In Sonic Doom, we delve exclusively into the back catalogue of critically-reviled acts in a bid to discover the odd unstained gem. Back with a vengeance, Conor Donohoe is caught in the middle of two of the most controversial albums of the 21st century…
Sonic Doom wasn’t created with bands like Metallica in mind. Sure, even a passing mention of them amongst the metal community is likely to lead to intense verbal jousting and tedious comparisons, but the thrash metal veterans certainly don’t deserve a billing alongside the likes of Nickelback or Limp Bizkit. However, Metallica’s glaring career missteps are probably highlighted more than most, mainly due to the perceived chasm in standard between the enduring quality of most of their back catalogue and their apparently dismal lows. So, yours truly, ever the glutton for punishment, is ready to dive head first into two of their releases that have generated miles of column inches and litres of furious spittle from critics and lifelong fans alike – 2003’s St. Anger and 2011’s Lou Reed collaboration Lulu.
We’ll start off with St. Anger, definitely the more polarising of the two albums in question. Fingers crossed for smooth passage.
‘Frantic’ – There’s something I love about this song that I can’t quite verbalise, but it may be that it’s basically the perfect overture for the blatant yet somewhat charming clumsiness that encapsulates Metallica’s approach to this album. The furious but awkwardly executed growl of Hetfield’s and Hammet’s down-tuned guitars, that PERFECT snare sound (don’t dare try to tell me otherwise), the false finishes and needless yet somehow satisfying repetition of certain segments – ‘Frantic’ ticks all of the above boxes. Unfortunately though, it’s probably the best display of a lot of the traits that make this album unique, and the rest of St. Anger is basically a showcase of the above components not mixing quite as well as they did here
‘St. Anger’ – Despite not quite hitting the heights of the opener, the title track probably has one of the most satisfying early builds you’re likely to hear in the genre. And while it’s probably the best crafted piece on St Anger, it outstays its welcome ever so slightly as well, and could probably say in five minutes as a song what it tries to say in over seven.
‘Some Kind of Monster’ – Sadly, Anger starts to lose a bit of steam far too early here. Weakly anchored by a riff consisting of three power chords, ‘Some Kind of Monster’ feels horribly disjointed and thrown together, especially in the aftermath of what are two comparatively coherent opening tracks. Sections of the song don’t knit together in any way convincingly, and the lyrical content feels too much like an afterthought.
‘Dirty Window’ – Early signs of regret at this undertaking are starting to set in. There’s some fury and urgency that gives a bit of artificial life to what is in truth a very average song backed up with some more fairly vanilla riffs, but ‘Dirty Window’ at least flows from section to section more convincingly than its direct predecessor.
‘Invisible Kid’ – Okay, this is more like it. The down-tuned guitars snarl viciously for what is possibly the least Metallica-like riff on show on Anger, and it’s probably the only time both Hetfield and Hammet actually sound comfortable in such a low register. Hetfield gets to sing on this one too, so it’s something of a break for the ears from the often bland shoutiness of the tracks around it. At eight and a half minutes, however, it starts to grate a long time before it winds down.
‘My World’ – “IT’S MAH WURLD, YA CAYYN’T HAVE IT”. A runaway contender for the worst thing on St. Anger, and a textbook example of a filler track. Best avoided.
‘Shoot Me Again’ – A commendable effort to inject some dynamism into the music which is sorely lacking on the album overall, and on a full listen through is a welcome change of pace. Overall though, not very memorable, and there are other songs on Anger that do a better job with the same gimmick.
‘Sweet Amber’ – A strange one in that it doesn’t necessarily sound like it belongs on Anger, apart from when the guitars parts open up and their lower range is brought into the fold. It has more than a whiff of Load and Reload of it, and that’s no bad thing. ‘Sweet Amber’ is definitely one of the more palatable tracks here, and feels like a song as opposed to a collection of riffs.
‘The Unnamed Feeling’ – While ‘Frantic’ may summarise everything that’s good (and bad) about St Anger, I find myself gravitating towards ‘The Unnamed Feeling’ when searching for something that could be considered a standout track. Objectively, I can’t quite grasp why that is – there are plenty of tracks that knit together far better than this one does, and the guitar work isn’t exactly inspiring. It’s even quite obnoxious in some segments, but I think it’s the most diverse offering on St Anger in terms of volume, texture, and mood. It’s also probably the only track that doesn’t feel like it outstays its welcome.
‘Purify’ – The main riff here sounds like it’s been used at least seven times on St Anger so far. “PYURIFAHH, YOU AND AHH,” barks Hetfield on an irritating number of occasions. The only real rival to ‘My World’ for the contender for the worst thing on St Anger. Or ever. I’m not sure anymore.
‘All Within My Hands’ – The fact that this is the last song on the album may be causing artificially positive feelings, but this is certainly better than its predecessor, and in truth probably one of the better songs on the album’s second half. At this point though all of Metallica’s ideas for Anger were exhausted long ago, and it feels like a blessing that this is the final track.
Okay. Deep breaths. That wasn’t so bad. St. Anger really is something of a mess, but there’s enough there to make the whole experience somewhat endearing. There are one or two tracks here bordering on excellent, and it certainly isn’t as horrifying an experience as some would have you believe. The decision to go back to basics for the follow up Death Magnetic does seem to have been the right one, but it would be wrong to outright dismiss the experimentation attempted on St. Anger. It will sadly live in infamy due to its heated reception (more from fans than critics, in truth), but hopefully its reputation alone is enough to draw the morbidly curious in the years to come, so they can see for themselves that there is more substance here than folklore would have them believe.
Moving onto Lulu, I note that the largely spoken word effort was described as “a catastrophic failure on almost every level”, so please forgive my rapidly growing sense of dread. Still, I had minimal expectations for St. Anger and that ended up being tolerable, so Lulu can’t be that intolerable, can it?
‘Brandenburg Gate’ – Well, shit. This isn’t the start I was hoping for. A crushingly dull guitar riff, Ulrich at his most grating, Hetfield yelling “SMALL TOWN GURRRL” on loop – and to top it off, Reed’s spoken word ramblings don’t seem to have even the loosest connection to anything else happening around him. I genuinely checked if there was audio from a rogue web ad playing when listening to this for the first time. (As an aside, I’m going to choose a lyrical highlight from every song on Lulu, as there are some absolute gems here).
Lyrical highlight: “I would cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski in the dark of the moon”
‘The View’ – Right. It tentatively feels like we’re getting somewhere now. ‘The View’ at least manages to sound like it came together intentionally, with the consent of all parties involved. Reed’s rants seem to have a vague relation to what’s going on around him, and there’s a bit of weight and direction to the looping guitar parts. Also notable for Hetfield’s infamous declaration that he is, indeed, “the table”.
Lyrical highlight: “I am the view, I am the table, I am the view, I am all of this”.
‘Pumping Blood’ – Easily the most interesting one musically so far, in that it seems to actually have a structure. Unfortunately, it only sounds like an underdeveloped Death Magnetic B-side. Furthermore, it doesn’t sound like Reed was even listening to the band’s takes when he was recording his parts, and the effect is that it just kills any potential enjoyment of ‘Pumping Blood’ as a piece of music.
Lyrical highlight: “If I waggle my ass like a dark prostitute would you think less of me and my coagulating heart?”
‘Mistress Dread’ – An ungodly mess and probably the worst thing I’ve ever heard. The furious but obnoxiously unrelenting guitar and drum work rankle within seconds, while the vocals have reached peak lunacy at this stage.
Lyrical highlight: “I beg you to degrade me, is there waste that I could eat?”
‘Iced Honey’ – Mercifully taken down a few pegs in terms of volume and tempo, and the vocals sound focussed and are operating in the same universe as the accompaniment again, but ‘Iced Honey’ just goes nowhere. Once you’ve heard the opening four bars you’ve heard it all. It’s not nearly half as offensive as some of what’s come before it, but just depressingly flat.
Lyrical highlight: “If you make others feel like jam poured on a piece of charbroiled lamb”.
‘Cheat On Me’ – The first three minutes here are nothing more than mournful ambience, but in context are like water to a man dying of thirst. However, once the build starts, though initially encouraging, it just frustrates as it never actually kicks into anything powerful. On a side note, I think I’ve become numb to Reed’s vocals, which is incredibly concerning.
Lyrical highlight: “Where most have passion I got a hole”.
‘Frustration’ – There are two fucking discs on this album, apparently. In fairness, I suppose Act Two doesn’t start off too badly but there’s a couple of horrifying segments here when all guitars drop out and we’re pretty much just left with Lou Reed accompanied by awful Ulrich fills or grating atmos. Reed says “spermless like a girl” on a number of occasions. Troubling.
Lyrical highlight: “I want so much to hurt you, marry me, I want you as my wife”.
‘Little Dog’ – There’s some meandering, almost pleasant, acoustic guitar playing here, and Reed is at his least trying alongside the sparse accompaniment. Most surprisingly, the subject matter of the lyrics is actually comprehensible (yet still not without its own clangers). Overall though, a mightily welcome respite for the brain.
Lyrical highlight: “A puny body and a tiny dick, a little dog can make you sick”.
‘Dragon’ – Ugh. The distortion pedals have been turned back on. At this stage I’m physically, uncontrollably, grimacing. ‘Dragon’ definitely isn’t the worst thing track but at this point, the repetition of the guitar riffs is so crushing, the dissonance between the music and the vocal takes so jarring, the lyrical content so maddening, that I defy Lulu not to cause some form of actual physical reaction in the listener. The only thing keeping me going is the promise that the next track is also the last…
Lyrical highlight: “The taste of your vulva, everything on it, the hair on your shoulders, the smell of your armpit”.
‘Junior Dad’ – … and it’s also nineteen fucking minutes long. Insanity impending.
Lyrical highlight: “The window broke the silence of the matches, the smoke effortlessly floating”.
Ouch. That was much rougher than I anticipated. Nevertheless, I think it was a worthy exercise, because I’ve come to the conclusion the most offensive thing about Lulu isn’t Reed’s careening atonal ramblings, but the baffling and unforgivable simplicity and repetition on Metallica’s part. It’s not fully clear how much input Reed had into the actual guitar and drum parts, but there was scope for Metallica to do so much more to support the vocals.
There are so many examples on Lulu of infinite looping of guitar riffs with little to no colour or ornamentation being added to them as the songs progress, and it’s frankly inexcusable. I’m not looking for Master of Puppets level of riffing here (it simply would not work for what Reed was trying to do) but everything just becomes so stale so quickly, and it has a curious numbing effect on the listener. I found it very hard to even laugh at how bad this is sometimes because it isn’t even interesting enough to cultivate that level of derision. That, I think, is Lulu‘s biggest crime.
In short? St. Anger is worth a go, and Lulu is far worse than you’ve imagined it was.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ve earned a break from music. In general. Forever.