Music

Does Metallica’s ‘Load’ still suck?

Metallica’s sixth album Load was released on June 4, 1996 and it sucked. But maybe fans were too quick to judge the album; can it really be all that bad? 20 years on from its release JAMYZ CLEMENTS bravely took on the herculean task of listening to the album 20 times to make the final call on the album. Here’s the result of his 26 hour ordeal.

In 1996 the world was a very different place. For starters, you could title the opening song on your multi-platinum album ‘Ain’t My Bitch’ and somehow people were fine with such boneheaded douchery. You could have your album cover be a microscope image of a mixture of blood and semen and people thought that was shocking instead of just super fucking weird and gross.

Anyway, in 1996 Metallica weren’t yet simply rich jerks who didn’t get computers. 33-year-old living gnome Lars Ulrich possessed the hair of a 53-year-old Christopher Walken, and could still play drums. James Hetfield wasn’t a bearded libertarian loony, he was a libertarian loony who looked like a cowboy tricked into thinking that handlebar moustaches were cool. The luscious poodle curls of an eye-liner-toting Kirk Hammett had been shorn back, only later growing back to attempt to reach the peak of their glorious powers. Also, Jason Newsted was in Metallica.

So, Metallica were fine. 1991’s Metallica (‘The Black Album’ from hereon, because anyone who thinks of it as “self-titled” is weird) catapulted them to music’s platinum stratosphere and cemented them as the biggest metal band in the world. No one was bigger, no one was hairier, and no one had perfected that same mix of heavy and radio friendliness.

Then came Load.

The Bob Rock-produced Load found Metallica trying to expand their corner: their not-quite-as-subtle-as Game of Thrones stab at not “just” being the Kings of Metal, but owning the title of Kings of Hard Rock — especially in light of Axl Rose Axl-ing up Guns N Roses. With the rush of grunge and the spectre of Pearl Jam suddenly being one of the biggest bands in America, Metallica cut their hair and felt like they should experiment musically and expand their palate. They added elements of blues, Southern rock and country to create something they figured would appeal to not just metalheads but anyone who was a) American and b) owned a radio.

It still sold like crazy (it had been five years since their last record after all), but past the initial rush there was a pervading sense of confusion. And to this day Load and Re-Load (which were originally planned as a double album, but took too long to record so they were released separately), give Metallica fans a fucking headache.

The true believers in faded denim jackets who held Metallica’s first four albums as sacred texts were already bemoaning the success and widespread mainstream acceptance of the Black Album — with plenty blaming their move away from previous producer Flemming Rasmussen to the ultra-slick Bob Rock — as the end of the Metallica they knew and loved. But, y’know, at least people acknowledged that the Black Album was good.

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Listens 1-9: Confused, bored, angry

Straight off: that blood and semen cover from an artwork by Andres Serrano. It seems quaint that it was considered shocking, rather than the obvious creepy, “Aren’t we badass?” cry for attention it was.

Anyway, the first few times you go back to Load, one of the things that stands out the most is its imposing length, a byproduct of a weird mid-‘90s obsession with making albums as long as a CD allows. At 78.59 Load literally pushes the technology to its 79 minute limit. (After reportedly cutting a minute off the end of album closer ‘The Outlaw Torn’, which explains its fade out).

Anyway. Load opens with the horribly dumb ‘Ain’t My Bitch’ and while the world was still a couple of years from Eminem’s real super-duper misogynistic fuckbaggery (Hetfield swears it’s about a “problem”, not a lady), as far as album openers go, it’s easily their worst. It’s as close to ‘Battery’ or ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ as a ’96 Holden HSV VS GTS is to a quokka. Hammett’s solo is cool, but aside from that and the outro, it’s a mid-paced plodder. Even Hetfield sounds unconvinced by lines like “Out of my way / Out of my day”.

The blues-metal wiggle of ‘2×4’ with its Pearl Jam-aping solo, meandering middle minutes and then the ponderous ‘The House That Jack Built’, though, were a clear signal of Metallica’s intention. Step One: add bluesy southern groove to metal. Step Two: Write (too many long) songs. Step Three: Convince disaffected white folk that they like it. Step Four: Profit.

‘The House That Jack Built’’s building “The higher you are / The further you fall” chorus intro that repeats (at 3.00 and 3.30, then at 5.10 and 5.22) is genuinely cool, but the rest of the song is garbage. It’s a weird extended jam that doesn’t do anything. The opening and chorus punch ‘Until It Sleeps’ (Hetfield addressing his mother’s cancer) remains a solid head-nodder, but it eventually doubles down on their yawn-worthy mid-tempo blueprint, adding only a pretty cool Hammett-led solo bridge (at 2.56).

So, if you’re counting, Load has contained roughly two cool bits so far. And the drag of the album’s back half gets messy: again, the sheer length of the album weighs heavily with too many meandering songs that are full of anonymous Metallica mad-lib riffs that just, well, aren’t any good.

For instance, the best part of ‘Bleeding Me’ is its chorus which is damning with faint praise, as there’s another eight minutes of the goddamn song that falls deep into a pit of mediocrity. ‘Cure’ feels like a weird shadow rewrite of ‘King Nothing’, like they were trying to do The Unforgiven I AND II on the same record, and belatedly realised that ‘Cure’ just wasn’t that good. But they couldn’t bare to scrap it because its (3.25-onward) bridge is one of the growliest moments on the record… and in 1996, Hetfield clearly thought growls were scary or badass or whatever.

‘Poor Twisted Me”s swampy blues metal — with slide guitar(!!) and distorted (!!) Hetfield vocals— is meant to be a thumper, but instead comes off sounding like they’d been listening to too much Down and Corrosion of Conformity. As for ‘Wasting My Hate’, if you ever wanted to hear what a grown man singing lyrics they found in their school diary from when they were 14 sounds like, well, here it is.

By listen five or so of Load in 2016, you’re actually surprised that ‘Mama Said’ — that mythical musical unicorn of Overwrought Country Ballad Metallica — isn’t a bigger black mark on Metallica’s ledger, considering it’s the song that broke the hearts of countless metalheads. And how badly it sucks. ‘Thorn Within’ has one of the album’s better riffs and could’ve worked fine in the tradition of Metallica album tracks, but Hetfield’s quasi-religious “forgive me father for I have sinned” refrain feels exceptionally dated, coming from a time when biblical references and working out angst about your parents felt weighty and imposing. In 2016 you can just hide your mum’s Facebook posts.

Load’s final two songs are the bleh-blues of ‘Ronnie’, which feels like a song that was rejected from the Roadhouse soundtrack (and might actually have worked better as a Tom Cochrane song), and pale shadow of a epic Metallica closer ‘The Outlaw Torn’.  When the fittingly badass squealing Hammett crescendo finally hits (at 6.32), though, you’ll have slogged through, yeah, six and half minutes of overbaked Metallica. Which, really, kinda sums up the entire second half of the album.

Listens 10-16: Wrongful cautious acceptence

After about listen 15, you’re talking yourself into the chorus of ‘Until it Sleeps’ and ‘The House That Jack Built’’s vocal distortion, ‘Bleeding Me’’s chorus and even the bouncing riff of ‘2×4’ and going “Hey, that’s not too bad!”

And you’d be dead wrong. It’s simply Metallica Stockholm Syndrome manifesting. But we haven’t yet covered the two best moments of the record that still sound pretty damn good in 2016.

First, ‘King Nothing’. It remains so swaggerific that you get the feeling it’ll still be used for pro-wrestling intros and causing skeevy dudes hanging out in pool halls to rock out in 50 years time. The chorus lead-in to the punctuated snarl “Where’s your crown King Nothing?”, giving way to that iconic rolling riff is at once timeless and so perfectly 1996 as the finale of Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Second is ‘Hero of the Day’. Confession: ‘Hero of the Day’ might be my favourite Metallica song. Well, top three at least. Its quiet intro with the acoustic guitar echo, the way it builds and builds and builds to its breakdown (at 2.18), ends with a spiralling solo (at 2.42) and then is already back to the pre-chorus (at 2.58) is kinda perfect. It grabs you by the throat, builds everything up and tears it down, softens the blow a little and still kicks ass. Hetfield attempts to mix restraint, power and subtlety all at once in how differently he sings one phrase — “‘scuse me while I tend to how I feel” — at various points, and it works. Every time I hear it still I can’t help but be taken back to late 1996 and basically wearing that part of my Load tape thin from rewinding and listening to it over and over on my walkman.

In 2016 though, it feels a bit too much like the ideal mix of sports montage and metal, and might just possibly be Patient Zero responsible for Nickelback and Creed’s success.

Listens 17-20: Oh, I get it now

Anyway. Does Load still suck after 20 listens, 20 years after its release?

Yeah. And it wasn’t even close to being good, so don’t let any Metallica apologists tell you otherwise.

It’s big, bloated and drags on interminably, with too many inexplicably mid-tempo yawners. In shying away from their native state, Metallica didn’t so much sell out as sell themselves short. There’s no problem with choosing to expand your creative boundaries, but when you’re Metallica, ‘Mama Said’ is the evidence as to why baby steps would’ve helped. In essence, they overextended themselves and overestimated their creative abilities, while the sheer hubris and lack of perspective they had — after being in a never-ending Black Album tour bubble, dealing with label legal hassles and working on a box set before writing Load — remains pretty jaw dropping.

That said, cut the entire second half, trim the song count to 10, add ‘The Memory Remains’ and ‘Fuel’ to Load, nix Reload completely and pull the runtime back to something sane and Load could’ve been a perfectly fine mid-career Metallica album.

And, yeah, for all the moaning that longhairs and Metallica lifers do about the album, Load probably was the breaking point for the band and sent them into a tailspin that would take over decade to recover from. They went away from their identity and found themselves wanting: the split with Newsted, the disastrous St. Anger (which is still horrible — fuck anyone’s retconning “I actually like it” bullshit), Lulu, and becoming the laughing stock of the musical world with Some King Of Monster.

It wasn’t until 2008’s passable Metallica-pastiche/throwback album Death Magnetic and their full-time return to their comfort zone of shredding to the masses in arenas the world over that the the Metallica we knew and (kinda) loved, returned. That entire process all started with Load.

So yeah. Load still sucks.

Jaymz Clements was the editor of triple j Magazine from 2011-2013, and music editor ofBeat Magazine from 2008-2011. He has also written for Junkee, Rolling Stone and Blunt. Follow him on Twitter @jaymzclements