Looking back on the vaguely depressing history of Metallica, there's a clear distinction between the band's best album and its ultimate album. Their best album is probably Master of Puppets because its songs sound the most pleasing (in a caustic thrash metal way). But it's not the ultimate Metallica album—the album that most exemplifies the band's ethos and attitude. That one came out 20 years ago this month, and you probably hate it. It's the one where they donned make-up and cropped, coiffed hair for the photo shoot and slapped on cover art that looks like flames or lava or something, but was actually bovine and human bodily fluids smeared between plexiglass.
To most, Load is just another terrible album from 1996—80 minutes of evidence that the most successful of the Big Four 1980s thrash bands had fully abandoned metal for self-indulgent dad rock. That's mostly true, but it misses an aspect that's only come into focus with two decades of hindsight: Load was the first indisputable proof that Metallica has been trolling and alienating its audience all along.
In one sense, Load is a total rejection of the sound that made Metallica popular. In another, the contrarianism on Load traces back to the songs on 1983's Kill 'Em All: the fast, atonal thrash on that debut was abrasive music for abrasive people, helping their ratty, head-banging former selves carve out a niche apart from the burgeoning hair metal scene. Each subsequent album violated expectations set by its predecessors. They tacked acoustic guitars and ballads onto Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. On …And Justice For All, the riffs and song structures became increasingly complicated and convoluted. Once nine-minute songs became the norm, the band simplified its approach on the radio-friendly, self-titled Black Album to the tune of 16 million in sales.
Nearly half a decade without new music passed after the Black Album, during which "Metallica" became a euphemism for "shit-eating heavy metal mania." They were accessible enough that they'd sold millions of albums, artsy enough that they'd won Grammies, and authentic enough that invoking the band became cultural shorthand. A limo driver on Seinfeld name-checked them. The ne'er-do-well brother in Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead wore a Metallica shirt. So did Beavis.
And Metallica was the perfect band for misanthropic fourth-graders. I was nine when I dug through a box of cassettes in my sisters' room and found …And Justice For All. Within two years, I filled a drawer with Metallica shirts. For an English project, I read a poorly-sourced Metallica biography and made a poster for the presentation with a giant Pushead drawing in the middle, probably terrifying the substitute. I stopped playing park and rec soccer and started playing guitar, but I quit lessons within a few months because the instructor tried to teach me "I Want to Hold Your Hand" when all I gave a fuck about was the solo in "One." Metallica wasn't just my favorite band: it was practically the only band I listened to.
When spring 1996 came and the release of Load approached, I was stoked to see the music video for "Until It Sleeps." Probably because I was a dumb sixth-grader, it looked "artistic" and "high concept," but the song itself was heavy enough to keep my anticipation high. After school on Tuesday, June 4, 1996, I went to Record Town, parted with a stack of single-dollar bills, made the long walk home, and put Load in my Sony boom box.
Back then I loved the album enough to wear out the CD. Listening today, I don't know what I was thinking.
Load is the soundtrack to growing a soul patch, thanks to distorted blues riffs and the mid-coital bellow of James Hetfield. The songs ape Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and other bands blaring from the garage while getting your oil changed. "Ain't My Bitch" has a slide guitar solo. "Mama Said" is a goddamn country song. And unlike the four-to-six-minute jams on the Black Album, many of the 14 tracks on Load are so bloated that the band had to lop off the end of the 10-minute finale so the whole thing could fit on one CD. Stylistically, Reload—the 1997 follow-up largely recorded during the Load sessions—is about the same as its predecessor: In "Fuel," the one-time thrash band who eschewed radio play and wrote lyrics about alienation, mental illness, and the horrors of war wrote a butt-rock song about cars tailor-made for NFL Sundays. The key differences between the albums were the raw materials that provocateur Andres Serrano used for the cover art. Load featured a mix of cow's blood and semen. Reload used blood and urine.
With half a decade to get it done, that's what Metallica came up with: albums of derivative hard rock, wrapped in plasma, piss, and jizz. It's not that Load shows Metallica selling out—that charge is hard to justify considering the financial and critical success they found before. Instead, Metallica seemed to treat its listeners with something near contempt, daring them to turn this bullshit off.
And yet my devotion to Metallica—really, my adolescent sense of obligation to something as trivial as music—was so strong that I defended Load to everyone who hated it, which was basically everyone except Rolling Stone. I bought the lie that the band's new sound was a sign of maturity. I saw Metallica live four times in as many years, all post-Load, and they were awesome. Somewhere, buried beneath the eyeliner and their recent failed attempts at being a mid-tempo Sabbath, was the band that I loved.
But if Metallica's music wasn't a source of irritation, the band itself eventually was. In 1997, after a semi-principled abstinence from movie soundtracks (save for the Paradise Lost documentaries), Metallica lent "For Whom the Bell Tolls" to DJ Spooky for a remix on the fucking Spawn soundtrack. Three years later, they recorded a song for Mission Impossible II, a demo of which leaked on Napster alongside the rest of their discography. Metallica famously sued the file-sharing service for copyright infringement. People actually listening to their music was reason enough to remove it from the platform.
Viewers got a closer look at this latter-day Metallica in the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster: they were a trio—because even Jason Newsted couldn’t take this shit anymore—of fragile, dysfunctional man-children living in a world of millionaires' problems. They hired a therapist and talked about their feelings. They got into existential arguments about the presence or absence of guitar solos. They repurposed everyday conversation as (bad) song lyrics. Lars Ulrich played a drumbeat so objectively terrible it sounded like a joke. Instead, it was some of the best available evidence that heavy metal eventually makes you stupid.
As polarizing as the albums were two decades ago, time has been relatively kind to Load and Reload—"Bleeding Me" is a bright spot—but that's because so much of the music Metallica released afterward is so much worse. St. Anger, the 2003 album whose creation was documented in Some Kind of Monster, sounds like an accident on an oilrig. Death Magnetic suggested Metallica's return to familiar territory, but then they put out Lulu in 2011, a concept album made with Lou Reed that sounds like old men slipping into dementia without a caretaker. It should have been a side project if it wasn't thrown in the trash first, yet there it was, another piece of garbage that Metallica made on purpose so that you wouldn’t listen to it.
The autumn after Load came out, I found another cassette in my sisters' room, a Maxell mix tape with a handwritten track listing: Youth of Today, Quicksand, Gorilla Biscuits, Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Black Flag. The songs were provocative, and more importantly, they never went past three minutes. Hardcore in the era of Geocities homepages was music that had to be discovered through serendipity and mail order, and when I finally heard bands like Earth Crisis and Hatebreed, they sounded like all the good parts of Metallica without the filler. With the sonic distinctions blurred, I soon stopped listening to Metallica almost entirely. Their albums seemed to be challenging listeners to turn them off, so eventually, I did.
Load laid bare the band's underlying antagonism toward its audience. Now, admitting to listening to Metallica has to come with a caveat: "I like the old stuff." No one celebrates their entire catalog. The album with blood and semen on the cover made sure of that.
Jeff Harder is locked and loaded on Twitter.