Metallica spent most of the nineties, they admit now, thinking that fast, aggressive metal was “old hat”. 1996’s ‘Load’ and its twin ‘Reload’ saw the band experimenting with blues and country; 1998’s covers collection, ‘Garage Inc’, featured a slew of hardcore punk tunes and a Nick Cave song; 1999’s ‘S&M’ was a collaboration with The San Francisco Symphonic Orchestra. They even cut their hair and started wearing make-up. Meanwhile, nu-metal conquered a world eager for a crossover hit to rival the mighty ‘Enter Sandman’.
It’s taken a nine week spell in rehab for singer James Hetfield, and the loss of bassist Jason Newstead, for The World’s Greatest Heavy Metal Band to come to terms with what they truly are. They’ve been through countless traumas – the death of original bassist Cliff Burton in 1986, what appears to have been a midlife crisis for Hetfield, plus the pressures of being the planet’s most innovative rock group – and each setback has resulted in Metallica stepping away from the truth, retreating to world where they can experiment and not feel any pain.
Now, though, the slate’s been wiped clean. Newstead, a constant reminder of the loss of Burton and always punished for it, has gone. Hetfield’s sorted through his insecurities, finding strength in the realisation that there’s a difference between sadness and depression. And with a new bassist Robert Trujillo, formerly with Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne, injecting a fresh sense of purpose, Metallica can finally face up to what everyone else has known all along: that anger is their lifeblood, their motivation, their ultimate saviour.
Hence the title. Named after the St Christopher pendant that Hetfield was given in 1984, ‘St Anger’ is Metallica setting themselves up as the patron saints of rage. Anger isn’t just used as an outlet and energy here, but romanticised as a full-bloodied emotion. The title track is a love song to anger itself, the pivotal line “I want my anger to be healthy” just on the right side of self help, while elsewhere there’s the feeling in its many righteous hues: the slow burn of resentment through to the flashpoint of defiance.
Musically, the songs are a stripped back, heroically brutal reflection of this fury. You get the sense that, as with their emotional selves, they’ve taken metal apart and started again from scratch. There’s no space wasted here, no time for petty guitar solos or downtuned bass trickery, just a focussed, relentless attack. ‘Dirty Window’ could almost be a demo, hewn straight from granite. ‘Frantic’ rages with the catharsis of walls being demolished. Lars’ recent summation says it all: “No fucking shit this is heavy metal!”
What makes Metallica the greatest metal band of all time, though, is the fact that, despite this focus, ‘St Anger’ is not a simple album. Each song mutates and heads off in a new direction at the exact point lesser mortals would finish up. It takes 73 minutes to play 11 tracks, stretching time and endurance, until you have an immense statement of superiority. Nu-metal minnows, you may return to your cubbyholes. The true masters have finally awakened from their slumber.