Metallica – Load – Case Stated!

April 10, 2014 | By:


Opinion is opinion. That’s that. It’s not fact, and should never be portrayed as such. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and no one shows this more than music fans. Nothing is safe – from a simple lyric in one song, to a band’s full catalog of albums – someone will always be there to give an opinion, positive or negative. Sometimes though, these opinions can’t be agreed with. So in this new feature, I’ll be taking a well known album that has famously either been universally shunned or endlessly praised, by professional critics or fans, and will be stating my case on the subject. Call it just one big opinion against all others. Let’s start with an easy one(s).

 

Metallica – Load

Metallica - Load

Metallica - Load

Metallica looking appropriately dark during The Black Album era.

The backstory:

By the 1990’s, Metallica were unstoppable. A true force to be reckoned with. With their original “trilogy” of records in tow, and a tour with Ozzy Osbourne already gaining them a growing fan base in the underground metal community, the thrash foursome including newly recruited bassist Jason Newsted, headed into the studio in the wake of 1988 to begin recording of their fourth album ...And Justice for All. Released in August of that same year, “Justice” was a considerable leap stylistically for Met’, trading in their established thick thrashy anthemic sound for a harsh and abrasive vibe, complete with sporadic tempo shifts and progressive song structures, coupled with a dry and sterile production job. What came with this was an incredible mass of mainstream attention and success. It became their best selling record at that point, and the final single lifted from its 9 tracks “One” won them a Grammy for best metal performance, and also gave the world the groups first official music video. Not bad for a scruffy thrash band who emerged in the underground metal scene just 7 years prior. And so with this, it begun. Metallica were the biggest band in the world, and this success only snowballed further with their eponymous fifth album “The Black Album” released in 1991. A much more focused and “to the point” effort than previously heard from the boys, it attracted them perhaps twice as much fame as “Justice” did. Long gone were the 9 minute long twisting metal anthems and rough production, and in exchange “Metallica” showcased short verse-chorus-verse-chorus Rock tunes, with less of a sharp metal edge than before, all going hand in hand with newly hired producer Bob Rock’s clean radio friendly take on the bands sound. All well and fine, the critics loved it and “The Black Album” debuted at number 1 in ten countries. Yet this drastic change in sound alienated some fans, and the question lingered: will Metallica stick to this possibly deliberate new mainstream sound, or will they cut the MTV crap and go back to good old thrash metal? And that question did linger indeed, for another 5 years in fact.

The subject and the backlash:

The year is 1996. Metallica have toured for a seemingly endless amount of time. Consistently heavy promotion for “The Black Album” took its toll on the metal superstars, taking up roughly 4 years of their career. This meant that fans had to wait out a stretched time period until the groups sixth full length record could hit shelves: the longest gap between any Metallica albums at that time as all previous entries were only 2 or 3 years apart. “Load” was finally released in June 1996 and shifted 680,000 units in its first week, making it the biggest release of the year. More mainstream success then, but what did the fans think? Was this the return to form some fans wanted, or an expansion of the radio friendly direction of “Metallica.” If someone in 1988 had approached a Metallica fan and told them that in 8 years time their favourite band will release an album with a predominant blues influence that bordered dangerously into “biker rock” territory, they most likely would’ve laughed their claim off and told the offender where to stick it. Which is what makes Load even more shocking to think about. Yes, Metallica, a band so important to the foundations of metal that they have the word in their title, were no longer that. Load showed off a new sound from the group, one that featured greasy garage riffs, sultry blues bass lines and slow chugging drum beats, layered with James Hetfield’s trademark gruff voice suddenly taking on the form of an angry redneck starting a bar fight. Stereotypical, but true. Take all of that and combine it with the bands new found love for eyeliner and an album cover featuring a pretentious post-modern piece of art called “Semen and Blood” and you’ve got one hell of an angry, alienated and disappointed fan base.

The album cover of Load is taken from an abstract art piece by Andres Serrano called Blood and Semen, a shocking display of bovine blood and his own semen mixed in between two sheets of glass. James Hetfield has spoken negatively about the artwork in recent years: "I love art, but not for the sake of shocking others. I think the cover of Load was just a piss-take around all that."

The album cover of Load is taken from an abstract art piece by Andres Serrano called Semen and Blood III, a shocking display of bovine blood and his own semen mixed between two sheets of glass. James Hetfield has spoken negatively about the artwork in recent years: “I love art, but not for the sake of shocking others. I think the cover of Load was just a piss-take around all that.”

The Metallica everyone loved was gone with Load, and eventually even more so when its sequel “Reload” hit just a year later, and bought with it the negative trappings of its predecessor and then some. Originally planned as one double album release, the Load duo was instead split into two separate releases spread over the space a year. Two disappointing albums in one disappointing year. A bad time to be a Metallica fan. Despite these records being well over 15 years old, they are both now infamous in the Metallica fan base and Rock/Metal community in general for being the black sheep of Met’s history. Their soft groovy rock stylings have stuck out like a sore thumb since their releases, one that seems to be hurting more as time goes on. It’s hard to avoid the hate for these records in this day and age with the internet acting as such a major tool for voicing opinions, and despite them not being unanimously disliked (I’ve come across a fair few of positive write ups on the net about them), I still want to give my two cents as a longtime Metallica fan.

Stating my case for LOAD:

From the second Load begins with “Ain’t My Bitch”, it’s standard Metallica. A chugging combo of Guitars and Drums comes blasting straight in, a perfect follow up to “The Black Album” albeit with a slightly smoother tint to it. “…but now it’s time to kiss your ass goodbye…it ain’t my fall, it ain’t my call, it ain’t my bitch!” sings Hetfield in his typically gruff vocal style, yet with a significantly more laid back and less concentrated lyrical approach. No more songs of apocalyptic war, childhood night terrors or violent death penalties as Metallica are renowned for perhaps. The familiarity continues to run from “Ain’t My Bitch” through “2 x 4” and “The House Jack Built” until it comes to a sharp halt at track 4 – “Until It Sleeps.” This is where things change for Load. A solitary bass line treacles under the most simplest of drum beats, a slow tap to accommodate Hetfield’s early vocal entry just a few seconds in, parading rather deep and personal lyrics compared to the first three tracks. “So tear me open, pour me out. There’s things inside that scream and shout, and the pain still hates me so hold me, until it sleeps.” After a nice warm welcoming with it’s first few tracks, Load has now pushed it’s listeners onto their backs. Until It Sleeps is the first major departure featured on this 79 minute long disc, and is a great introduction to the new Metallica. The sultry blues ballad is about James Hetfield’s mothers suffering and eventual death from cancer when he was just 16 years old, and segues into the hard hitting rock anthem “King Nothing”, complete with screeching guitars and Jason Newsted’s trademark bouncy bass riffs. “Hero of the Day” is up next, possibly the softest Metallica song still to this day. More R.E.M than MET, this track is inexplicably satisfying – a typically 90’s guilty pleasure. Track 7 is where Load really starts to pull out the big guns – “Bleeding Me.” A fan favourite by 2014, this 8 minute epic finds the perfect balance between Metallica old and new, with Hetfield’s vocals at it’s most soothing during the tracks twisting Black Sabbath-esque verses before gradually growing into a gruff growl for its chorus, complete with meaty guitar chords and massive tom hits from Lars, and a catchy as hell hook to top it all off. Sadly though, this high point is where Load begins its slide down to its lowest point. “Cure”, “Poor Twisted Me”, “Wasted My Hate” and even the emotional acoustic ballad “Mama Said” are all decent songs in their own rights but definitely aren’t enough to weigh evenly with the first 7 tracks before them. Catchy enough but lacking the “oomph” required to stand out. If the record ended at “Mama Said”, then there wouldn’t be a problem – Load would be one of Metallica’s best records. What lets it down is its final 3 tracks, “Thorn Within”, “Ronnie” and “The Outlaw Torn”, the most forgettable and downright gimmicky tracks the band have ever put out. The perfect definition of filler, these tracks do nothing for anyone. Seemingly tacked onto the end of an otherwise great record, a choice which seems even more ridiculous when considered the fact that the band purposely stretched them out so that Load could reach its maximum running time limit of 79 minutes (the outro to The Outlaw Torn was even cut down by a minute just to fit onto the album, and the full version was later released as a b-side).

Metallica's shift in fashion sense and artistic presentation was perhaps the strangest. Even knocked by Hetfield in recent years, who claims it was driven by Lars and Kirk, and inspired by abstract art and U2.

Metallica’s shift in fashion sense and artistic presentation was perhaps the strangest. Even knocked by Hetfield in recent years, who claims it was driven by Lars and Kirk, and inspired by abstract art and U2.

 

The verdict:

Load isn’t a bad effort. In fact, it’s a great one, and that’s coming from a longtime Metallica fan. It’s definitely not Ride the Lightning, but by 1996 who was asking for that? Over a decade into their career Metallica needed a shift in direction, and while Load may not have been the most appropriate one to take, it strangely makes sense in retrospect. What else could’ve Metallica done by album number six? Another thrash record would’ve seemed incredibly outdated. They were now commercially successful and they embraced it with this record, yet they did it with absolute style and with solid song writing skill still intact. Their penchant for massive riffs and catchy powerful choruses hadn’t diminished at all, it had just been given a different coat of paint and a new leather jacket draped over it by the time this record came around. This was the mid-90’s and gritty radio rock was a big thing at the time, and even U2 made a similar style change with their 1991 record Achtung Baby, one that is said to be the inspiration behind Metallica’s choice of direction with Load and Reload. Despite all the praise I can hand out for this record, it’s still not without it’s negatives. The filler hits again and again, and it hits hard. Lazy lyrics and sloppy riffs do appear frequently, and some of the songs drag themselves out way too much. Without the frequent stadium filling guitar solos of the early 80’s and big instrumental interludes mid-song, most of these tracks don’t need to fill the 6-9 minute gaps that they do. All in all, people can say what they want about Load, but I would rather have this than just another thrash album. Sure, that’s what Metallica did and always will do best, but after 6 records based on that one genre, it’d be long done to death. Besides, experimentation and change is key to a successful career. The Beatles didn’t get to where they are today by releasing “A Hard Day’s Night” over and over again. It is hard to believe that Load is performed by the same band that recorded Battery and Disposable Heroes just 10 years before it, but it’s still a great effort from a band going through it’s strange “puberty” stage. A fantastic rock n’ roll record – but maybe just not a great Metallica record.

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