Review Summary: Metallica roar back from a period of laziness to create one of the heaviest and most polarizing albums in the history of metal. St. Anger is so inaccessible that many will abhor it, and many do, but the truth is in there.
When St. Anger came out, nobody was really expecting what was going to be seen inside this record sleeve, or what they were going to hear. For better or for worse, Metallica's eighth studio album knocked them to pieces, with some crying that Metallica were back and many crying that they're officially dead.
This album is usually misunderstood, but understanding it is very difficult because we have here an album that is unlike any other in existence. Through Silver in Blood and Enemy of the Sun in the similar albums list is about as close as I can come, because it's just...different. There are many listeners that will never understand this record.
St. Anger is a 75-minute journey into the nakedest depths of Metallica, good and bad: a band who had lost two bassists, who had became the most criticized metal band in history for "selling out" and the infamous Napster incident, and had so much anger in their heads that they could barely sit in the same room together. It's a cathartic judgment period for James Hetfield, the unquestionable star of the album.
While James does not give a perfectly clean performance, the record would have fallen flat otherwise. There's such a thing as overproduction. In this case, the intense instrumentation, almost misanthropic lyrics, and gritty, unpolished production and vocal delivery fits perfectly with the intended mood: James is stuck in a web, and he is trying to escape.
While I would generally shy away from discussing any of the tracks themselves, I will mention one as an example here: Invisible Kid. This song is even lower-key than the others, and it feels strangely disconnected from the listener. Read the lyrics, however, and you'll find it matches right up. It's about a young child, possibly a young Hetfield, who is completely disconnected from the world. What a coincidence! Meanwhile, the chorus is delivered softly and almost without emotion, continuing this mood, and the very central bridge shows Hetfield drowning in his own despair.
If this doesn't make sense to you, remember one of the insightful comments made somewhere else: "Anger is not polished -- it doesn't always make sense."
This anger turns itself into musical form, as the "trash-can snare" has so much reverb that it's almost like a guitar noise, and the resultant triple hammer of Hetfield, Hammett and Ulrich can go from angry to angrier to flat-out feral. Being able to arrange to meet the music is a talent most bands lack, and is the reason Metallica were good in the first place.
One other thing worth mentioning in Metallica's bag of tricks here is the whammy pedal. Yes, the whammy pedal. It's all over the record, and it adds a specific touch where additional pulses of feeling and emotion are necessary. Try doing that with a regular guitar. More proof that Metallica knows how to think outside the box.
All of these new ideas and old ideas that make new things turn St. Anger from another Metallica album into perhaps their most intense and experimental work to date. St. Anger takes metal in a completely new direction, with even the simplest ideas raised to an art form and the most intense emotions distilled in even the simplest arrangements. At its worst, some of the sections in a couple pieces are out of place, and some experiments didn't work too well.
This can only happen if you're willing to break the code. Buy St. Anger and concentrate really hard on it. You might just discover a world where the conventions of music are turned upside down and a new type of metal emerges. You may not like it at all, but an avant-garde record like this deserves at least one chance.