I'd be lying if I said I always liked Metallica's sixth album, Load (1996). With its 1997 companion ReLoad, it was always the uncoolest of Metallica's albums (until 2003's St. Anger), and when I timidly entered heavy metal fandom in the late 1990s, that was the takeaway: Load sucks. It wasn't until years later did the musically mature & independent me realize: Load isn't a typical Metallica album, and because of that (maybe in spite of that), it's brilliant.
For a band that prided themselves on being hard-hitting and uncompromising, the overnight change in image and music style didn't sit very well, and that sense of discomfort and unease bleeds into the songs. Part of the album's backlash might stem from thrash metal fans not wanting bands like Metallica to write musical autobiographies. Raging against parents (like on "Dyers Eve") is easy; but breaking down your feelings ("Until It Sleeps" and "Mama Said") beyond anything more than anger is going to push a lot of buttons. The music wasn't heavy, but the emotion and honesty from James Hetfield lasts longer than whiplash does.
Exploring and foraging as they were on Load, not every experiment is successful. "2 x 4" plods along aimlessly, and I'm not even sure Metallica knew what they were doing with "Ronnie" (although Hetfield's spoken bridge is sheer badass). The real gold is in the songs that don't sound anything like classic Metallica. The sinister, lurching feel of "The House That Jack Built", the quiet introspection giving way to rage in "Bleeding Me", the towering expanse of "The Outlaw Torn" is what makes Load a grower. Thirteen years into their career, Metallica understood that it doesn't always have to be about what you say. Sometimes it's what you don't say, and it's in those moody, subtle shifts that Load speaks the loudest.
"King Nothing" and "Ain't My Bitch" show the band flexing their muscles, but their attention was elsewhere, like the bitter pill of "Thorn Within" or "Hero of the Day", which must have caused at least one epileptic fit of rage from old school fans. "Wasting My Hate" and "Cure" are both decent and catchy in their own right, but they don't contribute anything significant to the album. "Wasting My Hate" is probably the heaviest song on Load, but unlike most other Metallica albums, Load isn't about being heavy. It is, but not in the musical sense.
Compared to his crisp, sharp sound on the Black Album, Bob Rock's sludgy, warm production contributes to the hazy and distinctly Southern feel of Load. Lars Ulrich's minimalistic drumming complements the deceptively minimalistic guitar approach, letting James Hetfield's maturation as a vocalist come to fruition. Whether it's crooning in "Bleeding Me", unburdening his soul in "The Outlaw Torn", or even the country twang of "Mama Said", Hetfield shows us what he's made of - not only as a vocalist, but as a man coming to grips with a past men like him are supposed to keep buried.
It says a lot that the artwork for Load makes heavy use of Rorschach inkblots, because the album is Metallica taking a deep look inside themselves. It wasn't the full-on therapy session that was St. Anger, but for how unexpected Load was, it was the only thing left to do for a Diamond Head cover band becoming the biggest heavy metal act on the planet. The album twists and turns, sampling every emotion and uncomfortable memory. If, at the conclusion, you're more uneasy than exhilarated, then Load did its job.
4.5/5.0: It's on the record now: Load is one of Metallica's best albums.