When Metallica were in the studio working on songs for their new album, St. Anger, they had slow, melodic material, some faster tunes and about five blistering, percussive nuggets. The more they worked, the more they liked the stuff that ripped.
A visit to their San Francisco studio from their manager, Cliff Bernstein, only confirmed their position that faster, once again, equals better.
Explained drummer Lars Ulrich: "He listened and said, 'You are truly wired to play stuff that is really fast and aggressive. Once in a while you choose to go elsewhere, and you force yourself to experiment with different things because you feel you have to, but when all the other sh-- is stripped away, this is how you are wired.' How can I argue with that?"
St. Anger isn't just speedy and aggressive, it's also desperate and confessional, addressing frontman James Hetfield's dysfunctional childhood, control issues and battles with alcoholism in a way that anyone who's ever felt mistreated, overwhelmed or taken advantage of can relate to.
"It is jam-packed with energy, excitement, vulnerability, brokenness and intensity," said Hetfield. "It is an extremely meaningful record for all of us. It's a landmark. I think this is where we shed our old skins and really got down to the bones of Metallica."
Judging from sales figures from the record's first 12 days on the shelf, it's clear that the band's fans were ready to hear Metallica bury the power ballads and focus instead on sheer, undiluted power. St. Anger debuted at #1 on the Billboard albums chart last week with sales of 472,000, and this week the disc sold an additional 362,000 to land at #2.
As invigorating and successful as the resurrected Metallica have proven themselves to be, taking the Anger route was a calculated risk, one that could have blown up in the bandmembers' faces if their legions weren't so dedicated. Over the past decade, Metallica's chart domination has relied largely on mid-paced, sonically pristine songs like "Enter Sandman," "The Unforgiven" and "Hero of the Day." Not only are the offerings on St. Anger much faster and more furious, they're rhythmically complex, long by radio standards and they sound like they were recorded by a freshman in engineering school rather than by legendary producer Bob Rock (see "What's Up With The Sound On The New Metallica Album?").
"During our journey we kind of forgot about this five-letter word called 'radio,' " guitarist Kirk Hammett explained. "Commerciality is something we stuck in our back pocket and never pulled out. And we are fine with that because we feel that this material is very strong and very representative of where we are now musically, personally, emotionally and mentally. It's the most complete band statement that we've ever made."
While St. Anger seems like a deeply personal account of the chaos, tumult and personal discoveries Hetfield experienced since he entered rehab in July 2001, the album is actually the most collaborative Metallica disc to date. In the past, Hetfield would write complete riffs and songs, then show his bandmates what to play. This time Metallica mutually decided that the only way for them to remain fresh and hungry was to go in blind and just jam out songs in the studio. Their progress was interrupted when Hetfield checked into rehab for eight months. But after he got out, Metallica started frantically unearthing the Anger within.
"For the first time, I had no idea where that ride was going to take us," Ulrich recalled. "The main thing for me was the ride has to be as pure as possible. James wanted everyone to start riffing from nothing and see where it would go — somebody taking the lead and somebody else following it in a very organic and collaborative way."
For all involved, it was strange to see the former Metallica megalomaniac give up control and work with his bandmates on the music. More surprising was that Hetfield also asked Ulrich, Hammett and producer Bob Rock to help pen lyrics.
"That was the last indication that this really was a changed man," Ulrich said. "So, we took what we call the stream-of-consciousness process. It was almost like being at school with a pad and a pen. We all sat around and came up with ideas and then we'd go around the room and everyone would read to the class what they had come up with. It was somewhat intimidating in the beginning, but at the same time, incredibly challenging and an awesome thing to introduce in terms of just bringing everybody closer together."
For Hetfield, the band's new method of songwriting created a cohesion and chemistry Metallica hadn't had in almost 20 years. Everything was exciting again and anything was possible.
"There is no doubt there is more of a fire under our ass than ever before," he said. "The new blood is true. We love the record and these songs have to be played live. We are totally excited."
For a full-length feature on Metallica, check out "Metallica: The 'mtvICON' Interviews".