Take a straw poll of Metallica fans on what their favourite album is from the Bay Area metal behemoth’s back catalogue and the chances are the 2003’s St Anger will not enjoy a podium finish – and yes, as its producer, Bob Rock, says, it not only saved the band when it was coming apart at the seams, it can count on some famous fans, with both Jimmy Page and Jack White going out of their way to tell him how much they loved it.
The complaints about St Anger are many and come from all directions. There are those who can’t abide the iron clang of Lars Ulrich’s snare sound, those who tuned in only to feel cheated that Kirk Hammett was kept on a short leash and there were no guitar solos to spice things up.
After the long-form epics of the ‘80s, the concise FM metal of the ‘90s, this was something different, an album that was overseen by one of the world’s most high-profile producers, known for creating indomitable rhythm tones by layering and layering electric guitars, and it came out under produced and over long.
Not only that, Rock played bass guitar on the album. It did not help the album’s reputation that the the whole drama surrounding the making of it – Jason Newsted quitting, James Hetfield disappearing, Ulrich’s dad on quality control – was captured in the tragicomic Some Kind Of Monster documentary.
But 20 years on, Rock sounds like he has made peace with what was a difficult time for the band, and him career-wise. Speaking to Chris Jericho on his Talk Is Jericho podcast, Rock admitted it was not a great album to have on his CV at the time, but ultimately St Anger saved the band.
He said there was “no mindset” going into the record. The sessions started when the band did a fanclub visit to their old practice space at a house in Oakland, and Rock requested that very same old Tama drum kit to be brought in to the studio. A recently bought snare drum was added to the kit and thus became one of the most talked about drum sounds ever recorded.
“All I can say is there is this great album by the Stoogies, Iggy and the Stooges, called Raw Power, and if you think about it, St Anger sounds like the band in that house,” says Rock. “There were no harmonies. There is no fixing anything. It is just raw.”
There were no solos, notes Jericho.
“That was a rule that I didn’t make but I am not going to say what happened there,” said Rock, who decribes the approach as more like what San Francisco punks The Fucking Champs would do, piling riffs on top of riffs. Besides, he says, it was something they needed to do as they waited for Hetfield to return.
“James wasn’t there for a long time,” says Rock. “We had to punt. We had to keep it going and moving, so that record wasn’t the best for my career, but it was the best in terms of I had to be there for those guys because they broke up. I just put a couple of years and concentrated on being a friend, and if that album didn’t happen I don’t think they would have lasted. They had to do that album so they could just go back to being them.”
And, to borrow a phrase with particular resonance in Metallica contexts, so what if it wasn’t perfect? After all this time, Rock can look back on a couple of memorable encounters that proved at least some people dug the record.
“Jack White! It Might Get Loud, I happened to be at the premiere in Toronto,” says Rock. “He came up to me from across the room and he says, ‘By the they way, I love St Anger – it’s an amazing album,’ and left. Another thing, Jimmy Page, not to drop names but he is kind of a friend. He was at the Sunset Marquis. He was sitting eating breakfast at the other end of the pool, and somebody walked by and said [to him], ‘I’m here seeing Bob Rock.’
“He said, ‘Bob Rock’s here?’ He came over and talked to me, which blew my mind – coming from Winnipeg – that Jimmy Page even knows my name. And he said, ‘By the way, I love St Anger. It’s a great album.’ So I am okay. Those two guys bought the record, and those two? I’m fine.”
You can listen to the whole conversation between Bob Rock and Chris Jericho on the Talk Is Jericho podcast wherever you get your podcasts from.