LOAD, it appears, is the true litmus test of Metallica's career. This is the album where it was tremendously popular with a lot of the grunge listeners, dominated the charts in 1996, and had heavy radio rotation. LOAD brought in a lot of new fans for Metallica (this reviewer included), but is still highly controversial as it abandoned much of Metallica's earlier trademark sound from the 1980s, and a lot of people stopped caring about the boys after this one. But this album is not without precedent in the Metallica canon.
The BLACK ALBUM, LOAD's predecessor from 1991, is often seen as the true turning point in Metallica's career. Taking their progressive metal and incredibly complex songwriting (to the point it was difficult to replicate the music on stage) to its breaking point or zenith on the masterpiece ... AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, Metallica pared back their sound, and ultimately became more commercial sounding. MTV picked up on the BLACK ALBUM's songs, and featured them in heavy rotation. While the BLACK ALBUM disappointed some of the band's fan base, without a doubt the album helped move the band into the mainstream of rock, and ultimately greatly added to Metallica's fanbase.
While some of Metallica's long time fans were somewhat uneasy with this subtle change in the band's musical direction, by the time 1996 came around the unease metamorphosed into full-blown hostility. And it's all due to this album.
LOAD completely changed Metallica's sound, and, for a lot of long time fans, for the worst. Gone are the pyrotechnic solos, complex songwriting, and thrash metal mentality that carried their first four albums into the annals of rock and roll legend. The band cut their hair, started writing songs more like alternative rock, and reached out to a new fan base. LOAD's songs got heavy radio rotation (something that did not happen with their earlier albums), and they had several singles that charted quite high. Still, a lot of Metallica's fans were not only disappointed but just flat-out angry with the band and quit following them after this record.
And why? That's a good question. I grew up with grunge, and love the early 1990s sound. When LOAD came out in 1996, I knew I had to get that. It was the first Metallica album I ever bought (though my brother had the BLACK ALBUM which I listened too frequently). Those two were the first Metallica records I ever listened too
Listening to it, and without knowledge of their earlier albums, I never could understand why people hated it as much as they did. The songs are great, and while the album is a little on the long side (79 minutes). [ In fact, for the longest time whenever anyone asked me to name a Metallica song the first one I would name "Until It Sleeps"]. In fact, "Until It Sleeps" was for a long time the one song I always thought of when I thought of Metallica. For me, it was their definitive song (though this has changed since then). Without the context of their career, and responding to the music itself, I loved the music and thought it had a lot of their best material. I still think so.
Having since gone thru the rest of their albums, I now understand why people have such a hard time with this record. While it's a great mid 1990s record, sounding very much of the grunge era, I understand now how much of a departure from their previous work it really is. Their tempos have always been fast and furious, thrash all the way. And now they release LOAD, and it's all this bluesy alternative metal sounding crap, and they cut their hair, and oh my God aren't they the sellouts?
Well, Jason Newsted said it best when he did admit Metallica did sell out. They sell out every seat for every concert on their tours. They rock the house. And that's what counts.
While LOAD may not appeal to a lot of Metallica's fanbase, for this listener it's got some of my favorite songs from the 1990s. The album plays like a greatest hits list of 1996, the songs were that big and that popular. And fortunately, this is the "popular=bad" equation most people think of. It has the epics ("Bleeding Me," "Outlaw Torn"), the radio staples ("Until It Sleeps," "King Nothing," "Hero of the Day"), an almost country sounding (!!) song ("Mama Said), and just some flat out great rock songs (though not necessarily great metal).
Being part of the new fan base the album helped bring it, I shook my head at the Metallica purists who hated it. Now, going thru the other records, now I understand the purists' frustration at Metallica for such a radical departure that this record represents. It really is Metallica doing alternative. And for those who love thrash and speed metal, to have one of the best metal bands ever turning away from that avenue can be discouraging.
Metallica has such a successfully realised metal sound, and their four 1980s albums are all fantastic. Those records are masterpieces. LOAD, and its sequel, are not the masterpieces the early albums are. But that doesn't mean they bad. Far from it. To be fair, it's hard to do a follow up to an album like MASTER OF PUPPETS, one of the definitive metal records of the 1980s. Though LOAD and RELOAD are not as good as the four, there's not very many records that are that good, they set such high standards.
In the ensuing years since its release, my esteem for the album has very slightly lessened, but this has more to do with their success on their earlier records than anything critical about this one. While their earlier work are unequivocal masterpieces, the LOAD era is a different animal altogether, and Metallica were trying to find a new sonic identity. They still feeling their way into the new artistic direciton.
While the purists may be right their earlier work is better, it does not change the fact LOAD is one of the best hard-rock albums of the 1990s, and is still probably my sentimental favorite, if not my critically favorite anymore, of all of Metallica's albums.
Ain't My Bitch: #15
Hero of the Day: #1
Until It Sleeps: #1
Mama Said: #24
Bleeding Me: #6
King Nothing: #6