As I round off my trilogy (maybe) of Metallica album reviews we now take a look at probably the most discussed album outside of Master Of Puppets, although for different reasons.
The follow up to Metallica’s seminal 1991 self titled album has been both controversial and surprising to many of the band’s fans but what was it about this album which was just so damn divisive?
Load was released in 1996 a hefty 5 years after their last record, the phenomenal Black Album nearly took over the planet. The band themselves had spent four long years touring the album after it’s release and as such there really wasn’t time to release anything in the usual 2-3 year period following the previous product.
After the tour ended in 1995 James and Lars got together to thrash (HA!) out some of the riff collections that had amassed over the last few years and once again they entered the studio with producer Bob Rock to record.
Musically, Load is an almost complete departure from what Metallica were before and the band pretty much shed all of their signature thrash sound. In it’s place and from totally out of left field came the unexpected replacement of….bluesy hard rock!?!
The riffs had been given a hefty injection of blues box scales while simultaneously cutting down on the intricateness of the riffs themselves. More single string work with southern bends were present along with a very noticeable cowboy feel to the album overall. The eastern style harmonic minor type scales which featured on songs like Wherever I May Roam are largely absent and any sort of powerhouse powerchord palm muted riffing is kept by and large to a minimum. Lars’ drumming is pretty much as cut down and bare as it was in The Black Album but perhaps with a little more energy for the rock-centric songs.
To be fair, the country motif shouldn’t have come as a total a total surprise. The western theme was apparent in The Black Album in the form of The Unforgiven and there were one or two slightly southern style riffs in there somewhere although it is a case of blink and you’d miss them under the crushing weight of the rest of the album’s main sound.
Hit the….record button!
Production wise there are actually quite a few similarities with the previous album. The drum and bass guitar sounded very alike to the 1991 release and the overall feel of the album was the same high quality too. No surprise seeing as the black album production team of Bob Rock (producer), Randy Staub (engineer) and George Marino (mastering) were involved. The overwhelmingly noticeable difference to the sound aside from the style change is without a doubt the guitar tone. Load featured a much more undergained and slightly thinner guitar sound in contrast to the saturated thrash tones of previous albums and had what is now known as the “Load twang” which is slightly reminiscent of single coil guitars that country players use. It was still a wonderfully crunchy tone and of a very high quality but it was also undeniably a shift towards something a bit less metal.
When Load was released it caused a storm, not just for the abrupt style change but the band had modified their image as well and it did NOT sit well with some die hard fans. Metallica had now cut their hair and started wearing eyeliner and black nail polish as well as cowboy hats and silk shirts. The mixture was some sort of mid 90s alternative rock hybrid fused with a western image and it was quite hard to really know what was happening with it all as it was just so incredibly sudden and many felt like Metallica were turning into the trendy, image based bands who they themselves used to unashamedly slag off during their early days.
These changes made a lot of people (including me) think that this was James Hetfield indulging his love of all things blues and cowboy. To a point, this was a factor as it was known that Hetfield had become friends with Pepper Keenan a few years earlier and had no doubt been binging on the southern goodness of Confusion Of Conformity (Solidified in no small part by the fact that CoC were the support band on the Load tour).
The truth is that it was actually Kirk and Lars who were the main culprits. James as it turns out was fundamentally against this rather bizarre image change and put it down to Lars and Kirk’s new found love of art (which seemed to crop up with the arrival of Black Album money).
Hetfield was even quoted as saying –
“Lars and Kirk drove on those (Load and ReLoad) records. The whole ‘We need to reinvent ourselves’ topic was up. Image is not an evil thing for me, but if the image is not you, then it doesn’t make much sense. I think they were really after a U2 kind of vibe, Bono doing his alter ego. I couldn’t get into it. The whole, ‘Okay, now in this photoshoot we’re going to be ’70s glam rockers.’ Like, what? I would say half – at least half — the pictures that were to be in the booklet, I yanked out. The whole cover thing, it went against what I was feeling.” – Source Wikipedia
Load met with mixed to positive reviews on release, probably due to people really just not knowing what the fuck to do with it. Hardcore thrash fans who had previously expressed a beef with the change in style of The Black Album had now totally given up on the band. In contrast, Load actually gained Metallica some new admirers along the way as well as their loyal core fan base. Overall though Load was considered a disappointment by the majority of fans who were expecting a follow up to the sound and style of The Black Album but over the years people have undoubtedly warmed to it.
Load is without question a great heavy rock album. The songs are energetic, well written and sound brilliant. Bar Hetfield’s voice, if you didn’t know this was Metallica at the time you’d probably never guess but regardless it’s top notch stuff.
As with most Metallica albums the first half is probably the best. Some cracking songs like The House Jack Built, King Nothing and the grizzly lip pusher 2×4 are all great rockin’ tunes with tons of emotion and plenty of redneck bite. Until It Sleeps is probably the best song on the album with it’s dreamy surf guitars and catchy central guitar melody. The song has a tremendously strong chorus (Good old E, D, C…or the equivalent to whatever the hell they were tuned to on this album) and featured a really cool video which probably accounted for much of the albums new fans.
The latter half of the album sees some more filler type material but also has gems peppered throughout. Mama Said (The album’s “ballad” if you want to call it that) is a great acoustic song done in the style of a rather tragic country and western track. It’s certainly one of the standout tunes of the album although the dive into pure Billy-Bob territory with a really annoying country guitar playing over the chorus sort of spoils it. Nevertheless it’s a lovely, dusty old-school style of cowboy song that quite hard not to like.
Load maybe a great hootenanny hillbilly of a time but it does have it’s issues. At 14 tracks it can feel like a bit of a chore to get through in one sitting, especially as all 14 aren’t really as good as each other.
As always with these reviews I like to do a ‘fantasy’ tracklist and see what can be cut down to what I’ve now dubbed “The Dirty Eight”. Eight absolutely blinding songs with no filler or exceptions made.
Load is actually quite a tricky one to do and I have to confess to at the present time doing this list from memory but then again what better way to choose than the ones that stay with you and so the brutal cut would be –
1. Ain’t My Bitch
3. The House Jack Built
4. Until It sleeps
5. King Nothing
6. Mama Said
7. Wasting My Hate
8. The Outlaw Torn
The generous 10 track version would feature the brilliantly rednecky Ronnie and probably Thorn Within…or maybe Hero Of The Day (See, it’s hard!).
On a further note, I feel like Unforgiven II from the sequel album ReLoad should have maybe been given a slot on this one. It’s placement in the tracklist is somewhat difficult to pick but to me ReLoad felt a bit like leftovers from Load and Unforgiven II could never realistically be classed as a leftover.
If I’m being totally honest then the best album would actually be maybe a 10-12 track blend of Load and ReLoad.….which I actually did. UnLoad is my own personal fusing of (at the time) what I thought was the best of the two. It can be found…err…somewhere on YouTube although I have to say that particular tracklist would no doubt change if I were to do it today which makes these albums even more indecisively curious.
Load’s biggest problem is that it just tried to change far too much in the one go. Even after 5 years, people were still high on The Black Album and I’m convinced that if they had maybe followed that up with something similar while introducing some Load elements then the change, musically at least would have been a far easier thing for fans to take. It’s funny then that Metallica’s newest album Hardwired…To Self Destruct does just that and would have been the absolutely perfect transition if it had come in between The Black Album and Load (wizdom of Baz!).
What happened was like a complete brick wall smash and everyone was wandering about in a whiplashed daze trying to figure out what the fuck was going on without actually realising that the music was in fact really good. Of course it’s still sad that the band seemed to say goodbye to their thrashy, Lovecraftian inspired roots and one wonders what they would have done if their tours had ended after a year and a half instead of four and they did actually put out The Black Album II in say 1993 say with more songs in that style.
One thing I do feel is that if Load and it’s brother ReLoad were done as a side project under a different name then I don’t think it would have got anywhere near the hate that it did on release. Separating the style from the brand would have been in my eyes a wise move, not least of all to avoid the glaring and throbbing sore thumb of having a band with the name “METALlica” who now played what was essentially rock. Rockallica doesn’t quite have the same sheen but it would have been infinitely more accurate and furthermore, less embarrassing. It would have also given the band the space to be creatively different while still keeping their main outfit safe and if fans genuinely didn’t like the side project then fine they’d always have Metallica but as the story went they ended up with no-where left to go.
I was a relative latecomer to metal in my own span of years. Aside from a few Iron Maiden tapes and despite attending the Fear Of The Dark tour gig in 1993 I was relatively steel free until about late 1994/early 1995 when I really started to get in to the music via The Black Album and Iron Maiden’s X Factor. In a way, Load came around as I was simultaneously listening to the earlier albums and so my education was a genre mashed conglomerate of the band’s work, and I recall downloaded tabs from Load songs being very much present when I first started to learn guitar. The earlier work was of course preferable in terms of structure, scope, riffs and guitar tone, and generally it still is but despite that, songs from Load seemed to find their way on to mix tapes and sat quite happily amongst everything else.
After twenty years (Fuck!) any gripes people have is all much of a muchness and I think those who have a problem with Load really have to ask themselves if they genuinely don’t like it or is it some lingering sense of betrayal that’s keeping the barriers up? I can understand the total confusion that this album garnered and even some of the hate but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a well written, well produced and brilliant slice of heavy rock and that is a level which most bands fail to achieve at any point in their careers. With that I’d say do yourself a favour, hang up the thrash hat for a night and just enjoy some good solid tunes from a good solid album
Unless you are truly incapable of separating the band from their early days you won’t be disappointed.