Metallica’s Load at 25
This year on June 4 marks 25 years of the release of Metallica’s controversial album “Load”. A huge seller at the time, it drove an ideological wedge through the band’s fanbase, and even between band members. The story is a rich and complex one, and one that really needs to ask questions of both band and their fans.
Metal fans are an unforgiving bunch. They know what they want from their favourite band, or so they think. They want the same thing but better than last time. This goes a long way to explaining why a Status Quo record from 2010 sounds a lot like one from 1972. Yet for creative types, musicians especially, it can get tiring retreading the same formula over and over again. The problem is that fans are always the first to tell their heroes “I've followed you from the very beginning, but what you’re doing now is a travesty, man”.
It reminds me of that scene in the Simpsons where Bart and Lisa are persuaded to participate in the focus group about cartoon show Itchy and Scratchy, and their responses lead creator Roger Meyers Jr to snap at them “you kids don’t know what you like!”
Herein lies the problem. How can Metallica, one of the most influential metal bands of the late 20th century, a band who were one of the defining acts of a new genre called “Thrash Metal”, diversify and try something new, still keep their muse intact, and yet keep their fans happy? If they go one way, they’ll be hammered for doing the same thing as they’ve always done and this time it sounds boring. If they move too far away from their “signature sound”, they’ll be criticised for sounding nothing like they used to. Metallica fans had already been asked to relax their standards to accept the new glistening and streamlined sound on the band’s 1991 self-titled album, after the band explained that the complex arrangements of the songs on their 1988 album “...And Justice for All” were too complex to pull off successfully on stage.
As music fans, we don’t know what we want, really.
And let’s face it. We didn’t know we needed Metallica, or Nirvana or the Beatles or ANYONE of any of the millions of artists and musicians in our lives until we heard them for the first time, right? So how do we know if any new record by any band is worth listening to?
And is “Load” any good, after all this time and listening to it again with fresh ears?
Well, it depends on what your metric for evaluation of it is.
Does it stand up against the band’s classic works that came before?
And does it hang together as a body of songs unto itself?
On both fronts, “Load” is found wanting.
“Load” was never going to hold a candle to “Master of Puppets” or “Ride the Lightning”. Nor could it - as musicians and as people, the members of Metallica had changed. They were never going to write those sorts of songs again. Change is inevitable, but rarely is it accepted by metal fans who just want their music loud and heavy. As a work that explores new horizons, it is admirable and brave, but it misses all the aspects of Metallica that make them unique. Instead of incorporating new directions into their sound, they spend too much time trying to sound like other bands. Bands like Clutch, Kyuss and Gov’t Mule, who were likely influenced by Metallica originally, but are bands who do this kind of groove-heavy sound better.
As a body of songs? Well...the band have put all their stock in the riffs and forgotten to write melodies to most of these songs. And the riffs themselves aren’t terribly interesting. Standard blues rock fare that has been done a million times before with a leaden backbeat that doesn’t know how to swing.
Knowing what Metallica’s fanbase is like, it takes some balls to put out a song like “Mama Said”, with its loose country twang and lap steel guitars on it. It also takes some guts to put out “Until It Sleeps” which was so clearly influenced by grunge that it sounds like an outtake from a Smashing Pumpkins album. They get credit for being daring in the face of audience expectations, but it doesn’t make them highlights.
If there is a jewel anywhere in this rusty crown
of a record, it is “Hero of the Day”, which has a gorgeous heartbroken melody and good use of swelling dynamics. A highlight on an overlong album with very few of them. At 79 minutes long, the album has a lot of noise, but is short on clever configurations of it. I should be thankful that it’s not a longer album. The final track “The Outlaw Torn” had to be trimmed of 30 seconds in order for the album to fit on one CD.
Most, if not all of the hair metal bands who survived the grunge explosion of 1991 were given a bit of a kick up the butt from the younger upstarts of the new scene, leading many to evolve and change their look and sound. Metallica did the same, cutting their hair (Shock! Horror!) and trying to move in new directions. The first fruits of these changes are on “Load” and despite spending 12 months recording it, Metallica still came up with something that is less than the sum of its parts.
In a strange way, the harbinger for the disastrous few years to come after the release of this album was when singer James Hetfield and bassist Jason Newstead made a trip to Australia in person to appear on Triple J’s Request Fest in May 1996 to premiere the album’s lead single “Until it Sleeps”. They played the song twice and Hetfield and Newstead took talkback from the fans, who largely panned it. This led to many callers getting a serve from Newstead, being told they weren’t real fans because they couldn’t understand where they were coming from. “Load” then only sold about a quarter of what their previous self-titled album sold. They further raised the ire of their fans by challenging file sharing service Napster, and then things turned into a full blown crisis when it came to record what eventually became the “St Anger” album, with the band hiring a “personal enhancement coach” to counsel the band and to sort out their personal issues before a record could be made, as seen in the film “Some Kind of Monster”.
To the credit of the band, they have been savvy and they have managed to stave off the heat of criticism from the fans by keeping a steady stream of fanclub only releases of live sets from the “golden” era, keeping fans happy while trying out new things on their albums, including a highly controversial duet project with Lou Reed, but that’s for another time…