Bob Rock: Metallica’s ‘St. Anger’ Snare Drum Sound ‘Kept the Band Together’
The snare drum sound on Metallica's St. Anger has been a point of contention for fans ever since the album was released in 2003. It was arguably the most tumultuous time in the band's career and would you believe that Lars Ulrich's maligned snare sound was actually the glue that kept the band going? That's what producer Bob Rock has claimed in a recent interview.
During the recording of the album and as documented in the band's Some Kind of Monster film, Metallica frontman James Hetfield entered rehab for anger and alcohol issues, shutting down the band's writing and recording sessions prematurely. Without much contact with Hetfield for months on end, it put the band in an uncertain situation as they anticipated his return.
Once Hetfield came back, the group picked up where the left off and cut the rest of the St. Anger album while they also navigated tryouts in search of a replacement for bassist Jason Newsted, who left the group in 2001.
Among the gripes about the album were the distinct lack of guitar solos, which Rock also addressed, and that infamous snare drum sound that many have likened to a metal trash can lid.
Shedding some light on how Ulrich elected to keep that sound, Rock explained on the Tone-Talk podcast (audio below), "I’m fine with that [sound]. The thing is, this is interesting, there is a story: while we were doing that [album], we went to their clubhouse; we were in San Francisco, we went to their Oakland place where they rehearsed with Cliff [Burton]. And we had a great time, and Lars told me about his drums, how they were set up in a certain place."
Aiming for a creative spark, Rock made the decision to start "fooling around with other drums," encouraging Ulrich to tear down his usual setup in search of something fresh. "So he set up the drums in the rehearsal room, we were on our way, and Lars just kept staring at the drums," the producer recalled, noting, "Finally, he sat behind and said, 'Just give me a snare drum.' I had bought a Plexi Ludwig snare because I wanted to try it, and he put it on the drum kit, and he said, 'That’s the sound.'"
Caught a bit off guard, Rock continued, "And I said, 'What?'…"
After setting up some microphones, Rock and Ulrich tracked some demos and it was Ulrich who remained adamant the the snare sound not be altered. "He just would not go back," Rock asserted, adding, "I’m not blaming him, this was about, basically, if you can wrap around a concept, this was the sound of the drums when they were rehearsing the album, it’s basically the closest to them being in that clubhouse, and no matter what everybody says, it kept the band together, and that inspired them to go on."
Despite all the trash-talking about the St. Anger snare drum sound, the producer is nonplussed to this day. "So I’m okay with all the flak I’ve taken. It’s a fucking snare-drum sound, give it a break," he urged.
The producer also likened the experimental nature to what U2 had done on their Achtung Baby record "where they played with the perception of drums." Rock detailed, "Sometimes you barely hear the drums, sometimes the bass is the loudest thing; in other words, throwing away the rulebook. And part of St. Anger is just throwing away the rulebook and saying, 'Why do we have to set up the drums the same just because what it has to do with metal?'"
As for the rest of the material on the album, Rock viewed it as riff-intensive effort that didn't necessarily need guitar solos to drive everything further. "I was thinking more like [1973’s] Raw Power, The Stooges album, and without the solos, there was a band from San Francisco called The Fucking Champs, all they played was riffs spun together like a punk/metal band," he said of the band's impetus to leave solos behind.
"And so Lars and I were talking, and it’s kind of a cool thing, and we just said if you can put a great solo with Kirk, go ahead, and it just never worked," Rock admitted.
Bob Rock on the Tone-Talk Podcast
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