|Metallica - St. Anger|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Thursday, 05 June 2003|
As a die-hard Metallica fan, it pains me to have to type the words that describe the latest studio record from what was once considered to be the greatest band in rock and roll. St. Anger is the first studio album from Metallica since their creative leader and front man, James Hetfield, entered rehab for substance abuse. It is also the first album since bassist Jason Newsted left the band (a seemingly audacious move at the time) and the first studio album since outspoken drummer Lars Ulrich publicly alienated many core Metallica fans by speaking out aggressively against peer-to-peer music sites like Napster. To say the pressure was on would be to understate the severity of the situation for our heroes.
Metallica has pulled off the feat of reinventing themselves once before. Their classic sound (Kill ‘em All Through …And Justice For All) is what most Metallica fans consider to be their best work creatively. Mostly produced by Flemming Rasumssen, the early albums consisted of large-scale, heavy metal anthems that literally defined the genre almost to the level that Bob Marley defines reggae. In 1990, heavy metal fizzled out in the world of pop music like the bitter end of a can of Aqua Net, but Metallica was up to the challenge of staying creatively fresh. They changed their sound and approach, thanks to super-producer Bob Rock (Aerosmith, The Cult) for their self titled “Black Album.” It was the band’s most commercially successful work, which transformed them from heavy metal gods into a staple of alternative radio. The band was able to take the incredible success of the Black Album and parlay that into other albums and many a concert tour, all of which created riches beyond even a rock star’s imagination. And like most rock and roll stories – the more money, the more problems. As if it were a Hollywood script, everything started going wrong for the band, from Newsted quitting to Lars catching an unnecessary case of diarrhea of the mouth to Hetfield admitting he had a substance abuse problem. Months passed and anticipation grew for a new studio album from the newly-crowned MTV icons. St. Anger was the resolution to the plot the great band needed to wrap up the film as heroes. The problem is that the record sucks.
Not since Van Halen III (remember when the brothers Van Halen hired former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone to replace Sammy Hagar?) have I found a more disappointing rock record. It is rare to be able to reinvent a star or a band for a third time (just ask Genesis), but what Metallica came out with for St. Anger doesn’t even sound like a Metallica record. It sounds like a poorly produced System of a Down tribute band singing songs about being pissed off at their parents. The recording quality is noting short of embarrassing. I guess the band is supposed to sound punk and raw, but there is no reason for them to sound as poorly as they do on St. Anger. The record sounds dull and lifeless, despite the frequently spazzed-out performances. Missing (just like in all of the pop-metal acts that the GenY crowd digs today) are acrobatic guitar solos, high levels of production and virtuoso drum fills. In their place are spasmodic double -time drumming and loose-sounding guitar chops.
Upon opening St. Anger in iTunes, one of the first things you will notice is that all of the songs are really long. At first glance, this is very exciting for a Metallica fan drooling over the idea of a great new album from the band. The single “St. Anger” is a “Light My Fire”-esque 7:21 minutes long. I got my first taste of the song on The Howard Stern Show the morning the record was released early, a move to reportedly curb rampant piracy. While Howard kissed ass to the band, he barely got through any of the song before talking all over it. Los Angeles’ KROQ, the local “alternative” station, played the tune that day, but that was it. And for good reason – in addition to being too long, the song is weak. Lars Ulrich’s drum performance sounds like the sister from The White Stripes strung out on PCP. The first verse is in odd time (or at least an odd rhythm). The chorus sounds like a Korn song without the balls. The pace of the songs picks up to breakneck speeds, but the melody is just lame and only gets worse as Hetfield repeatedly sings, “I am madly in anger with you.” The tune is so bad that you can only hope that this track was an experiment and the rest of the record gets better. It doesn’t.
The worst element of the record is the move away from musicianship. Metallica is a band that can historically really play but you wouldn’t know it from St. Anger. Gone are the lovably squeaky Kirk Hammet guitar solos. The best you will hear is the modern-day cliché of hacking out the melody of the song, as found on “Some Kind of Monster.” This solo is simplistic to the point where you wonder if the band had an MTV contest for an eight-year-old kid to win the chance to play on a Metallica record.
I just can’t get over the drum sound on the record. Rush’s latest album, Vapor Trails, used a more gritty sound for the title track and it sounded awesomely raw. St. Anger absolutely misses the mark. Lars seemingly has a double-time section in each song. The drums are mixed too loudly, especially the high-pitched snare drum. It’s almost as if James and Kirk didn’t really care what went on the record.
Producer Bob Rock reportedly played bass on much of the record, begging the question – why? Despite reportedly treating Jason Newsted as an outsider in the beginning of their working relationship, Metallica could afford to get any great studio bassist in the world to sit in on the record. In fact, if they had asked, they could have probably gotten guest appearances from a who’s who of rock and roll bass players. Needless to say, the bass is mixed way down, below the drums and vocals. Ultimately, the band added ex-Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo to the lineup. I don’t think he appears on the studio album but he is seen playing on the supplemental DVD.
The overall recording quality of the record is a tragedy. I listened to it on my computer (through a nifty $6,000 rig that allows me to hear the recording quality of a good record), in my car’s premium system and on my reference music system at home. The better the system, the worse the album sounds. It is loud but dull. There is nothing glossy or polished about the performances or the production. The mix is unbalanced and the arrangements are boring despite frequent tempo changes.
If you are looking for a positive, I do have one. For the price of a record, you get full DVD of the band performing the songs from St. Anger. This would be quite an added value if the record wasn’t such a hunk of crap. Ironically, the demo performances of the songs such as “Frantic” are far better than the studio versions. While they are raw, you can hear more interesting mixes of the tunes. The distorted guitars sound more like what you would expect. Cleaner guitars ring more clearly. The drums are more back in the mix. Go figure.
St. Anger could go down as one of the most embarrassing studio albums in the history of rock and roll. Never before has AudioRevolution.com given such low grades for both sound and performance. Metallica is a band capable of much better. They give lip service to being dedicated to their fans to the end, no matter what. St. Anger is nothing short of an insult to their vast fan base. While St. Anger nearly went gold in its first week, becoming the number one album in America, this is just the dedicated fan base buying up their own copies. Metallica has cured one of their biggest problems with people sharing their files on the Internet. With St. Anger, the album is so bad that it begs the question – who wants the files?
Metallica fans have every right to be angry with the band. Over St. Anger The artists and producer are clearly talented, but this effort couldn’t be more of a failure. With all of the trouble that the band has seen, the mature response would have been to either scrap this entire album and start over or to actually break up the band. It takes maturity to know when to call it quits. The Beatles knew when to go out on top. So did The Eagles, as did the Police. Led Zeppelin knew they weren’t the same band without Bonham and also went out winners. As much as I love their past records, St. Anger makes you wonder why Metallica didn’t follow the lead of other historically great rock bands.