Justify Your Shitty Taste: Metallica’s “St. Anger”

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. To kick it all off, Kevin Stewart-Panko gets fran-tick-tick-tick-tick-TICK-TICK-TOCK for Metallica’s eternally filmic St. Anger.

Back when I was deeply ensconced in the world of post-graduate academics, and of the belief that a higher—and then an even-higher—education would get me somewhere in life (it didn’t), one slice of advice I received from my weathered colleagues was, when writing an exam, to jump around and complete a couple of easier test questions before diving head-first into the brutally difficult material. We’ve all received similar advice; “baby steps” is how most of us understand the process. Well, my fellow Earth dogs and chrome hounds, let me tell you that baby steps are for yellow-backed ‘fraidy cats, and for the inaugural blog column our beloved reviews editor has christened Justify Your Shitty Taste, said advice has been summarily ignored with extreme prejudice. We’re diving in head-first and kicking things off with one of the grand daddies of ’em all: possibly one of the most collectively maligned albums to be foisted on the general public since Y2K. And since I’m probably the only one crazy and/or dumb enough to go on record as enjoying Metallica’s St. Anger, here I am, assuming my position as the Deciblog’s “Human Shield.”

Let’s be honest here—if St. Anger is being compared to any of Metallica’s first four records, then yes, it is in fact an epically proportioned pile of steaming rhino dung. Even as a standalone piece, it has more than its fair share of blemishes. But I firmly believe that a large part of the disdainful regard in which St. Anger is held is the result of it coming from the same dudes who gave us Kill ‘Em All, …And Justice for All and everything in-between. As well, during the time in the lead-up to its release, I recall interviews where the band proclaimed they were reverting back to playing with more intensity and what-have-you after the musical fireside chats that were Load and Re-Load. Whether this was interpreted by the Hesher Nation as a “return to their roots” only worked to ramp up the potential for bitter disappointment, especially since it took them until Death Magnetic five years later before they embarked upon anything approximating their roots. Although, if they really wanted to get back to “back in the day,” they’d be doing NWOBHM covers at a shitty Sunset Strip watering hole in front of 15 people on a Monday. Jaymz and Co. didn’t make it easy on listeners’ ears. I’m still amazed—especially after watching Some Kind of Monster—that after all the time they spent piecing this thing together that no one stopped, after vigorously Q-tipping their ears, and said, “Hey, that snare sounds a little… weird, don’t ya think?” This is another point on which the band gets run through the wringer; if it weren’t for the fact that these are same yokels who wrote “Hit the Lights,” “Dyers Eve” and everything in-between, the response to a shitty drum sound would have been far more muted and we definitely wouldn’t be kvetching about it seven years later. Fuck, I wouldn’t be hasty in wagering that if “black metal band X” hailing from Estonia-via-the-forests-of-British-Columbia offered us a similar snare sound on an album released by Profound Lore, the metal community would be back-slapping them for their enduring kult-ness and lack of compromise. Decibel has congratulated Darkthrone for creating way shittier-sounding albums than St. Anger.

Okay, so far this doesn’t seem like a very robust justification of the album. Neither will it seem so when I tell you that every song on St. Anger is two-to-three times longer than need be, especially when most of them only consist of a small handful of repeating riffs. But many of those down-picked chug-a-luggers are slothy and massive, like Celtic Frost, Christbait and a raised-in-Massachusetts Godflesh injected with second-tier southern rock/sludge and tolerable alt-metal (including Entombed’s Same Difference). Then, there are those bursts of speed—shit, there are some near-blast beats in spots!—that originally drew me to the album in the first place. The likes of “Frantic,” “Invisible Kid,” the title track and album closer “All Within My Hands” (though I doubt many of you have ever made it that far) are catchy as fuck and contain more memorable moments than something like, Defiance’s Beyond Recognition or any other third-tier thrash album the “metal vest” crowd creams their jeans over these days, 15 years after the fact. And if you’re going to tell me that you can’t at least recall and hum the melody to “Some Kind of Monster,” then you’re lying harder than a politician on the campaign trail.

What I enjoy most about St. Anger is how fucked-up it sounds. Yes, again with the snare, but if you spin this fucking mess on headphones, you’ll hear that the rhythm guitar tracks aren’t butt crack-tight. Slight nuances like fret slides, bum notes and ringing strings are rampant, giving the album a sense of realism, like you’re sitting in on a monitor-less rehearsal in a garage reeking of wet dog fur and oily power tools. It sounds like a band playing together, but not exactly playing together. And while it was probably a colossal waste of money to capture something that is essentially a passionate rehearsal, I quite enjoy the warmth and looseness of it.

What I don’t enjoy is the excruciating length of some of these songs, especially since there’s no spotlight on one of metal’s most influential lead guitarists and too much spotlight on lyrics about James Hetfield’s addiction battles. As someone whose parents are still blaming Kirk Hammett for me picking up a guitar some 26 years ago (and the many sleepless nights that followed), as well as someone who’s never experimented with alcohol or drugs, these are sticking points. Hetfield’s legacy as a lyricist has mainly come from his pointed poetry accompanying some of our genre’s most killer classics. They weren’t Shakespearean-quality stanzas, but songs originally sung for a bunch of pimply-faced goobers still decoding the English language’s grammatical by-laws. Despite the offering up of some real stinkers, there’s a raw emotion and bald attitude to St. Anger, and were the songs cut to a minute-and-a-half or two minutes each, this would’ve been a blistering “punk” album.

This is how I’ve come to make St. Anger more palatable and listenable—hit the “next” button before things start to get too repetitive. You might discover, like I did, a rough shamble, punk-styled album held together with duct tape, bubblegum, some stellar bass playing from Bob Rock (yeah, I said it), a surprising display of drum acumen from Herr Ulrich (yeah, I said it again) playing some of the fastest and most potent beats of his career, and some infectious riffing. You may not enjoy it is as much as I’ve come to, but at least you’ll have saved yourself a fuckload of time in the process.

1. “Frantic”
2. “St. Anger”
3. “Some Kind of Monster”
4. “Dirty Window”
5. “Invisible Kid”
6. “My World”
7. “Shoot Me Again”
8. “Sweet Amber”
9. “The Unnamed Feeling”
10. “Purify”
11. “All Within My Hands”