When St. Anger, the band's first album of the '00s, made its debut in '03, Metallica was still enormously popular, but they were far from unassailable. The Load/Reload two-fer proved the first interruption of the group's decade-long upward commercial trajectory -- both went multi-platinum, but still combined to sell only about a half of the units Black had moved. Meanwhile, mainstream metal had evolved dramatically in the group's absence, thanks to the mega-success of hip-hop-influenced, teen-courting breakout groups like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park -- making the group sound oversized, analog and generally outdated. (This perception was little helped by group's disastrous 2000 decision to pursue legal action against Napster over the file-sharing service's spreading of an early demo of '99 soundtrack contribution "I Disappear.")
The first-week sales for St. Anger (over 400,000) indicated that Metallica's fanbase was still considerable, and the band received support on their subsequent U.S. tour from both Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, indicating the quartet was moving into the 'revered godfather' phase of their career. But while Aerosmith, for example, notched blockbusters like Permanent Vacation and Pump when they graduated to 'hair metal influencer' status, St. Anger got mixed reviews, failed to generate a crossover hit, and nearly turned Metallica into a cultural punchline -- largely thanks to the IRL Spinal Tap trappings of the subsequently released rock doc Some Kind of Monster, a surreal making-of that exposed the band's insulated weirdness and heightened sensitivity.
Fan complaints with St. Anger were hardly isolated to contextual concerns, either. The lack of guitar solos, combined with a heavier reliance on nu-metal-friendly dynamics, made it a jarring break from Metallica's previous sonic timeline. The brittle production and self-purging lyrics made it a particularly unforgiving listen, especially at a thoroughly merciless 75-minute runtime. And perhaps most infamously, drummer Lars Ulrich's snareless, arid, hollow timekeeping made his drumming unrecognizably alien, like a TV comedy whose next-door neighbor character has suddenly been replaced by a totally different actor, without explanation. The whole collection feels more akin to a set of rough-sketch demos that you get as a bonus disc with the 20th-anniversary edition of the actual album.
But a decade later, St. Anger remains one of the most fascinating mainstream rock albums of its era, largely because it's impossible to picture the world where it coexisted alongside Evanescence's Fallen, Blink-182's self-titled album and Dashboard Confessional's A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar. The album's brutality is so singular and out-of-step -- even as Metallica tried to loosely integrate some of the era's sonic hallmarks into its quintessentially funkless grooving -- that it's likely aged better than any of those other era-dependent records. The lack of adherence that the most successful hard rock band of the era pays to even the most basic commercial concessions, in the name of achieving primal-scream purity of essence, is breathtaking in its gall. Essentially, it's the metal Plastic Ono Band.
That said, not even Plastic Ono Band asked you to sit on the couch with John and Yoko for a full hour and a quarter, and St. Anger's unrighteous fury can't help but exhaust by end of the album's second side. But some of the songs are stunning. The slap-bass rumble and Alice in Chains death harmonies of "Shoot Me Again" could've been lost to post-Attitude Era bravado if not for the song's disquieting use of negative space, giving every title insistence an increasingly out-of-body feeling. Meanwhile, the uncomfortable way that James Hetfield's shrieks begin to fray on "Frantic" make the album opener as unnerving as any of Metallica's apocalyptic early songs.
And the title track is an absolute marvel, a song that folds in on itself four times before the vocals even start, one that mixes Chino Moreno-like throat-barking ("YOU FLUSH IT OUT! YOU FLUSH IT OUT!") with death-metal thunderousness, Lars' Bermuda Triangle steel toms and Hetfield's impregnable chorus climax ("I'm madly in anger with YOU!!"). It might be the craziest thing that rock radio programmers have ever been forced to play, and it succeeds on its own terms, as a left-field work of art-rock made by four music industry insiders desperate to prove to themselves that they were still really outsiders.
Of course, even "St. Anger" was basically "Enter Sandman" compared to some of the stuff on 2011's Lulu, a project devised under odd circumstances and executed with even odder intentions: Metallica met Lou Reed while covering his "Sweet Jane" with him at the 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert, and friendly conversations snowballed into a decision to collaborate on music for a theatrical project based on the work of German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind. The work mostly bore Reed's thematic thumbprint but Metallica's musical DNA, and the hybrid made for peerlessly disorienting listening: Lou Reed's strained monotone rambling poetry over Metallica's thudding chords and pummeled drums, with Hetfield occasionally offering overzealous vocal counterpoints.
The album was one of the most predictable commercial and critical disasters in rock history, but just as unsurprisingly, it has since developed a cult of appreciators for its unprecedented unlikeliness — any list of album proposals for the 33 1/3 retrospective book series is bound to include at least a couple Lulu pitches. Listening to songs like "The View," it's clear to see why. Reed's calloused intonations of phrases like "I wanna see your suicide!" and "For worship someone who actively despises you!" over his backing band's pained full-body lurch gives way to a double-time boogie, with Hetfield bellowing "I AM THE TABLE!" It's a shooting star of forced hybridization; two tangentially collided circles searching in vain for an overlapping middle.
Lulu never sounds right, but its wrongness is usually transfixing: The righteousness of chugging fist-pumpers "Brandenburg Gate" and "Iced Honey" is undone by Reed's warbling, but Hetfield's insistence on selling the chorus chants ("ICED HO-NAYYYY!!") like they were on the same fist-pumping level as "For Whom the Bell Tolls" remains inspiring. And against all odds, the album is frequently beautiful -- probably nowhere moreso than on 19-minute closer "Junior Dad," a largely instrumental epic that unfolds with Mogwai-like majesty, delicacy and patience. It's a confounding 78-minute listen, one that probably begs for an intermission (or two), but one in which it's hard not to feel like you're being taken on an artistic journey worth your emotional and physical investment.
And this is really what it comes down to with 21th-century Metallica: They spent most of the decade following The Black Album spiritually and musically adrift, and by the time they were ready to come back for good, all that fans really desired from them was to be -- or at least echo memories of -- their old selves again. There isn't a Metallica fan on earth that actively wanted what they got with St. Anger and Lulu; the best the band could hope for from most longtime fans was begrudging acceptance.
But while no one would've blamed Metallica for taking the Rolling Stones' way out in middle age, what they actually did was far more commendable: They decided to challenge rather than to placate. They continued to push at their own margins and question the chromosomal coding of what actually makes a Metallica song, asking their fans to join them in discovering what new sounds, feelings, and expressions of personal truth they could get out of their music. That most declined the invitation is understandable, but it doesn't mean there wasn't new stuff worth discovering for those of us who decided to let the band lead the way.
Oh, and the band did make one absolutely dynamite pandering throwback collection this century, too. 2008's Death Magnetic is significantly less of a swerve than either St. Anger or Lulu -- in fact, length aside (Metallica has really played to the back rows of the CD-R generation this century) -- the album is just about everything an old-school fan could've prayed for: Ten muscular, dynamic and positively shredding metal mini-epics. The mid-album singles run of "The Day That Never Comes," "All Nightmare Long" and "Cyanide" is about as blazing a heater the band has ever been on, and even "The Unforgiven III" is more rousing than plodding; no small feat given how Reload's "Unforgiven II" was the Speed 2: Cruise Control of hard-rock sequels.
From the singles we've heard from the album thusfar, it seems like upcoming effort Hardwired... to Self Destruct will be in a similarly throwback vein. Which is fine: Death Magnetic proved the group can still dial it back to their mid-'80s peak when called on to do so, providing new thrills without risking reflexive back-in-my-day defensiveness from old fans. But what has made the group's 21st-century output special has been their willingness to risk character immolation at the hands of those die-hards (and just about everyone else) with a couple of the most intriguingly inscrutable LPs ever released by a major American artist. Those albums prove there are loftier goals for a Hall of Fame rock band to reach for in their third and fourth decades than simply being satisfying.