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TSM Music Review: Metallica -- St. Anger

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MUSIC REVIEW: METALLICA – ST. ANGER

It’s been six years since Metallica last released a studio album full of original material, and that was the tepidly-received Reload. Since then, they’ve put out an double album of covers, a symphonic collaboration, done some touring, been vilified for their rabid stance against file sharing, and bid adieu to their bass player. Finally, fans learned the band was back in the studio, working on what would become St. Anger. A return to the heavy metal of Metallica’s glory days was promised, which was met skeptically by both the band’s fans and detractors. Could they play speed metal now that they’re all around forty? Do a bunch of millionaires have the same fire and anger as young men twenty years their junior? Most importantly, would anyone care after six years?

All of those questions should be answered in the next several thousand words. While I’ll admit I’m a fan of the band, I listened to every song with an open mind, paying attention for the good and the bad. Reviews of each of the eleven individual tracks will kick things off, followed by my general impressions of the band, and some thoughts on the long-running “they sold out” controversy.

The CD: Scheduled for release last Tuesday, June 10th, the street date of St. Anger was moved up five days, ostensibly to combat piracy. While I doubt the move was successful to that end, it did get the album in the hands of waiting fans five days sooner. Many stores still ran new release specials on St. Anger last week, with a lot of them selling it for $9.99. The package is more than just the eleven-track CD, though: also included is a DVD of the band performing the tracks in the studio, as well as a validation key to access the online Metallica Vault.

Track List:
Frantic
St. Anger
Some Kind of Monster
Dirty Window
Invisible Kid
My World
Shoot Me Again
Sweet Amber
The Unnamed Feeling
Purify
All Within My Hands

Frantic: Early in this song, it sounds more like the Metallica of old than the more recent model. The music is faster and more frenetic, and it sounds like Lars Ulrich finally decided to stop emulating Ringo Starr. The song itself is a good straight-ahead power rocker with some good riff work and a catchy chorus. I can’t say it’s a full-on return to the Metallica of days past, but it’s definitely a declaration of intent. This was a good choice to open the album. 7.5/10

St. Anger:
The first time I heard this song on the radio, I hated it. It’s grown on me since then. I don’t think it’s great, but it’s certainly decent. The radio edit chops out at least two minutes, which actually hurts the song. I found the slow verses in a song about releasing anger to be incongruous and rather out of place. The bridge and chorus contain more fire, which definitely helps. The lyrics are repetitive, though, something that’s become increasingly common in Metallica songs over the past few years. My thumb’s in the middle on this one, but I think it’s a little better than mediocre. 5.5/10

Some Kind of Monster:
This was the first song where I noticed the extra length the band crammed into most tracks on this album. Too long by at least two minutes (and repetitive in spots as a result), this is still a decent song. I’d like to think the song is an examination of the line between democracy and mob rule, but I get the feeling it’s a crack at supposed American “imperialism.” It depends on whether you think “we the people” or “We The People” when you hear those words sung, I guess. 6/10

Dirty Window:
The riff is good here, but this is another song that suffers for a needless soft spot. It’s only one line in this case, but the line’s not particularly good, and it again sounds out of place and kills the heavy groove the song had going. Between the poor soft parts here and on “St. Anger,” and the very bad high-pitched yelling in “Frantic,” I have to recommend that James Hetfield sticks to what he does best. It works for you, James, and the songs suffer when you try to deviate. Another decent-but-not-great song, this is a look at how one man sees himself and the world, compared to how the world sees him. 6/10

Invisible Kid:
This must have been written for all the Korn fans out there. It’s a typical song about a poor, misunderstood lad, woe is him, etc etc. It’s a theme we’ve all heard in plenty of songs before, and probably heard it done better. This is not a good song at all, and the tired theme of persecution coupled with repetitive, bland lyrics don’t help matters any. 3/10

My World:
Part two in the Crappy Korn Double Feature, this is familiar territory for Metallica. They did a similar song, and did it much better, with “Escape” on Ride The Lightning. This is better than “Invisible Kid,” but that’s not a compliment, and the difference isn’t enormous. 4/10

Shoot Me Again:
This probably should have been a bad song, given that it’s a showcase for the band’s trend toward simpler, less meaningful lyrics. It ends up being mediocre in the end, since the good moments tend to overwhelm the rest of it. The theme of empowerment by standing up and taking the hits you know are coming is conveyed well enough to land this track squarely in the middle. 5/10

Sweet Amber:
At 5:27, this qualifies as a short song on St. Anger, where the average track clocks in at close to seven minutes. It’s also nondescript in every way imaginable. While the song certainly isn’t a bad way to pass five and a half minutes, I didn’t feel richer or poorer for the experience any time I listened to it. The song sounds like it’s about addiction, particularly alcoholism, as could be inferred from the title. As a song with that subject matter, it doesn’t break any new ground. 5/10

The Unnamed Feeling:
This sounds like it came from the sessions for Load and Reload. That’s not a condemnation, since I like both albums more than most people do (Load, in my opinion, was particularly good). There’s a lot of angst present in this song, though it puts it to better use than “Invisible Kid” and “My World” did. After the last four songs peaked at mediocre, it’s good to see the band get on the right side of the number line. 6/10

Purify:
While the lyrics are mediocre, it’s the tone that makes this song good. Hetfield might have stepped over his boundaries on some earlier songs, but he’s always been able to convey anger and desperation well in his growly voice. There’s a desperate need for change and growth that comes across plainly in the singing, and it’s that mood that drags this song above mediocrity. 6/10

All Within My Hands:
The anger and desperation of “Purify” get cranked up here, accompanied by better music and a more palpable old-school feel. The repetition of “Kill!” at the end comes across as sounding pretty silly, but it does contextually fit into the song, and doesn’t detract from it overmuch. Just like “Frantic” was a solid opener, this is a good conclusion to the album. 7/10

The DVD: The second disc in the package is a DVD of the band in the studio. Rob Trujillo is present and playing bass here, despite the fact that the liner notes thank producer Bob Rock for playing on the album. Make of that whatever you will. The songs on the DVD are unpolished – a little moreso than on the CD itself – and sound like rough drafts of what will eventually be the Live And In Concert Version. “Frantic” is improved slightly by a little more crunch in the chorus; other than that, all the other songs are as good or bad as they are on the CD proper. If you’re into studio footage, this DVD is for you. Otherwise, it’s just the band playing the songs you probably just got finished listening to. A nifty inclusion, I suppose, but this doesn’t add anything consequential to the package.

The Metallica Vault: “Download. Burn. Share. Kick Ass.”

Quoi?

Is this the same Metallica that led the artist backlash against Napster and called millions of people thieves? Now they’re telling you to download the tracks in the vault, actually commit the Cardinal Sin Against Music my burning them to an evil CD-R, then cast yourself forever into the Abyss by actually sharing the CD with your friends? Needless to say, I was surprised to see those five words staring at me from the top of the screen after I’d logged into the Metallica Vault. Downloads are definitely quick, though, with the songs hosted by broadband company Speakeasy. I probably spent an average of 25 seconds downloading each track with my cable modem. The times will definitely be ratcheted up for those of you using broadband, but I’m sure you already know tactics for downloading music over 56K connections.

In the CD packaging is a piece of paper with a sixteen-character password on it. This is what gives you access to the online Metallica Vault, where you’ll sign up and create a password. The primary feature of the Metallica Vault is the ability to download tracks of the band in concert. There are songs available from three concerts: Birmingham, England (1996), Cleveland, Ohio (1998), and Middletown, NY (1994). The songs span the whole of the band’s career up to that point, stopping with songs like “The Memory Remains” and “Devil’s Dance,” from Reload.

There are some definite highlights here. The medleys are raucous trips through mostly-older songs, and the transitions are seamless. Of the newer material, “Low Man’s Lyric” comes off particularly well. Longtime fans of the band will be pleased to see classics like “Creeping Death,” “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” “Fade To Black,” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” There’s even obscure older material here, like Kill 'Em All's “Motorbreath” and “Whiplash.” Regardless your opinion of the band’s creative direction or studio musicianship, it’s hard to deny that Metallica is a tremendous live act, with an undeniable energy and immediacy in every song. The selections in the vault capture this well. There are about fifty tracks in all, including songs, medleys, and a few instrumental solos. This is an incredibly cool addition to the package, with loads of unreleased live material just waiting to be accessed. Even if you don’t think you’ll like St. Anger itself, this is a reason to buy it.

Also available in the Vault is a trailer for a Metallica video game that’s due to come out sometime in 2005. The Vault says the game “will be a landmark, high-action vehicle combat game. Players will find themselves in the treacherous, brutal wastelands of a post-catastrophic USA, in a high-speed battle for their very survival ... all backed by kick-ass music, inspiration, video and other exclusive content from the band!” In other words, it’s Twisted Metal or Vigilante-8 with a Metallica soundtrack. That thought didn’t impress me enough to get me to download the ten-megabyte trailer, but if monotonous car shooting games are your thing, you’ll find the link easily enough.

General Impressions: As stated several times in the individual song reviews, I felt a few of the songs on St. Anger were too long by at least two minutes. Radio edits will handle this for songs released to the AOR airwaves – the radio edit of the title track does, though it rudely interrupts the flow of the song – but I imagine many CD listeners will be twiddling their thumbs while the band plays on, wondering when the LCD is going to tick over to the next track number. Interestingly enough, in Black Album-era interviews, the band said they parted ways with longtime producer Fleming Rasmussen because he’d just let them keep playing, viz. And Justice For All. It seems the same syndrome has befallen Bob Rock. Perhaps, since he played bass on the album while the band was between musicians in that capacity, Rock grew enamored of hearing himself on tape and let his stop-button finger atrophy. Regardless, there’s definitely some wasted time on this album, which is easy to see when you consider that the tracks average just under seven minutes each.

If you bought this album hoping to hear guitar solos, then I hope the store you bought it from has a generous return policy. Metallica has eschewed the guitar solo on St. Anger, despite it being a staple of their arsenal up until now. The band has said this was done because they felt solos would interrupt the dark, primal mood created on several of the songs. While they’re right to a point, it’s still possible to play a brooding solo that enhances the atmosphere already created. Solos don’t have to be high-pitched hammer-ons that do little else but demonstrate that yes, the guitarist can play screeching notes with blazing speed – which often becomes the musical equivalent of masturbating on a guitar neck. If Metallica had put some solos on this album, I doubt I would have complained about wasted space: debate Kirk Hammett’s skills all you want, but a moody solo would be preferable to hearing the same riff ad nauseam.

For months, the buzz around St. Anger has been Metallica returning to their roots, playing the heavy rock of Master of Puppets instead of the lighter, more radio-friendly sounds of Reload. While St. Anger is definitely heavier than any of their recent studio work, I can’t call it a return to their roots. The songs, overall, have more of a sonic kick, but the thunder is mostly empty. Gone is the blistering fretwork of young men who lived to play music and pass out after the concert, and in its place is heavy rock played by forty year-olds trying to recapture a feeling that’s two decades gone. Along with the heavy music, Metallica’s songs always featured weighty lyrics, covering a wide range of issues. Following a depressing trend for the group, the lyrics on St. Anger lack the fire and emotional impact conjured up by just about any song on Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, or And Justice For All. Back in the day, the band played – musically and lyrically – like they were mad at the world, and had a message to go along with their extended middle finger. That fuck-the-world vibe is absent on St. Anger, replaced instead with lyrics more angsty than angry, which feel like they were written for the legions of Korn fans who love hearing millionaire Jonathan Davis bitch about how much his life sucks. It’s easy to sound angry when you’re twenty years old, living in a garage, and your best chance to make something of yourself is a band of fellow misfits no one thinks will succeed. When you’re forty years old, married, and with millions in the bank, the anger sounds forced and manufactured. Hell, I’d get divorced and drink my way into detox for James Hetfield’s money, and I doubt there are many people in the band’s fanbase who wouldn’t follow suit.

On the whole “selling out” thing: Metallica has become a polarizing band over the last decade because of the constant cries that they “sold out.” In the halcyon days of Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, the band played loud, aggressive rock for loud, aggressive kids. They didn’t care about MTV or mainstream rock radio. It wasn’t until And Justice For All that Metallica finally made a video – and a good one, that that – for “One,” certainly not a song easily digestible by mainstream radio listeners.

Then came The Black Album. “Enter Sandman” still rocked, but the rock wasn’t quite as heavy or quite as loud. “Nothing Else Matters” saw the band do an actual ballad, without the power of earlier songs like "Fade to Black." The album was a critical and commercial success, and because it was selling so well, many people accused Metallica of “selling out” to radio and MTV for more fans. They toured for the album, played all over the world for a year and a half, and made an awful lot of money. Their next album, Load, saw the band do something even more controversial that raised the conversation of selling out to loud catcalls.

They cut their hair.

While it certainly wasn’t a big deal to me, a lot of fans saw the band’s hair-chopping as the definitive sign that the Metallica they grew up with was dead, replaced by thirtysomething chaps who dared care about grooming, and wore weird hats and smoked cigars to look cool. Load (which is a tremendous album, in my opinion, and is criminally shortchanged by naysayers who like to carp that it’s “too commercial”) featured the band really broadening their horizons. The heavy rock was there, but they experimented with more acoustic guitars in their music, even playing a song (“Mama Said”) that sounded eerily close to country.

Good for them. I’ve been a fan of Metallica for years, and I remain one to this day, even though I loathe the rabid, hypocritical anti-file sharing stance of Lars Ulrich. I cut my heavy metal teeth on albums like Master of Puppets and And Justice For All. When The Black Album came out, I didn’t throw up my hands in disgust and accuse the band of “selling out.” You know why? Because people change. They grow, they evolve, they’re changed by their life experiences, they discover new priorities. Expecting a band to continue the same creative output their entire career is foolish. If you want a band where every album sounds just like the one that preceded it, the Scorpions are right there. It’s not that they’re a bad band or anything like that; there’s just no measurable creative evolution present in their music.

If Metallica wants to try different sounds in their music, I think that’s fine. It is, after all, their music. Art cannot be made with the expected audience in mind: all art, at its heart, is a personal matter, and needs to please the artist first. Besides, what’s wrong with trying to reach new fans? In a society – and a music business – that’s all about money and materialism, it’s pointless to blame someone for reaching for the brass ring when it’s just outside their grasp. Some people may think that griping about “selling out” and “musical integrity” somehow makes them deep, but frankly, I’ve stepped in puddles less shallow. The band’s music is still good, so I’m going to keep listening. When it stops being good, I’ll stop listening, but I won’t scowl and shout “Sellout!” when I do. St. Anger shows that Metallica can still put out a solid (if unspectacular) album, and they’ve delivered the goods live every time I’ve seen them in concert. Cry “Sellout!” all you want. I’ll keep listening, content in the knowledge that musicians change and grow like anyone else, and their music will reflect this. Frankly, I don’t want or expect to hear a band of forty year-old men playing the same songs and singing about the same things they sang about when they were half that age.

Doing The Math:

The CD: 6.5/10
The DVD: 4/10
The Metallica Vault: 9/10


As a CD, St. Anger is solid enough, decent but not great. Metallica definitely recalls the sounds of their past, but some of the luster and polish they possessed on landmark albums like Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets seems to be missing. It’s definitely a declaration of intent, though: the band is back and they still remember how to rock. In terms of their studio albums, I’d rank it ahead of only Reload, which isn’t really the condemnation it sounds like: the rest of the band’s studio catalog is very, very good (remember, I’m a big fan of Load). The best reason to buy St. Anger, though, is the Metallica Vault, where you can download five albums’ worth of live material from the band ... for free. It’s hard to beat that deal, especially when you can get the CD for $10 like I did. It might have gone back up a few dollars since then, but the Metallica Vault definitely makes it worth it. Overall (NOT an average): 7.5/10

Dr. Tom
Come crawling faster, obey your master.
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