Every now and then, certain ideas take hold in the mass consciousness: ideas that are propagated so vigorously (by a relatively small percentage of the population) that they become cultural “truths”. This usually involves some combination of the traditional press and the exceptionally strident denizens of online forums, the latter of whom can always be counted on to hate pretty much everyone and everything. Before you know it, these notions have bled into our collective awareness without our even realizing it.
For example: even people who’ve never seen a single “Star Wars” movie would tell you that the prequel trilogy “raped their childhoods” (Go ahead, Google “raped childhoods”, I’ll wait….).
Another example: It has been nearly universally agreed that Creed is the most egregiously awful band in the history of rock and roll, except that they spent several years around the turn of the century selling millions upon millions of records while most acts were soiling themselves over Napster. Somehow, they managed to fill stadiums across the globe despite the fact that NOBODY ever liked them. Currently, Nickelback is doing the same thing, even though nobody likes them either.
Yet another example is that at any given point in our pop culture timeline there is always one famous young actress who is deemed to be The Absolute Sexiest Female in All of Human History. At one point during the 1990s, Angelina Jolie was this person. If my memory is correct, she was succeeded by Jennifer Lopez for a time. Several years ago, Megan Fox manned the post, and the current office holder appears to be Jennifer Lawrence (interestingly, both Jolie and Lawrence managed to win Oscars while holding this title, proving that one can be both objectified and recognized for one’s work at the same time).
Which brings us to the Absolute, No Doubt, Worst Album Ever Recorded in the History of Mankind: Metallica’s “St. Anger”. If you were to believe what you hear, this record is beyond raping anyone’s childhood memories—it amounts to nothing less than sacrilege.
Released in 2003, “St. Anger” followed several years of experimentation that saw Metallica evolving beyond their signature brand of progressive and complex thrash metal. They made some pretty straightforward hard rock, recorded a song for a “Mission: Impossible” movie, and reaped a wide mainstream following in the process. All of that alienating much of the audience that had propelled them to prominence in the first place. Metallica were one of the primary architects of a rather revolutionary genre of music—and thus gods walking amongst us—but, they’d betrayed the cause.
“St. Anger”, however, eschewed the commercial trappings of that period, and was initially touted as Metallica’s return to form (and glowingly reviewed in the UK’s Metal Hammer magazine upon its release). And it was…..kind of. But it was also such an idiosyncratic and bizarre record that this time, that core base of uber-metal fans was not just alienated, they were outraged. In the “metal community” (whatever the hell that means; I need to ask Rob Halford….) “St. Anger” is an unthinkably tragic moment in time.
This idea has spread throughout our entire society. Much like the “Star Wars” prequels, even people who’ve never listened to a Metallica record in their lives know that “St. Anger” was an affront to humanity.
There are a number of reasons (beyond the usual “Because it sucks!” rationale) for the profoundly visceral reaction to this record. None of them are particularly logical, but they do make a sort of inverse sense when examined because of how strikingly ironic they are.
For one thing, the band and producer Bob Rock—after spending nearly a decade delivering highly polished radio-friendly product—decided to release one of the least refined recordings you’ve ever heard from a major act on a major label. “St. Anger” is loaded with ambient noise, slightly out of tune guitars, and all manner of dissonance. This infuriated fans, which is certainly ironic given that Metallica emerged from the tape-trading underground of the early 80’s, wherein fans exchanged crudely recorded demos of up-and-coming bands through what passed for the internet back then: pen pals and classified ads in crudely printed fanzines. Somewhere along the line, though, “the metal community” must have shed its roots and decided that it was entitled to a deluxe production. Yet here was “St. Anger”: raw as hell, and sounding exactly like it was recorded in some stoner’s basement on a boom box, just like those demo tapes of yesteryear. And so a band that had become reviled for turning too commercial was now reviled for delivering the least commercial record of its career. In and of itself, this is one heck of an achievement.
Not content to leave it at that, Metallica decided to commit further sacrilege by including not one guitar solo on the entire album. This was essentially unforgivable: metal is about nothing if not guitar solos, and every Metallica record up to this point had featured exhaustive lead guitar workouts. “St. Anger”, however, sported not the slightest flourish of such. Even for a genre of music that endlessly pats itself on the back for breaking the rules, there are rules, apparently. Never let a metalhead tell you he is interested in breaking boundaries or challenging the status quo; these are quite possibly the most conservative fans on earth when it comes to what they demand from their music.
Piling on the hurt, drummer Lars Ulrich inexplicably decided to utilize some kind of custom snare drum with the chain on the bottom that provides a snare with its usual “snapping” sound apparently disengaged. This resulted in an echo effect that volleys around the songs in rococo fashion and had the effect of annoying damn near everyone. This helped bring to a head a cult of Lars Ulrich hatred that had been festering for years. Ulrich, you see, has generated a virtual cottage industry based upon being branded one of the most pretentious figures in all of popular music (he likes to wear scarves and collects fine art, for example). This is particularly ironic given that Metallica was formed in opposition to everything that was considered “pretentious” about heavy rock music in the 1980s. Lars himself never fails to remind people of this, and has spent the past three decades referring to bands like Motley Crue as being prime examples of the artifice he so despises. Lars is a pretty smart guy, but he is nonetheless completely oblivious to the fact that Motley Crue is maybe the least pretentious band in the world: they couldn’t be anything else if they tried (when they did, on the 1997 album “Generation Swine”, the results were predictably disastrous).
The cult of Ulrich hatred has grown exponentially more pathological over the years. Read any Metallica news item online—no matter what it’s about— and you’ll find scores of commenters who insist, despite all sonic evidence to the contrary, that Lars can’t play the drums AT ALL.
Yet for all of the hand-wringing, “St. Anger” was in so many ways a return to the attitude and approach Metallica started out with in the first place. Back was the relentless staccato riffage, the stop-start rhythms, the sideways time changes, and the unconventional song structures. Back was the venom, in spades. Nevertheless, fans for the most part hated “St. Anger” even more than the “Load” and “ReLoad” albums that had preceded it; the records that had alienated everybody in the first place by being too conventional and commercial.
The album’s opening track, “Frantic”, absolutely is. Chaotic and scattershot, it’s all fits and starts like a rusty tractor engine begrudgingly sputtering to life, and it’s roughly a minute or so in before it actually coalesces into something resembling a song. Things just get nuttier from there. The album’s title track alternates between barging forward like a bull that’s just had his nuts removed with rusty pliers and contemplative passages that ruminate on the misfortune of such an event. The second to last track, “Purify”, is similarly charged and features lyrics that are written “Purify……can’t you help me?/Pure if I……won’t you help me?” before finding our narrator shouting “I can find the dirt on anything!” “Sweet Amber” could certainly be interpreted as a love/hate ode to alcohol, and “Shoot Me Again” is chock full of the sort of false bravado common to anyone who sees himself as the victim of a cruel world.
The making of “St. Anger” was (in)famously chronicled in the documentary film “Some Kind of Monster” (the title of track three), which in part detailed singer/guitarist James Hetfield’s struggle with the twin demons of alcoholism and anger. During preparations for the album, Hetfield abruptly left the band for several months to enter rehab, and while he returned sober for the recording process, he returned to a band with no shortage of issues to work out including the departure of longtime bassist Jason Newsted, who’d basically had it with the whole fucking thing, and the eruption of long-simmering tensions with Ulrich, the other half of the Metallica brain trust. For most of the film, lead guitarist Kirk Hammet, a laid-back California surfer who owns an unbelievable collection of comic books and monster movie memorabilia, more or less comes across as the stunned witness of a horrific automobile accident, occasionally attempting to lighten the mood with a half-hearted “Come on, guys…..”.
It’s important to note that just a few years ago, Metallica involved themselves with what, at least in the eyes of metal fans, is most certainly The Other Worst Album of All Time: the late Lou Reed’s “Lulu”. This happened after Reed met the band at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25’th Anniversary concerts and decided that it would be a great idea to draft them for his next project. I’ve never listened to this record, although I should, but the howling that ensued reminded me just what a bunch of sneaky and dirty little bastards those Metallica guys really are. However, since they essentially served as Reed’s backing band, they are disqualified from the dubious distinction of being responsible for the Two Worst Albums of All Time.
But back to “St. Anger”.
The circumstances under which it was recorded lend “St. Anger” perhaps its one indisputable quality: there has never been a record in the history of popular music that more accurately lives up to its name. A zillion bands over the years have released records that are heavier, louder, faster, and more aggressive (and that’s not even taking into account certain bands from certain places in northern Europe that pride themselves on having literally burned down Christian churches) but, I’d argue, never anything so goddamned angry. Not all of the songs on “St. Anger” are great—or good even—but some of them are, and they’re all incredibly hostile. Take it from someone intimately familiar with the subject matter: there has never been a more fitting soundtrack for the kind of batshit insane state of mind you find yourself in when there’s too much rage and rotgut in your life. “St. Anger” is quite literally the sound of a man and the band he leads teetering on the precipice. It is the sound of an unraveling. It is ridiculously abrasive and uncomfortable.
And maybe that’s the real reason why “St. Anger” is so loathed: it makes absolutely no attempt to ingratiate itself to the listener, and in fact violates the implicit (but rarely spoken of) understanding held by most fans and artists in even the most extreme genres of metal, which is that no matter how dark and violent and angry the music may get, at the end of the day we’re all really just having fun and rocking the fuck out—it’s a catharsis. This record may be cathartic, but it is not having any kind of fun. It’s heavy as hell, but there’s not one moment in which you feel the urge to throw up the devil horns and bang your head. It’s the sound of the heroes of an entire generation of music fans—icons to millions—laid low. And for a whole lot of folks, maybe that was too much to take. But for a weirdo like me, The Worst Album Ever Recorded in the History of Mankind was and is utterly compelling, due in no small part to its so-called flaws, and I’m still listening to it all these years later.