Everyone has their own personal issues they work through, but heavy metal bands need them to thrive. They create the hatred, fear and aggression that fuel thrashing guitars and a ferocious double pedal drum. And for many bands those thrashing guitars will play until the wheels fall off and the band implodes. It’s the circle of life for rock stars. If they don’t break up, bands run the danger of becoming better individuals and losing their edge. Case in point: St. Anger, Metallica’s eighth studio album.
The album was released in 2003, as fans were feeling cold toward their favorite thrashers because of a confluence of departures and conflicts. The band began recording in 2001, but was delayed indefinitely because of several reasons. The band’s second bassist, Jason Newsted, left to form his own band, James Hetfield left for almost a year to attend rehab for alcohol abuse and the band had a very public legal fight with Napster.
Eventually Metallica released St. Anger six years after their last album, Reloaded, but for awhile it seemed like it would be their last.
The entire odyssey was shown in painful detail in the documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” The film is compelling in how it deconstructs Metallica’s image and humanizes the band members. A prime example comes near the beginning of the film when Hetfield is driving a souped-up roadster down the freeway. In that moment of machismo he fits his heavy metal image perfectly, until the next scene when Hetfield gets a speeding ticket. Unlike real people, rock stars are above consequences such as traffic tickets, but in that moment Hetfield appears to be a real person.
In the documentary, Metallica is continually brought down to a more human level. Most notably the band employs a therapist to help them open up to each other. Whether intentional or not, this softer side of Metallica became part of St. Anger.
The album’s lyrics reflect a shift from their earlier releases like The Black Album. Over all there’s too much navel gazing and not enough finely tuned aggression in the album. Gone is the foreboding menace in songs like “Enter Sandman” and in its place is Hetfield at his most vulnerable. The track “Invisible Kid” sports a tight hook worthy of a Metallica track, but is saddled with lyrics like, “Open your mind/I’m being right here, right now.” The result doesn’t work very well.
It seems as though the band was reaching Master of Puppets’ edge and grabbed a self-help book for aging rock stars instead.
Despite the turmoil that surrounded it, St. Anger eventually went double platinum. The band survived with a sober James Hetfield and the former Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo. Many critics praised the album’s edge and hard garage aesthetic, but lamented the muddy quality of the final mix. Reviews ranging from outright hatred from Pitchfork.com, which called it “an utter mess,” to high praise from Spin saying, “This is the album Metallica lifers have been waiting for: An inspired return to the complex savagery of old.” Arguments for both can be made.
The problem with St. Anger comes in long hauls where the intensity sags. In those moments it sounds as though old age slipped in the back door and became Metallica’s fifth member.
Metallica makes driving, angry music without exposing their scars, but on St. Anger and the documentary that surrounded it, they took a 180 turn. Thrash opuses are hampered by an emo band’s lyrics and the music sags where it should intensify.
For all of their problems though, the album and movie provided a fascinating character study of one of those most successful artists in the world. It seems anger, speed and alcohol are the ideal fuel for heavy metal, but they can also come with their own expiration date.