We look back at Metallica's controversial Load, which turns 20 tomorrow.
Once upon a time, Metallica were the best, the biggest and the most badass heavy metal band in the whole wide world. From their formation in 1981 to the success of 1991’s self-titled “Black Album,” they’d gone from pioneering thrash upstarts to multi-platinum bona fide metal gods. Then they did the unthinkable. The lamentable. The wholly unforgivable. In 1996, Metallica got haircuts. I know, right? Can you imagine? Four grown men in their early 30s who actually believed they could get away with trimming off their long and manly Nordic warrior-like locks? It was outrageous. They may have weathered the storm of writing their first ballad (“Fade To Black”) and signing to a major label (1986), filming their first MTV-baiting music video (“One,” 1988) and hiring Mötley Crüe producer Bob Rock to polish their sound (Metallica, 1991), all with their integrity safely intact. Wearing their hair slightly shorter than they done previously was another matter entirely. In controversy terms, Metallica cutting their hair was up there with Bob Dylan going electric, Kiss binning their costumes and face paint, or the respected reggae icon Snoop Lion attempting to reinvent himself as a credible gangsta rapper. Fans who for years had remained loyal to Metallica suddenly began burning copies of Ride The Lightning on huge, smouldering bonfires, hanging effigies of Lars Ulrich from lampposts and penning strongly-worded letters of complaint to Kerrang! magazine.
Heavy metal had once epitomized non-conformity and now the kings of the scene had conformed. They had sold themselves out to the man. With this self-inflicted Samson-like emasculation, they had betrayed their roots and there was no hope of redemption. It’s not like hair grows back or anything, is it? Of course, the disdain Metallica attracted at this time wasn’t just about their hair. It was also about their makeup. In their fancy photoshoots and promotional videos, Metallica had started sporting eyeliner. I know, right? Can you imagine? Four grown men in their early 30s who actually believed they could get away with trimming off their long and manly Nordic warrior-like locks AND start wearing girly guyliner? It was outrageously confusing. To give some context to the makeover, shortly after the release of The Black Album, the popularity of the grunge scene had exploded. Influenced by the DIY ideals of punk and post-hardcore, grunge’s success rammed a plaid-patterned stake into the vampiric heart of hair metal. Practically overnight, Guns N’ Roses reputation went from sexy LA rock icons to sexist, overblown buffoons. Similarly, the career of Mötley Crüe was plunged into turmoil, revived only in 2001 when they managed to spin their tales of herculean hedonism and unashamed misogyny into tell-all bestselling biog The Dirt. Though always edgier and heavier than those two groups of glammy, big-haired clowns, Metallica were also at dire risk of banishment.
As well as setting itself in opposition to fluffy hair and musical pretentiousness, many of the grunge bands actively promoted progressive political ideals. As they attracted bigger and bigger crowds, the members of Nirvana would kiss each other onstage to challenge the less tolerant elements of their newfound, mainstream audience. They also championed female musicians, such as the Raincoats, Shonen Knife and the so-called “riot grrl” groups, and supported women’s rights. When his own band played MTV Unplugged, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder scrawled the word “Pro-Choice” on his arm with a sharpie. So, what were Metallica conforming to in cutting their locks? Namely, the more enlightened, respectful and politically-correct ideals of grunge over the preceding misogynistic, homophobic and largely moronic morals exemplified by Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses. They may have dressed like blow-dried girls themselves but one only has to delve a tiny way into the LA bands’ histories to unearth proud self-confessions of a “cave-man” attitude to women and countless instances of hate speak. Not only did Metallica start wearing the thin eyeliner of sensitive grunge sorts in 1996, the front cover of their new album Load was an artwork titled Semen and Blood III, which the controversial photographer Andres Serrano had created by mixing his own sperm with bovine blood. The group’s creative direction at this point was being driven by Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett, Metallica’s two most effeminate members, who also developed a penchant for kissing each other in photos and interviews. Frontman James Hetfield recently revealed that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with such frolics, telling Classic Rock magazine, “Lars and Kirk were very into abstract art, pretending they were gay. I think they knew it bugged me. It was a statement around all that. I love art, but not for the sake of shocking others. ... I just went along with the makeup and all of this crazy, stupid shit that they felt they needed to do.” Lars and Kirk’s clumsy appropriation of queer culture may not have been a watershed moment for LGBT rights. Even so, as Hetfield suspects, many of the fans they lost at this time were repelled not so much by Load’s music, “but mostly, I think, by the image.” There are those who remain unhappy about it today. Now, I’m not saying that every person who despises Metallica’s Load is a certifiably bigoted, homophobic, sexually insecure, reactionary, right-wing type-of-dude (and it does seem to be mostly dudes). However, Phil Anselmo did once say that Load should never have been released. And he went on to shout the words “white power” at a tribute concert. So that’s the kind of company you’re keeping. Seriously though, the disdain Metallica attracted at this time wasn’t just about their hair and their grungy makeup. Despite Hetfield’s claims, it was at least partly about the music. Apparently Metallica had “sold out” by changing their sound, but the truth is that Load’s music wasn’t actually very conformist at all. It is an experimental, stylistically diverse collection and hardly one that merely jumps on the grunge bandwagon. The “grunge” band it resembles most--particularly on certain vocal parts as well with some of Jason Newsted’s slinky bass lines--is Alice In Chains, who were always the most metal of all the grunge bands anyway. Load might not be Metallica’s masterpiece. Like almost all their albums, it is certainly too long, but it’s a largely fun ride nonetheless. With its strutting glam-rock, high-kickin’ riffs and Hetfield’s partitioning of certain lines with a heartily flamboyant “OOOH,” “2 X 4” is one of the most delightfully camp cuts in the entire Metallica canon. More disarmingly sensitive are “Hero Of The Day,” with its delicate, wavering textures and the unexpected pedal-steel country ballad “Mama Said.”
If you must insist on something more straightforwardly manly, you can always skip to the virtual “Enter Sandman” sequel, “King Nothing.” Failing that, there’s the successful adoption of alt-rock’s quiet-loud formula for “Until It Sleeps,” the lively, shifting time signatures of “Wasting My Hate”, and the crushing 10-minute closing beast “The Outlaw Torn.” You’ve also got the laid-back desert-rock epic “Bleeding Me,” complete with Deep Purple-style organ track, the Southern-fried send-up of self-pitying musicians that is “Poor Twisted Me” and the boozy, ZZ Top-ish boogie number “Ronnie”. All right, “Cure” is pure throwaway filler and the plodding “Thorn Within” doesn’t exactly brim with ideas but at least the virtuoso guitar solos are mercifully brief throughout and is that really such a bad thing? While Load is one of the least loved records in the Metallica discography, clear echoes of it can be heard in recent celebrated works by modern metal masters such as Red Fang, Baroness and Mastodon. Faint whiffs of its hard-rock style can even be detected in the output of Oozing Wound, Thrill Jockey’s gonzo-thrash prodigies who never miss the opportunity to badmouth Metallica’s post-Master Of Puppets career. With their disregard for showboating solos, lack of lyrical sleaze and embracement of stoner-rock influences, Oozing Wound might owe more to Load than they’re willing to admit. Mind you, their singer/guitarist Zack Weil did boldly claim in one interview that “Metallica died with [Cliff] Burton”, only to confess a few sentences later to his love of Load’s 1997 sequel Reload: “Yeah, the one with the song about a man obsessed with getting fuel. Take that as you will.” The one with the song about a man obsessed with getting fuel is another story. Shall we save that for next year’s anniversary? Suffice to say, Metallica are a genuinely progressive rock ‘n’ roll band who were always going to divide, disconcert and exasperate their own audience from time to time because they are determined not to be a band “like AC/DC or The Ramones in that you know what you’re going to get every time out,” as Hetfield told the Chicago Tribune in ’97, “we’re a little more complex and we get bored easily.” “Metal is the most conservative music there is,” Ulrich claimed in the same interview. “In other forms of music, when bands metamorphose, people applaud; they respect the band for taking risks. But when it comes to metal, we’re perfectly willing to give the crown to Pantera or whoever wants it.” You can try to abdicate all you want, Lars. The fact is that Metallica’s crown remains firmly in place, whether it’s perched atop short hair, long hair, ill-advised mullets or receding foreheads. For me, it’s not in spite of schismatic curveballs like Load, it’s because of them.