For a subculture that revels in its outcast image, heavy metal fans can be a discriminating crowd at times.
Never was this more evident than in the story of a band that has arguably made a bigger mark than any other in heavy music: Metallica.
Started by vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, Metallica gained prominence in the mid-80s by spearheading a new era of heavy metal music.
Bringing punk and European metal influences to traditional heavy music, Metallica became global superstars with classic albums such as “Master of Puppets” and their 1991 self-titled release, also known as “The Black Album.”
The latter album incorporated simpler song structures and toned down the ferocious approach of their previous albums, becoming a massive success. However, while the band finally crossed over into the mainstream, some fans accused the band of the most severe heavy metal sin: selling out.
Five years later, the band released the follow-up to “The Black Album” — “Load.” Furthering the direction the band were taking with the previous album, Load was full of slower-paced, more melodic tracks and even a few ballads.
The band’s image had changed as well. Gone was the long hair and thrash metal look fans had known. Instead, the band were photographed on the back of the album with short hair and wearing leisure suits. The cries of selling out from earlier were now deafening.
Listening to the album, there are a few reminders of the blistering sound from before. The opening track, “Ain’t My B****,” is just as aggressive as anything the band had ever done.
“King Nothing” has similar groove to the band’s mega-hit “Enter Sandman,” even to the point where Hetfield quotes the song’s chorus at the end. Other tracks show the group blazing new trails.
The album’s lead single, “Until it Sleeps,” is built around a grunge-influenced sound, with Hetfield’s lyrics revealing his personal struggle with his mother’s death from cancer.
This theme is revisited on “Mama Said,” another experimental song, featuring country influences and steel guitars. One of the finer tracks on “Load” is “The House That Jack Built,” a slow-burning tune with verses that may be the closest Metallica has ever come to being psychedelic.
Other memorable songs include “Ronnie,” which is based on a true story of a tragic school shooting and “Hero of the Day,” another ballad exploring Hetfield’s relationship with his parents. Altogether, “Load” shows a band willing to make more personal statements, even as they become international superstars.
Twenty years later, the band remains highly popular, yet the claims of mainstream pandering remain. Since the release of “Load,” the band have released a “sequel” to the album (“ReLoad”), a documentary, a music festival and a collaboration with late avant-garde-rocker Lou Reed. With each of these, as well as many other projects the band have undertaken, the phrase “sell-out” gets tossed around quite a bit by the heavy metal community.
However, the band have done an amazing job at shrugging off criticism, choosing to follow their own artistic instincts. “Load” will forever be remembered as the group deciding to fully embrace this path.