There is almost no band in history that had a success akin to “The Black Album.” Metallica exploded the band of the same name from the underground and made Rock, Heavy Metal, and yes, even Thrash as mainstream as it was ever going to get for a hot minute. From 1991-1995 Metallica was everywhere on tour, pop radio, MTV, Antarctica, Woodstock 1994 as the headliner, and much more. They were unstoppable. They sold tons of albums when it was only CDs and cassettes. They transformed the culture of underground heavy music and themselves in the process, and you can still feel the ripples in the industry from it. Like it or not, they changed everything.
The musical landscape totally shifted in the meantime, and at the same time as Metallica were reveling in their newfound fame, wealth, and deserved excess, Nirvana and Seattle became a new barometer of modern rock, borrowing from Punk, Metal, Indie, and classic rock styles. The indelible rise of bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, and the rest impacted a variety of scenes in music, minted new rock fans, and had dire consequences for Glam, but also Thrash and Heavy Metal. Those genres still had major stars (Ozzy, Judas Priest – Painkiller, all the great Death Metal and Black Metal) and great albums, but their favor in the industry was fading fast. James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich noticed.
On the way to writing what would become Load and most of Reload in 1995, the fatigue they were feeling as writers after …And Justice For All that precipitated their shift to rock and slower Heavy Metal continued to creep in. This came after thousands of shows, still playing fast Thrash, body damaging headbanging, and a jillion choruses of “Enter Sandman.” You’d be sick and tired, ready for a change too. Their musical tastes and goals changed and they were changing as people too. Metallica was not trying to blow anyone away anymore on albums. Not for a long time. At the same time, as people, there is no way you can go from the moderately successful underground band in 1988 with a five-figure income, without a radio hit to hundreds of millions of dollars and instantly recognizable worldwide acclaim in 1994, and have it not affect you personally.
So the band that made Load was a different band than we were used to, and the changes were embraced by new fans, but old-school ones were pissed off, let down. Screw the short haircuts, the pimp suits, Semen and Blood on the cover, and guyliner. That stuff doesn’t matter that much in hindsight compared with the music, although the wholesale classic logo change was a bit much. Metal has constant toxic masculinity and homophobia issues, and so it was really cool to see the biggest band in the scene kick those tropes over for a second. They changed their sound radically, from their guitar sound to their writing style. Kirk Hammett got more writing credits than almost any album until the band started splitting the publishing in 2008. In a harbinger of things to come, Jason Newsted has no credits on the album, nary a riff, although he played some great bass lines. James and Lars may have felt freer with their grip on the group nearly ten years after Cliff Burton died, but they definitely went off the rails with some of the choices of song styles and writing here.
When Load is good, it’s really great! If you are going to draw influence from the Seattle bands (the good ones) but also Corrosion of Conformity, early Clutch, Kyuss, good job. Even doomy Bay Area dude-ensteins SLEEP might have found their way into James’ tape deck from the vibe of some riffs on this album. There is a huge late 1970s Black Sabbath influence here that may not have been noticeable since the guitars lacked enough humbuckers or balls. Underrated songs like “The House That Jack Built,” and “The Cure” sit perfectly in the mix with megahits like “Until It Sleeps” and “King Nothing.” “Bleeding Me” is one of the bands’ top-five post-1980s songs. “The Outlaw Torn” is a great album closer. James’ vocals are amazing, even on the patently bad songs. He really found his voice, phrasing ability, and true lyrical prowess on this record. His deeply introspective lyrics about love, loss, family, abuse, depression, and more rival or top his earlier output. He carries the album himself and this is the most copied element of Metallia from this era, the “James-ness” of it all. Again, the bass is nice and punchy and the production from Bob Rock is very good overall. Lars is in the pocket all the way, locked in like a metal Charlie Watts. People seem to really love “The Hero of The Day” and “Mama Said” but they are honestly middling efforts that should have been Hetfield solo album songs.
Load is a hodge-podge of styles and experiments that don’t land with any impact. If you don’t want to be Metallica anymore, do something else with your life. I am not saying don’t evolve, but some of these things were better off never having the bands’ name on them. None of the drama of “The Unforgiven”, the brooding evil “Sad But True”, or the crunch of “Holier Than Thou,” things that made The Black Album a deep, rewarding re-listen are found here. A lot of the four on the floor, mid-tempo rock and blues-laden tracks are cringey and woefully lame. James plays more leads than Kirk Hammet on the album! You have to wonder why they were experimenting so much, but not using two of their best assets to the fullest. Change is always good. Change for the sake of changing, or doing what you think you are supposed to do, is a mistake.
Fans, especially the Metalli-lifers will argue that many more people became fans as a result of Load and Reload than abandoned ship. You might think Load has no bad songs on it. However, are they good” Metallica songs” is the question the fans should ask themselves, no matter how deep their love may run. Bob Rock, James, and Lars did not ask this. At best Load and Reload should have been one, ten-song album. It’s an idea the band definitely did not pause to think about. Surely, it is not the nadir of their careers like LuLu, or as bad sounding as St. Anger, still, it took some time to get them back on track.
Buy the album here: https://www.metallica.com