What possessed a band that started its career with taut compositions and fat-free albums to crank out something so bloated and unmemorable?
Some Metallica fans think the band died with Cliff Burton. Some think the group’s turn to commercial rock in 1991 with “Enter Sandman” was the beginning of the end. Neither of those is wholly true nor especially fair. But the ‘90s were not especially kind to the San Francisco giants.
Though the 1991 self-titled none-more-black album provided the group with several hits, it was also a bit long, a victim of the CD pandemic that swept through the industry for well over a decade. But when the writing was good, it was better than you could have hoped. So, come 1996’s Load it seemed likely that the lads would be up for the task once more. Listening to it today, it’s Black Album II and Reload, and its 1997 follow-up might as well be Black Album III. Or better yet, The Wan Album.
There are good riffs across the album’s 13 tracks, and decent vocal performances. Trouble is, then as now, you feel you’ve heard it all before, and you have. Early in the quartet’s career, it repeated virtually the same song sequencing across Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and … And Just For All. This was a band that rallied against conformity while practicing it full stop.
“Unforgiven” had been one of the unit’s biggest hits just five years earlier, so the appearance of “Unforgiven II” might have seemed like good news. But, other than perhaps Marty Robbins’ El Paso Trilogy, those kinds of things never work, and it sounds as if Hetfield and Ulrich yanked an old idea back into the light for another go, nipping, tucking and trying to recapture something that no one could bottle more than once.
Even a title like “Fixxer” (the final, dreg-filled curtain) suggests that the masters were running short on creative fuel. Did Metallica really have to resort to spelling things with double consonants in manner of Ratt and Tuff? “Carpe Diem Baby” came a little too late to be a credible homage to Dead Poets Society, and just looking at the title today brings shudders of something completely of its time. Not even Marianne Faithfull, whose classic voice haunts “The Memory Remains” could animate this stillborn material. “Fuel,” which opens the proceedings, is easily the most memorable and worthwhile composition on the album. It too smacks of something older, namely Load’s “Ain’t My Bitch.”
Looking for things to appreciate amid the rubble of a once-mighty band, listeners might find that Kirk Hammett’s playing remained strong. He’d be robbed of showing his six-string prowess on the band’s next outing, the much-labored St. Anger, so this is a good reminder that when he plays, people should listen. Jason Newsted, whose bass work added a groove that hadn’t been present before 1991, shines nicely, giving these tracks what little soul they have. Anyone who followed his previous group, Flotsam & Jetsam, knows that the Michigan native was a gifted writer whose talents were under-utilized in Metallica. It’s a shame that only one track here (“Where the Wild Things Are”) bears his name; he could have been the one thing to save the band from its wilderness years.
It’s one of the great rock ‘n’ roll mysteries: What possessed a band that started its career with crackling, taut compositions and fat-free albums to crank out something so patently bloated and unmemorable? Though Reload may someday undergo a critical re-evaluation and become one of the “overlooked” pieces in the discography, now is not the time. Now is the time to walk straight by this turkey and leave it rabid fanatics only.