A band that single-handedly redefined and expanded the range of heavy metal in the mid to late Eighties, Metallica has steadfastly followed the beat of its own drum over the 15 years of its existence. For the fans which picked up its discs between 1983's "Kill 'Em All" and 1988's "... And Justice For All", this had to be a wonderful quality. Without the aid of a listening bar, the buyer knew what he or she was getting when picking up a new release from this band. Which was, of course, a heavier-than-lead, harder-than-steel sound, infectious riffs, a brutally incessent beat, and a world view that offered none of the easy optimism proffered by pop music.

Things began to change with 1991's "Metallica". The music was still satisfyingly crunchy in spots—"Enter Sandman" and "Sad But True" hold their own with anything else the band has done—but there were distressing signs that Hetfield and company were losing the core of alienation and rage that had made them so appealing as scourges of radio and voices of teen angst in the first place. "The Unforgiven" had Hetfield's trademark growls, but there was also in the lyrics a strange, previously-unheard sense of capitulation—Hetfield wasn't lashing out at the world so much as he was exposing and exploring his own man-wound. "Nothing Else Matters" followed this same, sad trajectory. Had anyone suggested between 1983 and 1988 that the preeminent songwriter of the hard rock world would succumb to the self-pity of a Robert Bly (author of "Iron John" and architect of the "Men's Movement") they would have been scoffed at. Not so in 1991.

The five years between "Metallica" and the new release "Load" have not helped matters. Not only have the tempos slowed and the lyrics become even soppier—"Mama Said" is about the last thing one would expect from the band that brought us "Disposable Heroes" and "Creeping Death"—but the guitar chords, once a wonder of power and precision, have slackened to an often ungainly degree. Granted, this looser approach does pay off once in a while—it's hard to see how the majestic "Bleeding Me" could have worked under the old Metallica regimen of pounding out everything on the down beat, but this track is one of the few exceptions. "Poor Twisted Me" is a semi-convincing attempt at a heavy blues shuffle made even more bizarre by the Ministry-style processing done to Hetfield's voice, "Ronnie" is more suited to an EP of goofy outtakes ("Ronnie came to town/he shot everybody right on down"—yee haw!), and "2 x 4" is so slippery that the earnest headbanger will be lucky to nod a head to any part of its rhthym.

Even when the band attempts a go at using their more traditional methodology, as on the first single "Until It Sleeps," the result almost invariably falls short of the group's own imposingly high standards. "Until It Sleeps," in fact, sounds like the product of some lesser, pop-metal rival from yesteryear. Without Hetfield's voice, it would be all too easy to think that either Dokken, Dio or some other equally pathetic outfit had reformed. Which is a lousy shame, given that Metallica's lure for so long had been as a raw, undiluted alternative to the mainstream-friendly likes of Def Leppard, Warrant, and countless other bands whose names will rightfully go unremembered. Indeed, the fact that Metallica shows it can still roar like its old, bad-ass self on tracks like "Bleeding Me" and "The Outlaw Torn" only makes its failures on the rest of the new disc all the more puzzling and troubling.

Jeff Mahoney

A year after writing this review, Jeff revisted this record and decided to add some further comments on it:

Though I stand by my original assessment that this was not one of the group's strongest efforts, it has stayed on my regular play list and even grown a little in stature. "Hero of the Day" has, with the aid of incessant radio airplay, grown on me, as has "Until it Sleeps." "Mama Said," is, I must confess, a pretty, country-western melody, though whether it belongs on a Metallica disc is a ripe subject for debate. "King Nothing" is, by virtue of its steady stomp, a somewhat catchy number, though it's hard to escape the feeling that on an earlier album this song would have relegated to B-side status. I originally gave this album one and half stars; I think a better rating might be two or two and half. What keeps it from earning anything more, though, are the numerous songs which are, even after months of perspective, still almost too stupid to bear—"Cure" and "Ronnie" being two good examples. Metallica is a great band whose work ethic and obsession over getting their sound just they way they want it (what else can explain their year-plus residence in the studio?) is commendable—which makes their occasional slips all the harder to take.

Jeff Mahoney

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