A Fresh Perspective on Metallica’s Load and Reload Albums by Paul Brannigan
February 4, 2015 | by Faber Social
Haircuts! Guy-liner! That infamous blood-and-spunk artwork! A fair proportion of Metallica’s always vocal and vociferous fan-base had already made up their minds that the Californian quartet’s controversial sixth album was an abomination long before Load dropped on June 4, 1996. The rest simply couldn’t figure out what the hell their favourite band was playing at. On the album’s inner sleeve artwork, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Jason Newsted and Lars Ulrich sported tailored shirts and make-up: on the cover their band’s iconic logo had been dramatically altered too. It was evident that change was afoot, and this made many Metallica fans – and at least one band member – uncomfortable and disconcerted. This, for the band’s beating heart, drummer Lars Ulrich, was almost certainly the intention.
From day one, Metallica were set up in opposition to the status quo. In 1981, while their peers in Los Angeles looked to US arena acts Van Halen, Aerosmith and Journey for guidance, Metallica’s founding members Ulrich and Hetfield drew inspiration from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and fashioned an aggressive, ugly and wholly uncompromising signature sound defiantly out-of-step with the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood metal scene they hoped to destroy. Ten years on, however, with the phenomenal success of their self-titled fifth album (universally known as ‘The Black Album’) Metallica became metal’s most mainstream attraction, and for Ulrich at least, a revolution – or at the very least a comprehensive re-imagining of their sound and aesthetic – was now essential.
In May of 1994, just 10 months after the completion of the 244 date Wherever We May Roam tour, Metallica re-grouped to work upon what would be their sixth studio album. Re-energised from the longest holiday of their working lives, they over-stretched, writing and demo-ing a total of 27 songs. At this point, a more clear-headed band might have called upon the assistance of management and a top-grade producer to whittle down the song selection to a more manageable 10 to 12 tracks which would be refined and polished in the studio: the bullish Californians, however, decided they would record and release all 27 of their new compositions, over two expansive records. This was one of Metallica’s first mis-steps: a decision that would ultimately damage both band and brand.
The quartet envisaged Load and Reload as their own answer to the sprawling Use Your Illusion twin-sets released by Guns N’ Roses in 1991. Yet Metallica had already demonstrated their dominance over their former friends, now bitter rivals, on their epic US co-headline stadium tour in 1992, and this supposed power-play was ill-advised, and un-necessary, grand-standing.
With the benefit of hindsight, both Load and Reload are better albums than they appeared upon release, containing some of the quartet’s finest, and most fearless, work. Influenced by old favourites (ZZ Top Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thin Lizzy) and more contemporary acts (Corrosion of Conformity, Alice In Chains), the band opted for a looser, more bluesy sound – Lars Ulrich prefers the term ‘greasy’ – over their traditional disciplined snap-and-crunch with dramatic results. From the Southern Gothic drama of Until It Sleeps through to the brooding, panoramic majesty of The Outlaw Torn, from the high octane roar of Fuel to the plaintive, countrified Mama Said and the folksy Low Man’s Lyric, this was a bold and liberating re-styling of the Metallica sound. The problem, however, is that these superlative compositions are bracketed by much that is flabby, under-developed and – to borrow a term Ulrich would memorably employ on the terrific Some Kind of Monster documentary – ‘stock’. With judicious pruning, and a touch more humility, the world’s biggest metal band might have created another masterpiece, a multi-faceted, muscular, modern metal album to set them up for the new millennium. Uncharacteristically, with the world looking on as never before, they rather fluffed their lines. To mark the release of Into The Black: The Inside Story of Metallica 1991 – 2014 then we’ve selflessly decided to take that task off their hands. So let us present Download, a playlist presenting Metallica’s Load and Reload albums in a condensed, stream-lined and – dare we say it – superior single-album form, eyeliner not included. You’re welcome Lars, you’re welcome…
Bleeding Me / Fuel / King Nothing / Wasting My Hate / Until It Sleeps / Unforgiven II
Ain’t My Bitch / Hero Of The Day / Low Man’s Lyric / The Memory Remains / Mama Said / The Outlaw Torn
Into The Black: The Inside Story of Metallica 1991 – 2014 by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood (Faber & Faber, 2015) is available here.