THE SAME WAY THAT SOMEONE SHOUTING IN YOUR EAR ALL THE TIME IS REALLY FUCKING LOUD. Well, it is for the first song or 2, but they are 2 of the best songs on the album. Also, there's the snare. It CAN grate very easily, but those with a patient ear will be able to become accustomed to it. They might not necessarily love it, but they'll come to accept it.
Another aspect of the sound is the guitar tone. I fucking love the tone on this album. It sounds so sludgy and doomy and well, raw. But it has a sense of pervading gloom hanging over it that is just mind-boggling. To try and describe it is hard, but I'd say, you know that ever-annoying question that comes up every so often when you run out of things to say about Metallica, "What would it be like if Load was more metal?". Well, this is it. It's got the tone of Load (Which I loved by the way) but with more crunch. The Bass is only audible sometimes, and James' Vocals are possibly the only thing clear in this mix.
The Guitars are another much-maligned part of this album. Kirk Hammett doesn't really need to play on this album at all. This is Hetfield's album essentially. There is no Solos, hell there isn't even any lead parts. That is not an overexaggeration. Hammett just copies Hetfield pretty much all the time throughout this album, the closest we got to a lead is on The Unnamed Feeling, but he just makes random noises. It's as much a SunnO))) lead as it is a Metallica lead. The Bass is fairly interesting, when you can hear it, which is very rarely ever, and it's in short bursts, but it is pretty funky and well done to Bob Rock. But most of the time, it just blends in, playing the same riffs as the guitars. The drums, once you get past the toe-curling sound, are actually pretty good. I've seen many a review accusing Lars of being lazy on this album, but I fail to see how. He's brought back the double bass (and very well, might I add) and he does some fairly interesting patterns throughout the album. Alright, so he's no Mike Portnoy, but was he ever a Mike Portnoy? Even on Justice, he didn't go over-the-fucking-top, ala DT. He did what was needed and that was that. It's hardly fair to expect him to buck the trend by now, is it? I personally believe Lars' performance on this album is exceptional and possibly the best thing on it. Hetfield's vocals are a bit out-of key but they show passion. Each song sounds like he's screaming his lungs out with rage, but also he sounds like he's having fun doing it, that it's not a drag or a chore that he has to do these vocals, it feels like he wants to fucking shout and scream and generally go "AAAAAAAAAARGGGGGGGGGGGGH!!"
In terms of actual songs, it's a mixed bag. There is some absolutely amazing songs, Frantic and Dirty Window spring straight to mind, as being absolute classics. Two of the more thrashier ones, they just BLISTER along, unrelenting. Dirty Window sounds like so much fun to play, and that main riff is absolutely fantastic, I love it. These two songs are absolute classics and would make sensible additions to any Metallica setlist. Songs getting the silver medal include All Within My Hands, a monolithic sludge epic, which gets to the point where it's so fractured that it collapses around itself and dies. (The acoustic version reinforced this, adding more depth.) and Sweet Amber which is more brooding and dark than the other songs mentioned, but still has the quality associated with Metallica. The singles, St. Anger, The Unnamed Feeling and Some Kind of Monster, are all not bad, but not as good as the four mentioned before. The rest of the songs are also not bad but are all interchangable. Many of the songs sound identical and you'll get lost in the mire and they'll just fly by. And I now come to another point of derision on this album. This album is 70 minutes plus, with only 13 songs, that's roughly 5 or 6 minutes per song. Now this is the norm with Metallica, the average song by them is about this length if not longer. But the problem is that they are very drawn out. For example, St. Anger seems to consist of about 3 riffs for the whole song and it's about 6/7 minutes long. The radio edits cut sizeable chunks of the song out, and it flowed much better and didn't grate nearly as much as the album version. An example would be Some Kind of Monster, a song so drawn out that I have witnessed Autumns which last for a shorter length of time. On the SKOM EP, the video edit was considerably shorter and is favoured by most of Metallica's diehard fanbase. It seems that Lars went mental with Pro Tools and just pressed Ctrl+V a lot. The lowest of the low, though, has to be Purify. It isn't anything horrific on this studio version, but the DVD which came with this album consisting of rehearsal footage totally ruined this song for me, it's the broken-voice backing vocals of the chorus. Woeful. It's got some not bad ideas in it, but I just do not like it for that simple reason. But that's only because I'm harbouring a grudge.
In short, there is many flaws with this album. MANY, MANY flaws with this album. The drums ARE REALLY LOUD AND GO DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN ALL THE TIME. This album is way too long, they've taken the idea of repetition to the extreme, and there isn't much in the way of variation. There isn't any solos, or anything in the way of progressive riffs like on Justice. The production isn't very good, and Hetfield is out of key. These are all valid points, but the question must be asked: If Metallica were to re-record this with a better production, fixing that snare and re-working the songs so to add solos and trim fat, would it get a better reaction? Well, If it was released tomorrow, I believe it wouldn't simply because it's St. Anger. There's a stigma attached to this, it's an unwritten law that if you are Metal, you must hate this album. Fact. But if they had released this hypothetical "St. Reworked" album instead of the original album, would it have fared better? And, once again, the answer is no. Not only did they put solos into Frantic when they played it live, but they didn't sound very good and forced as a result of the fan's reaction. Regardless of their output, there will always be people who will slate this and shout "OMFG SELLOUT MALLCORE FAIL LOLZ KREATOOOOOR!" on Blabbermouth until they turn blue. There will always be people who regard Sepultura to have peaked with Morbid Visions, and that Kreator should just do nothing but play "Flag of Hate" or stuff off Pleasure To Kill over and over again. There will always be people who regard the heart and soul of Metallica to be Lloyd Grant and will slate this to death. Perhaps they'd give it a 5% rating, instead of a 0%, because Frantic had more of a thrash vibe to it.
Basically, what I'm getting at is that Metallica can do no right. Every move they make will end up in SOME people who'll view them lower than a holocaust-denying sex offender who once pissed on the constitution. If they decided "Right, we'll just go and re-do our 80s thrash stuff again", they'll get called "Sellouts" for trying to pander to the metalheads, but if they decide to do their own thing, they'll get branded "Sellouts who don't care about their fanbase". All this, despite the fact that Metallica are possibly one of the least sellout-y bands in the upper echelons of Metal. It boggles my mind as to why people call Metallica sellout. Do they release a live album every 3 weeks like Maiden or Testament? No. Do they put out endless compilations? No. Metallica offer good value for their fans through things such as Mission Metallica, Live Metallica and the Metallica Fan Club. All those people who call this a "business venture" are obviously not very business-savvy. The idea of making money in business is to give your customer fanbase something they want. If this was a money-making exercise for them, they would simply have rehashed MOP on every album, and not bothered with progressing or making new ideas. I would say a band like Cannibal Corpse, or Kataklysm would be more of a money-making venture than Metallica. I'm pretty sure that NO Metallica fan specifically wanted them to go in this direction. If I went out into the streets in 2001/2002 and asked hundreds of Metallica fans "What do you want from their new album?", I can pretty much guarantee you that they would not have said a description of St. Anger. The idea that this album is a business venture is like Mr. Kipling deciding his next "business venture" is to put bits of glass in his cakes, because he thinks they'll sell more.
If this had been released by any other band, it would've probably have done far better. If a band like Trivium had released this as a debut, they'd probably be more acclaimed by metalheads for being more avant-garde, and if a band like Evile or Gama Bomb had released this, or even just a new band in general, not necessarily a thrash one, they'd be praised for their vision and originality, and it would be hailed as a troubled classic. As a result of it being Metallica, it will never get the recognition it deserves. The fans' backlash against the fact that it wasn't MOP has become contagious to the point where it's illegal to like this album, the press (which gave it good reviews at first) have latched on to the bandwagon and now hate this release. The album's downfall doesn't lie with Metallica, but with it's fans. The fact of the matter is that this record is a perfectly good release with a bad reputation. The Napster scandal and the 90s output have alienated people to anything by Metallica (A point proven by the hatred emanating from certain corners of the metal world for Death Magnetic, a record designed with the 80s in mind).
As a purely musical object, this is 70/75%, but the no remorse, no relent aesthetic and Metallica's reluctance to pander to the baying audience elevates this album higher than most. This has heart, unlike recent Megadeth or Slayer releases which seem to be forced and going through the motions. As Hetfield himself says on this album "St. Anger never gets respect" and it is because of this that it never gets respect. An album with as much vision and individuality as this will never be seen ever again, it is a once in a lifetime album. In years to come, maybe people will relax their inhibitions about it and slowly begin to like it, but I doubt it. Metal Archives rules states that reviews aren't meant to be JUST about the music, but about the album as a whole. This album is about so much more than the music. The back-story of the SKOM film, the uniqueness of this album, and Metallica's sheer reluctance to do anything other than what they want to do are just some of the reasons why this album gets a perfect rating from me.
You will never hear another album like St. Anger, it is a wholly unique entity and for that, it should be praised.