Nice haircuts, guys. You and Soundgarden better not get your wardrobe trailers mixed up, or things are gonna get a bit confusing on the Lollapalooza main stage this summer. Whose idea was it, anyway? To gussy yourselves up like a Josta marketer's vision of a grunge band and put out a recording that hoists the "poser" flag with such embarrassing zeal. You're from San Francisco, remember? Not Seattle. Underground metal scene, circa 1983. Ring a bell? You were on the cusp of something then, something hungry, sweaty and speeding. A brutal catharsis, more organized than punk but no less pissed off. Lacerating guitars. Thundergun double-bass drumming. Sparse, growled vocals. Thrash metal. That's what people called your music.
And now, four years after your last recording, what do you come up with? James Hetfield singing melodies (smack hand to forehead). No, no, no. Bad idea. Not as bad, however, as James Hetfield singing country, as he does on "Mama Said." Warbling over a gentle acoustic guitar, Hetfield does his best Hank Williams, which is pretty lame.
Judging by Load, Metallica's book is finished, and it should put it down now. This album is a nightmare--a country song, a bunch of mopey ballads and two or three warmed-over power rockers. Every once in a while, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Jason Newsted drop into a deep, propulsive groove, but they always pull out too soon and go limp. Ulrich's lyrics are pointed and harrowing as usual--he offers a shuddering account of drug addiction in "Bleeding Me" and takes a roundhouse swipe at the Menendez brothers in "Poor Twisted Me"--but Hetfield poops the party with his glowering glam-boy act. On Load's opener, "Ain't My Bitch," Hetfield sounds like he wants Ted Nugent to invite him to go bowhunting. Ulrich's drumming sounds neutered for most of the disc, and he never comes close to the intensity he reached on Metallica classics like "Four Horsemen," "Creeping Death" and "Am I Evil."
Starting with Kill 'em All in 1983, Metallica put out a trilogy of definitive speed-metal albums. Ride the Lightning was released in 1984, and Master of Puppets came out two years later. The first two recordings went gold, and Master of Puppets went platinum, with no commercial radio or video support. Metallica had enough loyal fans roaming the fringe to sell a million albums, and the band was happy to flip mass marketing the finger. Not anymore. Sometime between then and now, greed settled in, and the only daring thing about Load is its cover, a 1990 piece by artist Andres Serrano (of "Piss Christ" fame) called "Semen and Blood III" (ever the right-wing poster boy, Hetfield agreed to the art on the condition that its title not appear in the liner notes). The recording itself is nothing but fast-food hard rock with extra cheese.
We should have known this was coming. There were warning signs on Metallica's 1991 self-titled album, its last studio recording before Load. The band's distortion levels got a clean shave for Metallica, and the album notably lacked one of the long-form thrash symphonies--such as "Master of Puppets," "Ride the Lightning" or "One" (from the band's 1988 album . . . And Justice for All)--that had become the band's songwriting signature. Instead, the songs were tailored to better suit an MTV attention span. The changes produced a pair of hits in the slicked-back single "Enter Sandman" and the Yberballad "The Unforgiven." They also gave Metallica fans the first putrid whiff of sellout.
With Load, Metallica confirms our worst fears. It's too bad. After all, how much money do the members want? Evidently enough to kiss off their old fans in favor of a public that buys what the radio spoons it. Maybe Metallica burned out. Maybe it got tired of thrashing. Fine. But don't give yourselves an image, water down your sound, and sell your band's name like a franchise. What a shame.