In 1996, Metallica unleashed Load, an album which saw the band drifting even further away from the complex thrash metal they’d made their name on in favor of stripped-down, southern-tinged hard rock. They also toyed with their image, chopping off their once flowing locks and ditching black jeans and t-shirts for eyeliner and designer duds. Before it was even released, the band made seismic waves with the Samuel Bayer-directed, Hieronymus Bosch-inspired music video for first single “Until it Sleeps,” which seemed to exist in another universe both musically and visually from anything they’d done previously.
I distinctly remember me and my buddy Jon going out to our local Best Buy to buy the album the day it came it out; we excitedly popped the CD into his car stereo and… we thought it was awesome. You see, growing up smack dab in the Midwest with no access to a metal underground of any kind gave us a unique perspective; in spite of being familiar with Metallica’s back catalog we didn’t feel betrayed, rather we welcomed the band doing something different and not putting out The Black Album Part II. Maybe we were naive, but I’d like to think we were open-minded. At sixteen years old I wasn’t listening to albums with the critical ear I have now, and we had no concept of elitism or preconceived notions of what metal had to sound like in order to be “true.” The fact that we were raised on classic rock and loved alternative rock almost as much as we loved metal made it pretty easy to appreciate what Metallica were attempting, even if in retrospect their attempt was heavily flawed.
As recently as last year, I was still proclaiming my love for Load, stating that if any other band had released it, it would be hailed as a great hard rock album. As it turns out, a more thorough critical analysis reveals that only about half the album is as strong as I’ve previously proclaimed it to be, the other half is a combination of filler and failed experiments that make a strong case for Load and its sister album ReLoad being whittled down to a single combined disk (that could be a whole other piece unto itself… hmm…).
In the second part of our Metallica Letters series of collaborative posts, Last Rites‘ Jordan Campbell and myself tackle the bloated, quintuple platinum-selling beast that somehow propelled Lars and Co. even further into the stadium rock stratosphere in spite of its inherent weirdness. Check out our thoughts on Side A below and then head over to Last Rites for Side B.
Ain’t My Bitch
Josh: Metallica is great at picking opening tracks. “Ain’t My Bitch,” isn’t by any means a songwriting wonder, but it is a microcosm for post-Black Album Metallica with its pummeling, simplistic riffs and clunky lyrics. It’s a song that says: “We’ve officially thrown thrash metal out the fucking window, this is what we’re doing now. Enjoy or die.”
What they’re doing is somewhere between southern boogie, Steppenwolf-esque biker rock and grunge. Yes, the dreaded g-word had officially crept into Metallica’s sound on Load, and between “Until it Sleeps” as lead-off single and “Ain’t My Bitch” as the opening track, they definitely weren’t being shy about it. You can’t blame the band for being influenced by what was happening around them, but with Load Metallica seemed to be going for a full-on reinvention. Typically reinvention is something artists due when their shtick has begun to stagnate with fans, but Metallica were still at the height of their popularity, which makes the drastic change in sound typified by tracks like “Ain’t My Bitch” all the more puzzling.
Jordan: Load wasn’t much of a shock to my eighth-grade self when it finally arrived. It was allegedly a traitorous maneuver of some sort (mostly because of Lars and Kirk’s dalliances with eyeliner), but as a kid that cut his teeth on George Thorogood, the slide guitar in “Ain’t My Bitch” was more badassery than betrayal. The stylistic shift from the Black Album is definitely drastic, but looking back on it, it was daring, not dubious. The Black Album was antiseptic, robotic, and flat-fucking-rigid. “Ain’t My Bitch” showcases a looser, richer ‘Tallica. It’s the first time the Newsteded incarnation sounded like a band, rather than a build. Newsted is a legitimate anchor, providing the bottom-end abdicated by the divorce of Lars’ feet from Hetfield’s palm. Hammett was no longer strictly a soloist; he had a hand in penning a whopping seven tracks here, and he even ceded a few leads to Hetfield.
Despite the silly lyrics (rhyming “sun” with “fun”, including the word “bitch” in the title), this is a wickedly-written little tune. If metal wasn’t in the throes of uncoolness—and if the biggest metal band on the planet didn’t have the word “metal” in their fucking name—this would’ve been much more well-received. Sixteen years later, it still kicks the living shit out of anything unfortunate enough to be oozing through the Clear Channel’d car speakers of the nation’s high schoolers and methdads. But you can’t rewrite history, can you?
2 x 4
Josh: “2 x 4” is the one song where Metallica got the shit-kicking Southern rock thing right. I realize I just got through saying that “Ain’t My Bitch” worked well as an opening track, but in retrospect they could’ve left it off altogether and come storming out of the gate with this beast if they really wanted to turn some heads. Of course, it lacks the grungy alt-rock elements that feature on much of the rest of the album; this is more of a dark ZZ Top homage on steroids than anything else, and it’s one of the best songs here.
This is also one of the rare occasions where Hetfield’s lyrical attempts to sound badass actually sound badass. He delivers his lines with biting conviction, which is matched by the full-throttled swagger that the band infuses the music with. If only Metallica could’ve honed in on this side of themselves when it was time to write St. Anger, they might’ve given us a classic hard rock record instead of a giant dud.
Jordan: Man, this song smokes. It just swings. Stiffness and severity is oft-praised in metal—see Immolation and Krisiun for proof—but “2 x 4” is a wonderfully nonsensical ode to blues-stomp groove. It just works on every level. Punch, power, swagger: it has it all. It’s boneheaded, sure. But the band is ripping loose in a way heretofore unseen, and somehow, it sounds wholly natural. It’s an atypical track, hence its near complete absence from setlists, but if this thing was reintroduced for the band’s kutte-clad 2014 incarnation? It’d blow goddamn doors off. (Also, the half-time dropout that showcases the smoldering solo might be the classiest bit of drumming Lars has ever stumbled upon.)
The House Jack Built
Josh: The problem with “The House Jack Built” is that it serves no real purpose. I’m guessing Metallica put it there in order to take things down a notch after the hot rockin’ of “Ain’t My Bitch” and “2 x 4,” but the thing is, it’s all style and no substance. There’s a lot of potentially cool atmosphere happening here, but strip all of that away and you’re left with a throwaway song, and track three is way too early in the game for filler.
Something I’ve only recently noticed listening to this song; there’s something about it that reminds me of Killing Joke’s Pandemonium, like it’s trying to achieve the darkly hypnotic vibe of that album, but falls way short of the mark, largely due to generic riffing and a weak chorus. Maybe Metallica should commission Jaz and the boys into re-working this song into something memorable. After all, wasn’t Lars just talking about selling unused Metallica riffs to other bands? Why not try the reverse?
Jordan: I’ve always enjoyed this chorus. The sweltering atmosphere recalls latter-day Soundgarden (and that doesn’t mean King Animal, ‘cause that shit doesn’t count), making it Exhibit A in the Metallica-went-grunge! argument. But it kinda falls off the rails towards the end; they have no idea how to put a bow on this thing. First, Hetfield tries the lilting Manilow trick with the final chorus, but the higher register doesn’t lend it any additional impact. Then it just kinda trails off into this weird purgatory of gibberish / talkbox tradeoffs. There are great ideas here, but they end up drowning in gormless, mushheaded indulgence.
This is where things start to come unglued.
Until it Sleeps
Josh: “Until it Sleeps” is Load’s most overt nod to alternative rock, due to its quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic, which Nirvana popularized when they ripped off the Pixies on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Some might think this is a bit of a stretch, but I could honestly see the Pixies or even the Breeders covering this song, and with some tweaking to the lyrics you could probably convince people that it was an original. Man, now I really want to hear a Pixies-ized version of this song. Black Francis, if you’re reading this, make it happen.
But I digress. “Until it Sleeps” is one of the better tracks on Load in spite of being so far out of Metallica’s wheelhouse, because one can tell that they studied what was happening at the time with alternative rock and were very meticulous in trying to emulate it without allowing any overt Metallica-isms, or any of the Southern rock/blues influences, to creep into the song. Sure the chorus is heavy, but it isn’t Metallica heavy or even remotely thrashy; the aforementioned Pixies have songs every bit as heavy as what Metallica were doing here.
Jordan: “Until It Sleeps” brutally formulaic, and probably the most dated thing that Metallica ever wrote. That said, the first time that chorus kicks in, it packs a wallop. It just doesn’t stand the test of time, or even four minutes and thirty seconds. It’s proof that they mastered the art of writing a mainstream rock song—thanks, Bob Rock!—but this song shot to #1 on the rock charts because it was propelled by five years’ worth of anticipation. Well, actually, that’s not entirely accurate: It’s a throwaway pop song with faux-grim gravitas, which was fucking MONEY in 1996.
Josh: “King Nothing” is a true tragedy. Musically the song is an incredibly sturdy hard rocker, but it immediately shoots itself in the foot with some of the album’s most atrocious lyrics. The concept behind them is solid enough, but they end up sounding silly as all get out; I can only assume that Hetfield got the “wish I may, wish I might” nonsense from watching too much Disney Channel with his brood. I’ve always wondered if this song was secretly about Lars. I really, really hope it’s about Lars.
If you can ignore the godforsaken lyrics, there’s a lot to like about “King Nothing;” the creepy-crawly bassline that kicks things off is one of the rare instances where Jason Newsted is actually allowed to shine even if it’s only for a few seconds, and the pacing and dynamics of the track as a whole are pretty darn impeccable by modern hard rock standards.
Jordan: If I never have to hear this song again, I’ll die happy. This is the first Metallica song that I’ve downright hated, and it’s aged like a dead hobo in a dumpster filled with brie.
Are you satisfiiiiiiied-AH?
Hero of the Day
Josh: Easily my least favorite song on this album, and that’s saying something considering some of the doozies that show up on Side B. More than any other song here, “Hero of the Day” sounds like an obvious, bullshit attempt at getting on the radio, with its overly earnest vocals and sappy-sounding melodies. It sounds like it could be a fucking Foo Fighters song. Everything about this song is irritating, but what’s most irritating is that there was absolutely no reason whatsoever for Metallica to write such a pandering song; again, they were still at the height of their popularity. Perhaps “Hero of the Day” was some kind of “insurance policy” to be absolutely sure they had a palatable single if all else failed.
Worst of all, this song features my most hated Metallica lyric: “Please excuse me while I tend to how I feel.” What?! What the hell am I listening to?! Sorry James, but if you want to talk about your feelings, go get a therapist (that would come later, but you know what I mean). Your band’s name is Metallica, not Dashboard Confessional. You almost think the song is going to redeem itself at the 2:15 mark when it takes a darker, heavier turn, but it doesn’t get dark or heavy enough to make up for everything that comes before or after, not by a damn sight.
Jordan: The worst thing about the “heavy” part is that it’s not only telegraphed, it’s anti-climactic. You know it’s coming—because a Metallica can’t be this wussified all the way through, can it? (Just wait, son.) But then it hits, and the percussive non-riff wilts on arrival. No amount of imaginative brain-wrangling can make this remotely metal; it’s Metallica trying their hand at “innovative” ways to wrench heaviness out of themselves, an ego trip that wouldn’t end until St. Anger drove it into the dirt.
Josh: “Bleeding Me” flat-out rules. Say what you will about Load as a whole, but as far as I’m concerned, this track should be hailed as a latter-day Metallica classic. An epic that’s actually worthy of its eight minute length (very rare for post-Black Album Metallica), “Bleeding Me,” like “2 x 4,” is proof that Hetfield and Co. still had some fire in their bellies in spite of evidence to the contrary mounting against them.
The thing is, “Bleeding Me” actually builds towards something, instead of hammering the same riff into the ground for eight minutes. The song starts off mellow, displaying the band’s newfound atmospheric leanings, as well as one of Hetfield’s most convincingly emotive vocal performances (especially when compare to the stiffness found on The Black Album), but when that first chorus kicks in with some seriously hefty riffage underneath, things go from very good to holy shit awesome. Easily one of the most infectious things they’ve ever put to tape, the chorus sets up the song’s utterly fantastic second half, replete with a killer breakdown around the five minute mark and a shit-hot wah pedal-abusing solo from Hammett. Folks, this is as close to a perfect song as Metallica Mk II have written.
Jordan: This might be Hammett’s greatest solo ever. Prior to Load, he was all flash, and that was fine; that’s what he did, and he did it better than most. But this is the most soulful burner he ever laid down, and it’s the true highlight of the album. “Bleeding Me” is a slow build, but it’s absolutely riveting from start to finish, an accident of brilliance that represents the highest of Load’s considerable highs.
Get ready for the lows.
This concludes Side A of Load. Please flip your tape over to Last Rites for Side B.