Rattle and Ho-Hum
Metallica: St. Anger
Posted: June 23, 2003
Metallica has had a proud and distinguished career. When Kill 'Em All was released twenty years ago, none but the most starry-eyed headbanger would have dared to dream that one day the brash upstarts behind "Seek and Destroy" would one day be considered the elder statesmen of metal. Hell, who would have believed that heavy metal would ever be taken seriously enough to merit elder statesmen? Metallica wasn't the first band to find the music of the spheres in the relentless stampede of jackhammer guitars, nor the heaviest by far. But it was one of the few bands to bring metal into the mainstream. Critical acclaim (of the kind that counts, not the Circus/Hit Parader variety), Grammys, MTV airplay -- Metallica was the first long-haired hard rock outfit to barrel its way onto pop culture's main stage without apology or compromise (at least, for a while) and make the world come to it on its terms. You can't turn around in a record store or pause for too long on a commercial radio station today without confronting the band's undeniable legacy. Its achievements have been nothing short of remarkable. And thus there's no shame in accepting the inevitable: Metallica should call it a day.
Or at least consider a name change. Because there's nothing metallic about St. Anger, a lumbering behemoth of an album that doesn't so much trample everything in its path as it thrashes clumsily about, like a woolly mammoth with a flank full of arrows, crashing awkwardly through the brush on its way to the cold finality of eternal slumber. Oh, sure, there are some identifiable hard rock touchstones at hand: granola-crunchy guitars, throat-constricting drums and (most of all) pure primal-scream fury. But these elements bear as much of a resemblance to the Metallica of old as the creepy space alien occupying Neverland Ranch bears to the Michael Jackson of Off the Wall. The guitars stumble in a monotone of mid-level, processed rattle; the drums don't propel as much as struggle to disguise an all-too-turgid pace; and the rage is both unfocused and leavened with too much narcissistic navel-gazing.
How does St. Anger stumble? Let us count the ways. First, it discards what's always been the band's secret strength: the inescapable melodicism of its saw-toothed rhythmic assault. There's not so much as a single memorable melody to be found on St. Anger, save for those that embed themselves into the listener's consciousness by dint of their sheer atrociousness, as on the mewling, metal-scraping title track and the decidedly non-monstrous "Some Kind of Monster." Second, it further turns its back on the intricate, cerebral shifts and time signatures that elevated ...And Justice for All and the superlative high-water mark Master of Puppets into something approaching art. This has been a grating flaw in the band's output for the last dozen years, but in the absence of the more conventional song structures that took their place on Metallica, Load and Reload, it's all the more pronounced. There's not even so much as a single, solitary guitar solo; Kirk Hammett, the band's mercurial axe murderer, is given little to do but chop-strum in unison with vocalist James Hetfield. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just not what Kirk Hammett was put on this earth to do.
Worst of all, perhaps, St. Anger doesn't even try to live up to its title. Instead of exalting absolute, primordial rage as a thing of divinity, embracing it as a necessary part of man's duality, Hetfield drowns in the miasmic, inchoate anger of the womb. Anger is no longer a natural emotion whose energy leads to a cathartic, howling release; it's a security blanket for a middle-aged soul discovering self-examination for the first time. Hetfield's well-documented rehab stint has neutralized his mojo, robbed him of his Samsonesque vitality. "Invisible Kid," "My World," "Frantic" and the imploding title track document a man-child grappling with his anger management issues, trading in the white-hot bash-and-pop assault of Janovian bellowing for the self-absorbed wail of Fred Durst.
And with that primacy has gone any shred of Hetfield's serrated lyricism: "My lifestyle determines my death style," he snarls in "Frantic," while on the closing "All Within My Hands," he all but screeches "Love is control/I'll die if I let go" before doing just that in the only way he knows how, chanting "Kill! Kill! Kill!" like the mantra of absolution it was two decades ago. "Dirty Window," in particular, is a maelstrom of journal-entry clichés: "Am I who I think I am?;" "I'm judge and I'm jury and I'm executioner too;" "I see my reflection in the window; this window clean inside, dirty on the out."
Metallica has endured its share of tests recently, from Hetfield's struggle with sobriety to the emotional departure of longtime bassist Jason Newsted, and especially drummer Lars Ulrich's outspoken opposition to the file-sharing site Napster, which led to the unprecedented PR disaster of a band of multimillionaires filing suit against its fans. Trying times indeed, and surely in all of that turmoil there's fodder for a wondrous explosion of creative and artistic catharsis. St. Anger, with arena-rock producer Bob Rock stepping in on bass as well as orchestrating the album's muddy sonic whirlpool, ain't that document. And judging from the album's alarmingly murky sprawl, it's hard to imagine such a document is forthcoming. Rarely has an album gnashed its canines so ferociously and yet proven so toothless.
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Ratings Key: 5.0: A classic 4.0-4.9: Stellar work 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort 2.0-2.9: Nothing special 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad 0.0-1.0: Total disaster
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