In August 1991, Metallica released its eponymous fifth album, nicknamed ‘The Black Album.’ Debuting at number one with just under 600,000 copies sold, Metallica stayed there for an entire month and transformed the band into one of the biggest musical acts in the world. The accompanying tour, dubbed Wherever We May Roam, lasted two and a half years and saw the band play almost 300 dates around the world.

As drummer Lars Ulrich once remarked, “When you have a record that won’t go away, it gives you the opportunity to keep touring on it.” Vocalist and guitarist James Hetfield echoed that sentiment in his own way: “Basically, it turned into a challenge for us. Hell, we’ll tour for two years. Screw it, we’ve got the endurance.”

Metallica returned to the studio in 1995 to write and record the follow up to an album that allowed their ascent to rock’s throne and pushed heavy metal into mainstream acceptance. That’s a tall order for any band, to be sure. The sessions resulted in enough material to fill a double album. Instead, the band opted to release two albums – twins, in a sense – spaced a year and a half apart.

Load arrived first in June 1996. Like Metallica, it debuted at number one and slightly outsold its predecessor in its first week. Having jettisoned the thrash they built their name on, Load rounded off Metallica’s edges with blues-tinged hard rock and balladeering. Fans rejected the album with accusations of selling out. (Notably, fans also threw similar accusations around with ‘The Black Album’ due to its ‘radio thrash’ sound and its balladeering.) The members – rounded out by lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted – gave detractors more ammunition by cutting their flowing locks.

ReLoad, Load’s younger brother, followed in November 1997. It too debuted at number one, but with a disappointing first week tally of 436,000. The damage was seemingly done. To put that into perspective, the two number number one albums before ReLoad sold 207,000 and 270,000 copies (Barbra Streisand’s Higher Ground and Ma$e’s Harlem World, respectively) in their debut weeks. Garth Brook’s Sevens knocked ReLoad from the top spot the following week with an impressive 897,000 units scanned. So while it wasn’t Metallica’s best first week, they weren’t struggling to stay in the mainstream, either.

Reflecting on ReLoad 20 years later, three things are abundantly clear: first, like Load it’s overlong and self-indulgent; second, Load has better songs than ReLoad; and third, ReLoad’s importance outweighs its quality. Let’s take each in turn.

At 76 minutes, ReLoad struggles to keep one’s attention, even with experiments like the European folk-tinged “Low Man’s Lyric” and Marianne Faithfull’s guest spot on “The Memory Remains.” Removing the silly “Carpe Diem Baby,” the wholly unnecessary sequel to Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” and the mindlessly plodding “Fixxxer” vastly improves the record and makes it a lean 55 minutes – relatively speaking, of course.

Even while trimmed, ReLoad is still inferior to Load because the latter simply has superior material. There is nothing on the former that can compete with “Until It Sleeps,” “Bleeding Me” and “Hero of the Day,” the finest offering from this era and the closest Metallica ever came to writing a pop song. There are some solid ideas here, though. The album opens with “Fuel” which is still the dumbest of dumb fun to cruise around to, and is matched by Hammett’s solo. Elsewhere, groove-based tracks like “Devil’s Dance,” “Slither” and “Attitude” almost charm their way out of inane lyricism (example: “Born into attitude/ Asleep at the wheel/ Throw all your bullets in the fire/ And stand there”). Even the slinking oddball called “Where the Wild Things Are” is worth checking out, if only to see how weird the band got during this period.

Yet, ReLoad’s legacy isn’t the unfairly maligned music contained within, but instead that it (along with Load) foreshadowed every major decision the band made after: CD limit-testing albums (every record since), graceless trend chasing (“I Disappear” and St. Anger) cringe-worthy song sequels (“The Unforgiven III”), WTF decision-making (Lulu). It all started here.

Perhaps just as importantly, ReLoad gave future metal bands a blueprint for evolving their sound – which is to say, transitioning from metal to (radio-friendly) hard rock. Avenged Sevenfold, All That Remains, Five Finger Death Punch and Trivium all started off as metal bands and all have attempted to (awkwardly) morph into hard rock bands or simply whittled down their songwriting to that which gets airplay. Most notably, Megadeth made their own version of ReLoad, the appropriately titled Risk.

Then again, that’s what Load and ReLoad were: a risk. Metallica could’ve just entered the studio and made Metallica 2, and it could’ve been just as huge as the first. “Being stagnant is one thing I don’t understand,” Ulrich exclaimed in 1996. “‘Why don’t you make another record like Master of Puppets?’ We already made it!” Instead, James and company decided to try something different. Sure, the results were uneven – every band has growing pains – but at least they tried to evolve as a band. Evolving, after all, is something Metallica’s been doing since their inception. In that same interview, Ulrich confirmed as much. “[T]hat, to me, is what Metallica are all about: exploring different things,” he states. “The minute you stop exploring, then just sit down and fucking die.”

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