They transitioned from an indie label to a major without losing their integrity, moved on following the death of their beloved bassist Cliff Burton and succeeded on an unparalleled level after abandoning their thrash metal roots. But possibly the hardest transition Metallica ever made was writing Load, the follow-up to their blockbuster 1991 self-titled disc (aka The Black Album).

In a way, the band was in a no-win situation, and in a way they emerged victorious. Load, which came out on June 4, 1996 (five years after The Black Album), sold 680,000 copies its first week out and spent four weeks on the top of the Billboard album chart. The album sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. Yet many Metallica fanatics still consider Load among their least favorite Metallica albums along with Re-Load, St. Anger and their collaboration with Lou Reed, Lulu.

Keep in mind, 1996 was a bad time for metal. Thrash and hair metal had already been overshadowed by alt-rock and grunge, and nu-metal bands including Korn, Deftones and Coal Chamber were filling a space vacated by kingpins such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. It wasn’t the ideal moment for Metallica to try to regain their place at the top of the metal hierarchy, and it didn’t help that there were rampant rumors that the band would return to their thrash roots (which didn’t happen until 2008’s Death Magnetic).

“At that time we did Load, writing that kind of stuff wasn’t exciting to me anymore,” James Hetfield told me in 1997. “None of us were writing that stuff, and when you write, that’s really telling your story about how you feel. It was more exciting for us to figure out more f--ked up chords and dissonant things that grind than to go really fast.”

“We’d already proven to the world that we can do that,” added Kirk Hammett. “ I would like to think we should save precious CD space for things that we haven’t not done yet. Let’s keep on moving ahead and moving forward as long as it’s still creative and challenging.”

While rock radio listeners and mainstream rock fans raised their fists in triumph to the poppy “Hero of the Day,” the pounding “King Nothing” and the ominous ballad “Until it Sleeps,” naysayers found various reasons to unload on Load. Around the time Load came out, Lars Ulrich and Hammett were discovering underground art and the counter-culture and did such “un-metal” things as donning black nail polish, praising Britpop band Oasis and (gasp!!) cutting their hair.

“People are always quick to judge you based on superficial observations rather than musical observations,” Hammett complained. “They go for the lowest common denominator, and that’s the fact that we cut our hair. I was quite surprised. I didn’t think Metallica was all about having long hair. I thought it was about creating music. So, I was actually stunned by all the attention we got. Then when I thought about it more I started to thrive off the ridiculousness of it. It was funny to see how many people we pissed off.”

Another artsy move, and one which Hetfield voted against, was using a photo by transgressive photographer Andreas Serrano for the cover art. The image, which looked like a fiery shot from a psychedelic oil drop light show, was created with a combination of blood, urine and sperm, making the title Load a cheeky double entendre. “I’m not a big fan of the man and his perversions. There’s art and then there’s just sick motherf--kers. And he’s one of them,” Hetfield said. “But Lars and Kirk really liked the image, so I kind of gave in.”

Even compared to The Black Album, much of Load was a departure for Metallica, incorporating elements of blues, southern rock and alt-rock within its commercial metal framework. One of the heaviest songs, the opener, “Ain’t My Bitch,” features ZZ Top-flavored guitar licks, “2X4” is a slow burn on a bed of surging wah-wah and string bends and “The House That Jack Built” includes a chunky main verse reminiscent of Alice in Chains and a talk box solo. Elsewhere, “Bleeding Me” builds from slow and murky to trudgingly heavy, with an extended mid-section that builds the tension of the track and “Mama Said” layers country-ish vocals over acoustic strumming and further confounds the narrow-minded with pedal-steel guitar passages.

As offbeat as some of the arrangements and performances were for Metallica, the songs on Load are solid and well-composed. In all likelihood, those who bashed on Load misjudged it because it wasn’t what they expected, but nearly two decades after its release the album holds up to repeat listens.

“If people thought we lost our minds when we did it then I think we did the right thing,” Hammett said. “These songs definitely landed in a place we’d never been to before, and that was really exciting and really interesting. I always think it’s good for people to expect the unexpected from us. At least you’re provoking people and challenging them to think. That’s always a double edged sword. It can help tremendously or seal your coffin. But I don’t think anything we did on Load was way out of line for us. We really just did what we’ve always done, which is try new stuff and see where the music leads us.”

Metallica started writing most of the music for Load in early 1995 and entered The Plant Studios in Sausalito, Calif., with producer Bob Rock on May 1. For the next nine months, the band concocted and fine-tuned parts for 27 songs, 14 of which made it to Load; the others came out a year later on Re-Load.

Load was originally going to be a double album,” Hammett said. “We just didn’t feel like being in the studio that long, and we decided it would be a wiser idea if we did two albums and staggered the releases. That way, we’d get more mileage out of them. We’d have a nice break in the middle of the touring cycle to work on Re-Load, then once it was out, we’d go back out on tour. All that made more sense than just putting out a double album. Also, if we did a double album, it would have been a lot more material for people to digest, and some of the material might have gotten lost in the shuffle.”

Hetfield added that it was easy for Metallica to decide which of the 27 songs made Load and which were saved for its follow-up. “Re-Load was all of the crappy ones,” he said, then laughed. “That’s the obvious thing to think for the non-thinkers out there. But really, they weren’t the rejects, they were just all the songs that weren’t finished by the time we had to have the first record out. We went with everything that was already done, and that was Load. I think there’s a little more extremeness on Re-Load. But there are also some big-time epic, heavy riffs. They’re not pop singles, that’s for sure.”

Compared to the riffs on past albums, which were largely composed by Hetfield, Load was a more collaborative effort, with Hammett receiving songwriting credit on seven songs, including “King Nothing,” “Hero of the Day” and “Bleeding Me.” In addition, Metallica were meticulous about the creative process, experimenting with various options for each song and making sure the takes they used were the most suitable for the songs.

“A long time ago, we would just go in there and play the f--king track straight without much regard to things like timing and intonation,” Hammett says. “With this record it was definitely our method of operation to make sure we spent much more time with everything.”

“Some of the songs evolved through different sounds,” Added Hetfield. “You’ll sit with a different guitar and a different amp, and it just makes you play different, and you start writing a different kind of song, which is really kind of exciting. You go somewhere you haven’t gone before. Just coming into the studio and not knowing how to get the sound you want, and then hooking up a few amps and then playing with it, and plugging in different pedals. As simple as it might sound, there was some real fun in that real unknown factor.”

In retrospect, Load exhibits a band trying to redefine itself after the unexpected mainstream explosion of The Black Album. The record reveal musicians that still like to push boundaries and experiment, and have become equally adept at writing both melodic and dissonant songs. Ulrich once told me they had to get through Load and St. Anger in order to reach a place where they could return to their metal roots. More than a decade earlier, Hetfield described Metallica’s work ethic a different way.

“Our roots are not giving a f--k, and that’s what Load and Re-Load are,” Hetfield concluded. “It’s become very ironic to me that a lot of fans started liking Metallica because we didn’t give a f--k. But now it’s kind of backfiring on some of them. ‘Wow, they don’t give a f--k? That means [they don’t care about] me too!” So, it has become a kind of a paradox for some people. And those are the ones who have to really sit down and try to figure out why they like Metallica.”

Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book, My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.

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