Abysmal misstep or misunderstood classic? Metallica's Load 20 years on
A new image, a new logo and, most controversially, a new sound. Twenty years on, we revisit Load - the most divisive album of Metallica’s career
That Metallica didn’t take the 25th anniversary staging of the Woodstock festival entirely seriously was evident even before the San Franciscan quartet followed Nine Inch Nails onto the site’s North Stage on the evening of August 13, 1994. Had they perused the festival’s official merchandise stalls, the 350,000 music fans who streamed on to Winston Farm in Saugerties, New York, that weekend would have spotted a bespoke ‘Metallistock’ t-shirt featuring the band’s ‘Scary Man’ mascot with dollar bill symbols in his eyes, flowers in his hands and a ‘peace sign’ pendant around his neck, under which was scrawled the words ‘Hippie Shit’. Billed as ‘2 More Days of Peace and Music’, the event’s faux nostalgia might have captured the imagination of America’s ‘baby boomer’ demographic, but for Metallica it primarily represented a tidy paycheck and an opportunity to piss about in front of a live TV audience. And so, following James Hetfield’s cheery “Fuck you!” greeting, heavy metal’s biggest band chose to reintroduce themselves to the American public by opening their sub-headline slot with Breadfan_, an obscure B-side track written by cult Welsh prog-rock trio Budgie. Further mischief was to follow, with James introducing perennial live favourite _Seek & Destroy as a new song written by Jason Newsted, telling the crowd “since he wrote it, he’s going to have to sing it”. Even those in on the joke, however, were confused to hear the Kill ’Em All-era standard’s mid-section melt into an extended blues-rock jam. Though only the four men onstage knew it, this was the watching world’s first taste of what would become Metallica’s controversial sixth album, Load.
James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich began work on the follow-up to Metallica’s self-titled fifth album in the spring of 1994, less than one year after their Nowhere Else To Roam tour concluded at the Rock Werchter festival in Belgium. Much had changed in the music world since the release of the phenomenally successful Black Album: Bruce Dickinson had walked out of Iron Maiden; Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, the latest media-anointed ‘saviour of rock’, had recently killed himself at home in Seattle; and in California, Green Day and The Offspring had just released Dookie and Smash, two albums that would finally ‘break’ punk rock in the US. Metallica’s founding members returned to songwriting duties utilising the tried-and-trusted methodology they’d developed when they first got together as teenagers, studiously sifting through James’s home-recorded ‘riff tape’ cassette collection in order to identify musical motifs that might form the spine of new songs. Working in a basement studio in Lars’s hilltop Marin County home – a facility dubbed ‘The Dungeon’ – the guitarist and drummer set to arranging and committing these ideas to tape. On November 28, ‘Streamline’ (later retitled Wasting My Hate) became the first new Metallica demo recording in four years. On November 30, a second song, ‘Load’, (aka King Nothing) was tracked. Before the year’s end, three more recordings – ‘Devil Dance’ (later Devil’s Dance), ‘Fixer’ (aka Fixxxer) and ‘Mouldy’ (Hero Of The Day) were in the can. By Easter 1995, the duo had 13 songs – including The Outlaw Torn, featuring that bluesy riff previewed at Woodstock – mapped out. And still the ideas kept coming.
“All this material had built up on the road,” James explained. “There were bags and bags of tapes with riffs on them… stuff we had accumulated from five years of not writing. First it was like, ‘OK, let’s stop at 20 songs.’ Then we would get going and say, ‘All right, we’ll stop at 30.’ It was fucking crazy.”