Load squandered all the goodwill Metallica had accrued over the previous decade.
Imagine finding yourself 15 years into a career that has seen you toiling away in the underground for the first decade of your band’s existence only to somewhat surprisingly go onto sell an almost unprecedented, astronomical number of albums—for a metal band. The transition into a mainstream attraction seemed to have had an adverse effect on Metallica’s creative output. After a string of consistently great and increasingly progressive albums, they experience an uncharacteristic drought, going a full five years between studio releases for the first time ever. Of course given Metallica’s immense success, they couldn’t be faulted for resting on their laurels and soaking up the adoration and commercial success coming their way.
Except that as one of thrash metal’s leading practitioners and, for all intents and purposes, co-founding fathers, they failed to maintain their creative momentum with the release of 1995’s Load, an album far more indebted to hard rock than thrash. Where before they toed the line of the heavier, metal-influenced sounds bubbling up from the underground that eventually boiled over in the form of grunge, here they dive in headlong. Gone are the breakneck tempos and flashes of instrumental virtuosity in favor of an overabundance of plodding tempos, emotionally overwrought vocals and a general sameness of sound throughout—Metallica: Variations on a Theme may well have been a more appropriate title. “I’ve already heard this song before” Hetfield snarls on opening track “Ain’t My Bitch,” seemingly oblivious to the lyric’s own application to this, the band’s sixth studio album.
This departure from what was essentially a trademark sound proved alienating, many fans feeling betrayed by the band’s continued embrace of a far more mainstream sound rooted in, of all places, Southern and blues rock in addition to the decidedly alternative bend to their sound. “The House Jack Built,” with its plodding tempo and talkbox guitar solo owes far more to the basic tenets of classic rock than the thrash scene they helped birth. With only four of the album’s 14 tracks clocking in under five minutes, this type of hard rock excess proves more exhausting than satisfying. Pushing the bounds of CD capacity, Load runs a ceaseless 74:59.
Even the most ardent Metallica fans would be hard-pressed to take in the all of the album’s stylistic redundancy in one interminable sitting. Indeed, sitting down to re-listen to the album felt like more of an exercise in aural endurance than critical reevaluation. “Bleeding Me,” at nearly eight-and-a-half minutes of by-the-numbers grunge metal, was particularly difficult to sit through. Reaching the midway point, Hetfield accurately and succinctly verbalizes the listener’s feelings as he barks, “I can’t take it.”
With many of the songs ultimately melding together into one bloated, grungy growl, the most interesting thing about Load proves to be its somewhat provocative cover art. Using prurient photographer Andres Serrano’s “Semen and Blood III” from his triptych visual exploration of the comingling of cow’s blood and his own semen between two sheets of Plexiglas ultimately proves the album’s most note-worthy contribution to popular culture. Here the world of abstract, experimental art found itself hand-in-hand with unabashed commercial rock excess.
The fourth single “King of Nothing” harkens back to the sound and lyrical motifs of “Enter Sandman,” the group’s wildly successful single that helped launch them into the mainstream. But where the latter carried with it an iconic riff, the former was as faceless and lumbering as anything else Load had to offer. The god-awful second single “Hero of the Day” today sounds like the template to nearly every Foo Fighters track of the last decade plus, all empty sloganeering and hard rock bluster. Instead of pushing their sound into a direction directly expounding on their thrash metal past, too much of Load is so stylistically divergent as to sound like a band grasping at straws in hopes of maintaining a commercial high.
Where Metallica helped break the band into the mainstream and become the biggest metal band on the plant, Load squandered all the goodwill they’d accrued over the previous decade. Rather than a triumphant follow-up to the biggest album of their career, Load is the sound of a band suffering through an identity crisis brought on by massive success and rock star glut. If Metallica marked the band’s apex, Load begins their slow descent into influential obsolescence. There would be further failures and unforgivable transgressions—they cut their hair off?!?!? Are those strings?!?!?—but Load represents the exact moment in time when the wheels of the previously impervious, unstoppable metal juggernaut began to fall off. From here on out it was and continues to be a long, slow descent into self-parody.