Metallica released the best-selling album of their career, 1991’s Black Album, in the middle of an identity crisis. That same year Nirvana released Nevermind, a disc that immediately made the previous decade’s worth of metal seem kitschy and outdated. Even while outselling the albums on which Metallica built their fan base in the Eighties, the Bay Area quartet spent much of the last decade trying to rediscover how to rock — fighting Napster, losing bassist Jason Newsted, watching singer James Hetfield go into rehab and alienating plenty of loyal fans along the way.
No wonder there’s an authenticity to St. Anger‘s fury that none of the band’s rap-metal followers can touch. Across seventy-five-plus minutes of savage but intricate structures that recall those pre-Black glory days, Metallica go back to their brutal essence. There’s no radio-size, four-minute rock here, no pop-friendly choruses, no ballads, no solos, no wayward experimentation. Recorded with longtime producer Bob Rock on bass, this is loud, expansive, unrepentant Metallica.
Although it was written and recorded in the studio, St. Anger barely resembles a studio album. The raw sounds on the throttling opening cut, “Frantic,” are essentially the same raw sounds that are heard throughout the next ten tracks, as if the band members focused solely on playing off one another, not the mixing board, and were too busy to notice that the snare drum annoyingly goes ping instead of snap. Rock’s bass is mixed way down in a blare of guitar-and-drums midrange that recalls 1988’s . . . And Justice for All — over him, the band hammers out its signature staccato stops-and-starts and multiple tempo and key changes like three angry fingers on the same fist. It’s a rush to be pummeled by this group again.
Despite the songwriting help from drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett, St. Anger chronicles Hetfield coping with recovery’s ugly truths. He’s still ornery, still defensive and still sometimes overselling his rage. On the final track, “All Within My Hands,” he sings, “Love is control/I’ll die if I let go,” and the album ends with him screaming, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” seemingly unable to forgive himself or others as sobriety demands, stuck in the same dark childhood place he’s always struggled to escape. It’s a closing that puts an uneasy spin on the album’s return-to-basics approach and makes it seem more of a masterful retreat than a fully victorious breakthrough into new territory.
Now that ex-Suicidal Tendencies bassist Rob Trujillo has completed the lineup for the band’s upcoming tour, St. Anger already feels like a piece of Metallica’s history, something they had to do in order to hold themselves together, bring back the old fans and prove their mettle to the kids. There’s a happiness to its wrath, along with the fluency that comes with reclaiming old ground. If that’s fucked up and facile, then so be it.