Not Fade Away: Re-evaluating Metallica’s ‘St. Anger,’ 10 Years Later

In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we take a look at Metallica‘s polarizing “St. Anger,” originally released June 5, 2003. 

For years, it had been impossible to separate Metallica’s St. Anger from Some Kind Of Monster, the documentary that was planned at a behind-the -scenes look at the making of the album but ultimately told the story of the band’s near implosion and subsequent rebirth. Those who thought the band were greedy, Napster-fighting rock stars were given more fuel for their arguments, what with the scenes of Lars Ulrich selling his collection of paintings for millions, and the band hiring a therapist to help keep them together (and who, shortly after suggesting lyrics to songs, had to be relived of his duties when he got a bit too attached to the band). Coming after years of singles with strong radio play, St. Anger had none.

Lost in all the hoopla about the state of Metallica was the music of Metallica, and they were never as brutal as they were on St. Anger.  After their debut, 1983’s relentless Kill ‘Em All, they expanded their sound with their three subsequent albums, 1984’s Ride The Lightning, 1986’s Master Of Puppets and 1988’s …and Justice For All. With 1991’s self-titled “Black Album,” they successfully attempted world domination. 1996’s Load and 1997’s Reload saw them trying to fit into a post-alt-rock landscape, as the band dipping a bit into roots-rock and artsier fare).

But on St. Anger there was no trying to prove anything. The album was akin to James Hetfield’s scream therapy sessions, while Some Kind Of Monster gave some insight into the fury eating away at him. As revealing as the documentary was, when listening to this album you realize that that film only showed the tip of the iceberg. No cameras followed him as he took leave from the band to enter rehab for months, and that’s where he battled his real demons; those demons surface full-on in his lyrics and vocal performances on St. Anger. Some metal detractors will say that the genre is all “screaming,” but Hetfield’s vocals had traditionally been “yelling,” or “bellowing”; it’s more about wanting to destroy than expressing pain. But on St. Anger, he screams. It’s the screams of someone who realized his wildest dreams only to find himself miserable. In that way, the album is more similar to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band or Nirvana’s In Utero than most metal albums. And if the lyrics were a bit clunkier than those of Lennon or Cobain, they were at least as raw and painful. On “My World,” when he wails, “Not only do I not know the answer/I don’t even know what the question is!”, it’s as honest as Hetfield has ever been as a lyricist. Ulrich’s drums raged with the anger of a man watching his castle crumble and being helpless to prevent it; it was surely his heaviest performance since Kill ‘Em All. Sonically, the band had tempered their sound for years in their quest for headline stadiums. This time, they seemed not to care what year it was, or what was on the radio or MTV: their guitars thrashed and they sounded as brutal as their peers Slayer and Anthrax, as heavy as their progeny Sepultura and Pantera.

St. Anger also marked an important transition for the band: it was the end of their long relationship with producer Bob Rock. Ironically, the guy credited/blamed with giving Metallica a more commercial sound ended his term with the band by producing their most uncompromising album ever. Rock, of course, played bass on the album, which came after Jason Newstead quit and before Robert Trujilio was hired.

Today, Metallica are a well-oiled machine that not only makes albums but curates festivals and produces IMAX movies. Whatever you may think of those projects, St. Anger allowed the band to continue through the millennium. It’s churlish to complain that a band that redefined metal and released at least four classic albums shouldn’t be afforded the freedom to do what they want.

(It’s also worth noting, finally, that while the band had been frequently demonized in the press for their fight against Napster, and characterized as greedy rock star dinosaurs, they had always allowed fans to tape their shows. Their fight with Napster was over the peer-to-peer network allowing people to steal unfinished demos and post them online for the world to hear. What got much less press was the fact that all copies of St. Anger came with a unique code, allowing fans to listen to hours of live recordings from Metallica’s vaults, for free.)

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