By Brian Ives
“They cut their hair!”
“They’re trying to be ‘alternative!'”
“They’re selling out!”
These are all things that Metallica fans were saying about the band’s alleged new direction in 1996. And this was months before they even released their long awaited follow-up to “The Black Album,” Load.
Before anyone heard a note of Metallica’s new music, people were arguing about their new look. On April 10, 1996, Alice In Chains recorded their episode of MTV Unplugged at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music. All four members of Metallica – James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Jason Newstead – were in attendance. And they all had short hair. This was a big enough deal that, before the show, Alice’s Mike Inez famously wrote “Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Friends Haircuts” on his bass guitar.
Around the same time, it was announced that Metallica would be headlining Lollapalooza, the alternative-rock festival tour that had previously been headlined by Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Smashing Pumpkins.
I remember this pretty well, because I was working at a marketing company at the time, and the company specialized in heavy metal. And in 1996, metal was in flux; the prevailing wisdom in the music industry was that the genre was on its way out, and “alternative” was the new standard for rock music.
This put Metallica in a strange position, to say the least. They couldn’t really disavow metal; it was literally in their name. And they were coming off of 1991’s self-titled LP (known as “The Black Album”), the biggest album of their career, the one that saw them moving from thrash metal to more easily accessible hard rock. Would they change even more to fit in with the post-Nirvana world?
On the surface, it seemed like they did. There were the haircuts, of course. But the imagery went beyond that: they band had adopted many non-metal looks in their photo sessions, wearing eyeliner and going goth in some photos and adopting more of a rockabilly look in others. No longer were they working with metal photographer Ross Halfin; now they used Anton Corbin, more well known for the images he captured of U2 and Depeche Mode. Ulrich and Hammett even alluded to being bisexual. Meanwhile, Lars — always one to align himself with the band of the moment — started palling around with Oasis. Kick Hammett name dropped the Cocteau Twins, of all things. There was a lot of debate among fans about what this meant for Metallica, and what it meant for metal.
But what of the album itself? What about Load?
Two decades later, removed from all of the context of the era, Load holds up remarkably well; it’s at least half of a great album. And in retrospect, while it nodded to the music of the mid-’90s, the band who seemed to be the big influence was Alice In Chains, as opposed to Nirvana. Gone were the breakneck speed riffs, lightning fast guitar solos and drumming. Lars Ulrichs’ playing now had a bit more swing; Kirk Hammett’s solos were bluesier. It’s like the band put away their New Wave of British Heavy Metal compilations and busted out their old LPs by Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Mountain and the Blue Oyster Cult. More than trying to cater themselves to the Oasis or Smashing Pumpkins or Alanis Morrisette or Sublime audiences, they were really continuing down the path they started on with “The Black Album.” They just looked different.
The one true nod to the Nirvana era, though, was the inward facing lyrics; James Hetfield was starting to look at his life, and he didn’t always like what he saw, as on “Poor Twisted Me” and “King Nothing.” “Mama Said” and “Until It Sleeps” dealt with his relationship with his mother. “Bleeding Me,” in retrospect, seems to be his realization that he needed to make some life changes (although he wouldn’t act on that impulse for a few years; the story of his break from the band to enter rehab was infamously told in the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster). He was growing into the adult version of himself: he was becoming the heavy metal redneck that he is today. While he was vocal about his distaste for the band’s new image, he kept the short hair, and the Skynyrd influences.
One cue that the band didn’t take from their ’70s idols on Load was brevity; at nearly 80 minutes, it would have been a double album during Sabbath’s heyday (and of course, more material from the Load sessions would surface as Reload in 1997). A shorter tracklist probably would have benefited the album. The entire LP is worth your time, but if you want a more svelte Load, go with “Ain’t My Bitch,” “2 x 4,” (both songs are southern hard rock at its best, you can hear echoes of them in most of the bands who play Rock on the Range, Carolina Rebellion and the other hard rock festivals that hit middle America every year), “Until It Sleeps,” “King Nothing,” “Bleeding Me” (one of their finest songs, from any era), “Poor Twisted Me,” “Mama Said” and “The Outlaw Torn.”
There’s a certain beauty to bands who hold true to a consistent style for decades, like AC/DC, the Ramones or Slayer. But often, when an artist hits insane heights of popularity and success, they explore different styles. Sometimes, it’s a “We hope you enjoy our new direction” fiasco. But here, it worked, even if not everyone realized it at the time. Today, no one minds that James and Lars are still sporting short hair, but when they play “King Nothing” or “Bleeding Me” or “Until It Sleeps” in concert, they’re welcomed as classics. Load is close to being a great album, it just took the fans a while to realize it.