June 5th 1996. I remember it well. It was my first year out of high school, I was at college at the time but still living at home and during that period of time, my taste in music had started to develop away from the 80’s rock and early 90’s grunge and alternative rock that I grew up on. Guns N’ Roses was fading away as the band started to disintegrate after spending the better years of my childhood being obsessed with Slash and co. The death of Kurt Cobain only 2 years prior pretty much killed Nirvana and their compatriots although the debut Foo Fighters album was absolutely killer and Pearl Jam were still putting out decent albums. Pantera was my thing and became my number 1 band, Dimbag was THE guitar player of the 90’s in my opinion. Fear Factory, Machine Head, Hatebreed, Biohazard, Sepultura – the ORIGINAL nu-metal (New wave of metal as it was called then) was the big thing before the nu-metal genre twisted into this rap-rock thing that would push real metal further into the underground. And then there was Metallica.
I first got into Metallica through the self titled Black Album back in 1991 and it was my first real introduction to heavy metal. But after the band went into what seemed like a really long hiatus (with no internet we didn’t know they were on tour and recording the whole time), the band went off my radar over the 5 years since I discovered them. Entire genres and cultures came and gone by the time Load came out in 1996 but I remember it well. 20 years to this day and it feels like it was yesterday. For the older folk out there who were either already into Metallica through their first 4 albums prior to 1991 or for those that grew up on the 60’s and 70’s rock, 1996 might not seem like a long time ago but for some of us, that was a lifetime ago. I didn’t actually receive Metallica’s 6th studio album until my birthday on August 5th as I recall but I had previously heard a number of tracks from it including “Until It Sleeps”, “Hero Of The Day”, “King Nothing” and “Wasting My Hate” which the latter I’m not sure how that got played on the radio as it was not a single but was the first song to be heard from the Load album on the radio to my ears. If you know the song, honestly it’s not a complete departure from the Black Album. It’s mid-tempo and simply rocks out in under 4 minutes, a great way to ease fans into some of the really experimental stuff the band did on the album.
But what I remember the most upon it’s release was the reactions people had on not only the album musically and artistically but on the band. Every magazine that I read, every interview I saw, reports on the radio and TV and talking to friends, was all criticism on how the band looked, how they acted and the kinds of things they did on tour. Playing Lollapolooza was one of them but what I didn’t get was the comparisons to the whole alternative/grunge rock of the time. When I listened to Load 20 years ago and when I still listen to Load now 20 years later, I do not hear Nirvana, Soundgarden or Pearl Jam. Not one bit. It wasn’t until a few years later when I started to really know the band in-depth and how each band member worked and their influences that I really saw where Load came from but at that time, all I heard was very bluesy rock with hints of southern, country and 70’s rock. Grunge was rooted in punk and raw heavy metal and while blues is the basis for rock and metal in general, at some point, heavy metal took a turn and stepped away from the Muddy Waters rhythm sections. Load is not an alternative rock album and I hate to burst a lot of those bubbles that should have been popped 20 years ago but that’s the truth. The band admitted some time after that they were listening to a lot of the 70’s blues based rock liike Deep Purple and Blue Oyster Cult as well as modern bands like Corrosion Of Confirmity, Kyuss, The Hellacopters, Melvins and yes, even Alice In Chains. But AIC were never a grunge band, barely alternative rock and for those that know their history, were originally a sunset strip L.A. band which is the complete opposite of grunge.
What I also heard in Load were hints of Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Motorhead, ZZ Top, Ted Nugent and Pink Floyd and maybe it was because I was also listening to a lot of that stuff too, especially the stoner rock stuff a little later but damned if I hear Smells Like Teen Spirit or Black Hole Sun in any of these songs. I wasn’t a huge Metallica fan at the time, I loved what I heard, thought “Master Of Puppets” and the Black Album were brilliant but considered “And Justice For All” to be tedious at times and “Ride The Lightning” didn’t have enough balls. I suppose when you were listening to “Far Beyond Driven” by Pantera or “Burn My Eyes” by Machine Head, the original thrash metal stuff just sounded a little weak. But my appreciation for Metallica really began with the Load album for the very reasons that pissed so many people off. It’s so easy to pander to an audience who demands their favorite bands fit into their little box of what metal bands should sound like. And weak arguments like the haircuts and band logo change and having the word ‘metal’ in their name all just seemed silly to me, it didn’t matter. What mattered was here was a band who while had evolved in their first 5 albums, completely smashed the idea that a band had to stick to a specific genre in order to be a band. I absolutely loved that and Metallica were the first band to show me that, it opened up an entire universe of music and bands that I would of never checked out in the first place. The Black album may be the gateway to metal music but the Load album was really the gateway to music in general, it made you appreciate bands who tried different things, who didn’t get stuck in the past or stuck to the same old shit. You cannot replicate the originals no matter what and Metallica knew that so why even try? It’s one of the biggest reasons this band is still revelant now over 30 years into their career, they left the other big 3 of thrash in the dust commercially after the Black Album but Load really made them almost irrelevant in some ways.
My last point is the whole selling out and losing integrity argument. This was another one I never really understood given how the songs are on Load. It’s not exactly the most commercially conducive or acceptable rock album if you really listen to it and I mean REALLY listen to it. While we established that the roots of this album is more in line with the 70’s blues based rock stuff, there’s also a lot of moments when it’s so far off kilter that I can completely understand how a fan may not like it which is fair enough. I never wrote this article on the basis that people should have to like the album, that would be wrong. We all have different tastes in music and if you like your rock straight up and traditional, Load probably wouldn’t be your thing. Songs like “Mama Said” is bordering on country music, something I’m not a huge fan of but James Hetfield is so you can see where this one came from. Lyrically it’s deeply personal but musically I never latched onto it. “Poor Twisted Me” is very non-rhythmic in a way and almost impossible to really get into but it’s a song you would never hear on the radio. “Outlaw Torn” clocking in at just under 10 minutes (the original un-edited version found on The Memory Remains single is over 10 minutes) is so far from being a mainstream commercial and certainly grunge rock song, it’s simply laughable to think otherwise. It’s also one of the strongest songs Metallica ever put out and when you hear those last couple of minutes where the band are jamming out to Hetfield’s bluesy solo, it’s one of the best moments ever captured on record. “Bleeding Me” is similar, an epic opus at over 8 minutes and has a beastly riff that breaks away from the first half that is massive. It’s a true headbanger that contrasts the really mellow side of this song. Honestly if I ever heard this on the radio or if someone said this is the epitome of Metallica’s commercial side, I would have to question their sanity and really, their honesty. Sure there are more mainstream sounding tracks like “Until It Sleeps” and “King Nothing” but those simplistic standard tracks have always been a staple on Metallica’s albums. “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Fade To Black” easily fit alongside those sort of songs and were proven when they played them live on subsequest tours.
Metallica ended up having a huge impact on me through the Load album and eventually they became my number one band after Pantera disbanded. But I think the backlash from the album was mostly due to the fact that so much time had gone by that they never saw the changes the band went through during that 5 year period. If you look at their history though, those changes were inevitable as the progression from all out thrash metal to more groove based stuff became more and more apparent from each album since “Kill ‘Em All” but I suppose it’s understandable that it was hard to take when all this just jumped straight out of nowhere years later. But throwing in arguments based on the coincidence of the era it was in musically together with how they looked and not seeing past all of that was a little dumbfounding to say the least. Selling out would have been just putting out what fans wanted to hear but creatively speaking, a band has to write for themselves otherwise it’s not being honest. Metallica’s absence from my music listening for a while may have contributed to my lack of shock and somewhat better understanding of the Load album but 20 years later, this album still holds up really well and I think has aged a hell of a lot better than many of the albums, metal and non-metal, from that time. Load was never meant to be a metal album, it’s simply a great rock record. They could have easily done another Black Album or another Ride The Lightning so whether Load is your thing or not, I think it took real guts and genuine honesty for a band like Metallica to put out a record like this which is more than I can say about a lot of bands who take the easy road and simply cater to their audience.