“Lars and Kirk drove on those 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 ‘OK, 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.” — James Hetfield, Classic Rock, May 2009
James Hetfield is a conservative. I don’t mean that in the political sense (though he’s dropped hints about that, too); I mean he’s an aesthetic conservative. Generally speaking, when Metallica makes a sharp left turn, it’s because Lars Ulrich has grabbed the wheel. Hetfield is the keeper of the flame, the one who still believes, 100%, in metal. Hammett might be the most egoless lead guitarist this side of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, always ready to step into the spotlight when called upon, but not at all interested in holding it. Rob Trujillo, like Jason Newsted before him, is a loyal servant of the institution, like a Vatican cardinal or one of those government officials who serves three or four presidents in a row. And Ulrich is the wild card, who knows it’s his band just as much as it is Hetfield’s, which means it’s his vehicle to explore whatever crazy idea he’s into at the moment.
The split between Ulrich’s and Hetfield’s approaches has fueled Metallica’s art since the beginning, but over the last 25 years it’s become impossible to ignore. The two men reacted to the stunning success of their 1991 self-titled album in entirely opposite ways. Ulrich seems to have said to himself, “We can do whatever we want now,” while Hetfield has said, in effect, “OK, we’re the kings — time to guard the throne.” The guitarist has always seemed happiest and most comfortable doing things that make Metallica fans cheer; the drummer enjoys doing things that make them scratch their heads. Death Magnetic is a James album. Lulu is a Lars album.
On June 4, 1996, Metallica released their first studio album in five years, following their most successful release to date, and one of the most successful rock albums of all time — Metallica has sold over 16 million copies. They’d been on the road for close to four years, selling out arenas worldwide, but when Hetfield and Ulrich started getting together at the drummer’s house to jam and lay riffs to tape, the music began to undergo a radical shift. The crisp, staccato thrash of Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All were long gone, obviously, but so was the doomy, stomping metal of Metallica. The guitarist and drummer were finding inspiration in acts ranging from Soundgarden to Corrosion Of Conformity to Chris Isaak. And when Hammett brought his ideas to the table, things went even farther afield.
Load took almost a year to record, with producer Bob Rock, who’d supervised the laborious construction of Metallica, back behind the board. When they started work, the band had demos for nearly 30 songs. They considered putting out a double-disc set, but ran out of time. What they ended up with was a 14-track CD that ran 78:59, the absolute limit of storage capacity at the time. (It was released on double vinyl, too.) And even that required an edit; the original version of album closer “The Outlaw Torn” ran nearly 11 minutes.
Load has some good songs. The first single, “Until It Sleeps,” showed that Metallica could strip away everything people knew them for — Hetfield is crooning, Ulrich is attempting a jazz rhythm, the guitars are clean and strummed — and still create something ominous and powerful. “King Nothing” is as massive as anything on Metallica. But a lot of the other tracks (“Ronnie,” “Cure,” “Poor Twisted Me,” “2 x 4″) are hard-grooving but ultimately uninspired COC-style boogie. They make you want to nod your head, but pumping your fist seems excessive. And “The Outlaw Torn” is more of a collection of production flourishes than a song.
One year later, the band came off the road and returned to the studio to put the finishing touches on the songs left over from the Load sessions. As Hetfield told Guitar World at the time, “Living with these songs for two years, the four of us came back with very different ideas of what they should evolve into. The good news was that we still liked them, and we wanted to put them out. But we wanted to come up with some newer sounds. We had recorded guitar tracks for a lot of these songs already, but they sounded a little dull; so we re-did them. We really stretched the limits of what a guitar and amp can do, which was fun.”
In the same Guitar World interview, Kirk Hammett said, “We’ve grown as musicians since the release of Load, and technology has brought us new things to try in the studio. Also, we’ve just come off a great tour, so our chops are up.” This is why I’m willing to say without hesitation that Reload, which came out November 18, 1997 — 20 years ago tomorrow — is a better album than Load.
On Reload, the good songs are really good. “Fuel” is a fantastic album opener, with a jackhammer of a riff, lyrics that Hetfield seems genuinely committed to, and a pleasant surprise in the form of some really nice high harmony vocals. “Devil’s Dance” is slow and ominous, with Hammett riffing like Eddie Van Halen on Fair Warning and Newsted and Ulrich locking into a Danzig-like groove. “Carpe Diem Baby” is built around another monster doom riff, and Hetfield’s sneering vocals (and the creepy backing vocals) keep the admittedly dumb lyrics from seeming too silly. “Bad Seed” is another Corrosion Of Conformity steal (it could be an outtake from Blind), but they make it work and then some. “Prince Charming” has speed and a surprisingly strong lyrical concept, and on the semi-spoken verses, Hetfield somehow sounds a lot like George Thorogood and makes that a good thing. And “Fixxxer” is another epic closer, but this time they wrote an actual song.
Not everything on Reload is great, obviously. It’s 13 tracks long to Load’s 14, and only three minutes shorter than that album, so there are dead spots. “The Memory Remains” is an interesting experiment, but little more; “Where The Wild Things Are” is a weird lyrical blend of “Disposable Heroes” and “Enter Sandman,” sunk by the psychedelic alt-rock arrangements; “Unforgiven II” is as disappointing a sequel as has ever come along; and “Low Man’s Lyric” features Crash Test Dummies-style humming and Hetfield’s attempt at a country twang, which is the worst this side of early ’70s Mick Jagger. But on the other hand, it has some really cool-sounding harmonium.
Even Reload’s bad songs work surprisingly well in context. Spending an hour and 16 minutes listening to the whole thing, front to back, never feels like time wasted…except during “Unforgiven II.” Man, that song sucks.
The thing about Load and Reload is, they’re impossible to dislodge from the era in which they were released. In 1991, Metallica became one of the biggest bands on Earth. Before that, they’d been a really popular metal band, but beginning with Metallica, their audience changed forever. Once upon a time, they’d been one of the “Big Four” thrash bands, alongside Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer, but by the time they finished touring in 1994, they were selling out arenas, and it was a safe bet that plenty of the people they were playing to had never heard a Slayer song.
Similarly, Metallica were now subject to consideration from critics who hadn’t been paying attention during the early years. They were a multiplatinum stadium act that had headlined both Woodstock ’94 and the Lollapalooza tour, which meant it was time for generalist pop/rock writers to take notice. And generalists never go anywhere without pretending to have been there all along. For example, the Rolling Stone review of Reload ended, “Metal fans should still be grateful for Metallica: Wherever the band may roam musically, it presents hard-rock fortification against SoCal ska lite and scary pop phenomena such as the Spice Girls. But if the foursome is not capable of making a truly bad record anymore, Re-Load is not one of their greats. Like the transitional albums that moved the band from the pure aggression of Kill ‘Em All to the flawless “Black Album,” Load and Re-Load are just steppingstones in the ongoing Metallica legacy.” Yes, you read that right: Metallica was flawless and Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All were “transitional albums.”
Anyway, Load and Reload, while absolutely and obviously Metallica albums, were also big-time mainstream rock albums. Load sold 680,000 copies in its first week — 82,000 more than Metallica — debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, and ultimately went quintuple platinum in the US alone. Reload also debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, selling 436,000 copies in its first week, and went quadruple platinum in the US. And I’ll guarantee you each of them, Load and Reload, was the first Metallica album a whole lot of people heard. It no longer mattered whether you’d seen them when Cliff Burton was still alive, or if you had a battered cassette of the No Life ‘Til Leather demo tucked under your bed somewhere. Metallica hadn’t been that band for years. They belonged to everyone, like U2 or Pearl Jam or the Rolling Stones.
Part of me wonders what would have happened if Metallica had continued down the Load/Reload path. What if they’d put out another album of heavy, bluesy boogie-rock with a few arty touches, three or four years later, instead of waiting six years and coming back with the noisy, clanging St. Anger? Would they be even bigger than they are now? Such a thing hardly seems possible. At the same time, seeing it as a detour — Hetfield letting Ulrich and Hammett take the wheel for a couple of years — makes sense, too. The distance between Metallica and Load/Reload and St. Anger allows each of them to be considered as discrete works. None of them necessarily needs to reflect on the others. And I’d be willing to bet Hetfield likes it that way.