In the five years between the Black Album and Load, Metallica cemented their reputation as the most famed heavy band on the planet. No member embraced the role of "asshole rock star" like Lars Ulrich. The cocaine, the mingling with all the beautiful people, the white leather jacket--he put that shit in a bear hug. Make no mistake, if it wasn't precisely his destiny to be metal's greatest drummer, it was his destiny to be its greatest self-promoter.
It wasn't all wine and roses, though. In the summer of 1992, as the two bands were terrorizing North America, whiny Guns 'N' Roses frontman Axl Rose turned a mere Three Mile Island into a Chernobyl when he bailed early during a gig at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. The heavy metal hockey fans were already roiling over Metallica's set being cut short thanks to James Hetfield forgetting where the onstage pyrotechnics were located, so Axl's tantrum was all they needed to go crazy. They began by tearing shit up inside the venue, before moving on to tear shit up outside the venue. Somehow, local authorities were able to quash the mob without the aid of a hang-gliding, megaphone-wielding Maurice Richard.
For the second time in their career, Metallica found themselves looking to guitar tech John Marshall to fill in for an injured James Hetfield as the shows went on and on. You can't deny that Metallica love the music.
But you can deny the music.
New logo? Check. Pretentious photography in the booklet? Corbijn. Partial printed lyrics a la Nevermind? Yep. The Black Album reigned for one year before grunge took over. Suddenly, affecting all those classic rock poses and acting as though you enjoyed anything about playing music for a living was deemed gauche. Metallica were supposed to represent for their genre, and brook no bullshit. (Nirvana, in fact, were invited to play on that mega-tour with Metallica and GNR; Kurt Cobain faxed management a list of the top five cancers he'd rather be diagnosed with.) They responded with their least-thrash album to date.
Now…change is not inherently bad. Change is not inherently good. Change can invigorate. Change can enervate. TV Smith once said, "New ways are best." Bob Seger yearned for "that old time rock and roll."
The joys are in the details.
You're not going to spread the same flavor of jelly on your english muffin for every single breakfast, are you? Will you even have a muffin for every single breakfast? Can you say with certainty that a bagel won't make its way into the mix at some point?
Metallica's makeover was vital, ill-advised, or "faggy," depending on who you were listening to. The short hair, the suits sans ties, the makeup, the "Lars and Kirk kissing" photos. James Hetfield wasn't too keen on the whole new direction, but decided that his bandmates were acting "homo" just to get his goat, so protesting any louder would probably result in onstage handjobs during the upcoming tours. (This is truly a game without winners; James is a homophobic douchefuck; Lars and Kirk come off like people who share a love of cocaine and a compulsive need to fit their bones into as many different skins as they can manage before the inexorable passage of time disintegrates them to dust. It's like Bono managed to split himself into two people, fer Chrissake.)
Really, the best thing about this overhaul was the album cover, Andres Serrano's "Semen and Blood III." Yep, dude took the liquids of life and smeared 'em on some Plexiglass, and a veteran heavy metal band took one look and said, "This is exactly the piece of art we need to stir up faux-outrage and maintain relevancy with the kids!"
You may be wondering what Jason Newsted thought of all this. Apparently not much, since his bass lines were audible for the second straight album.
"Ain't My Bitch"--With a title dumb as the content of any random YouTube video on the Illuminati, I'm borderline ashamed to admit I like this song, and I like it quite a bit--open-ended, weak-pulsed lyrics notwithstanding. This is fiercely uncomplicated, in the style of the Black Album's better songs. The chorus has some luminous ringing chords and some sixteenth-notes even squeeze their way in (enjoy those, by the way, 'cause they are the closest Load comes to thrash, which rhymes with past, and that is not a place Metallica wants to be. No ma'am).
"2 X 4"--You know who really digs shit like this? Rolling Stone magazine. They love metal when the balls swing to the left, but not to the right.
"Talk to two by four!" Fuck off. Talk to sheet of glass, Omen-style.
"The House That Jack Built"--Large rooms decorated with ugly pictures depicting scenes from reality and beyond, hung crooked on the walls. Spacious bathrooms with broken toiletries. Incidental carpeting throughout. Homemade pool and swingset out back. I'd buy it at foreclosure.
"Until It Sleeps"--Load's first single made many fans cry BETRAYAL. I've never been offended by this one, because it's not spectacular enough to justify a strong reaction. It's undercooked spaghetti Western for the verse SMASH CUT stock metal chorus. Hetfield's vocals mesh well with the guitar tones, but delicate harmonizing was not what fans were anticipating, nor is it anything Metallica excels at.
The video did ever more damage: Lars with eyeliner and a feather boa. Christ a'mighty. I don't mind a man rocking eyeliner and/or a feather boa. Just make sure you rock them well. 'Cause somebody's gonna be watching you. But...you knew that when you put 'em on.
"King Nothing"--The cicadas. My God, the cicadas. Then the snarling starts and I beg for their return. But no. They are already in Florida. They should not have gone alone.
"Hero of the Day"--Becoming a millionaire stripped James Hetfield of his ability to repress his mommy issues. Another example of "Feeltallica" ("Nothing Else Matters" was the first) but a rare non-terrible example. There's some decent sonic shading visible here.
"Bleeding Me"--Ooh does this get the excretory organs rumbling.
I'm listening to
I'm listening to this album
I'm listening to this album under duress
"Cure"--'Tis rare to discover so many ungiven fucks piled up in one place. I fear soon the fire marshal shall be summoned!
"Poor Twisted Me"--Bleeding, now twisted. Sucks to be…me? Except the me is you here. And the you is they. And they are testing their audience's loyalty. You know what this is? A ZZ Top cover band featuring Billy Gibbons' second cousin.
"Wasting My Hate"--James wrote this after story time with Waylon Jennings. One day the Highwayman walked into a diner and grabbed a table by the window. Before too long he noticed a dude sitting in car parked out in front of the diner, giving him a righteous eye-fuck. Naturally, Waylon didn't take too kindly to such blatant disrespect, and gave good as he got. When a certain amount of time passed, well, a man's got his limits. So Waylon got up and went outside to confront the man in the car. Who was asleep.
As Waylon told James, he'd been "wasting his hate."
"Mama Said"--A ballad (goddamnit again!) so country that I smell nothing but scrapple. Would've definitely advised using a vocal take that didn't give off even the slightest suggestion that James is singing about a woman he had intimate relations with. As I said earlier in this series, incest ain't the move to make.
"Thorn Within"--My art! My life! Makes me suffer! I AM! Torn! Yeaaa-yeah-uh!
Don't steal from "Sex Type Thing"(which itself stole from "War Machine"), add a little "of your genre" fillip, right on the heels of your country-blues "Oh I am a troubled troubadour let me sing my song" nimcompoopery and expect me not to notice. Be a thrash band, be a metal band, be just a straight up rock band, be a blues band, but be a consistent and coherent band above all, you colossal pricks.
"Ronnie"--The Nebraskan fields extend far beyond the limits of human vision here. It's like…Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote "Seek and Destroy." Johnnie Van Zant-era Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The cornpone-narrator schtick is unbearable (non-Southerners attempting what they imagine to be a "general" regional accent elevates my blood pressure faster than eating a deep-fried stick of butter). "Ronnie" has as much business on a Metallica album as I do on a runway during Fashion Week. Possibly their worst song.
"The Outlaw Torn"--Why eleven minutes? Why long stretches of just James and Lars doing their thing?
That title. That cover. They craved the storm. At the first claps of thunder, they peed their leather pants. And for as much as non-fans of Load like myself yak on about how underwhelmed we were (and still are), millions of people still bought it, and there are no shortage of fans willing to expound on what they perceive to be its multitude of positive qualities. So was it really, in the main, an artistic failure?
Well it wasn't a rampaging artistic success, I can tell you that. 80% of Load is 100% ass. The other 20%, in retrospect, was talent and taste refusing to go gentle into that good night. And they intended for this to be a double album. Sweet Christ on a cracker.