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Metallica Loads Up

Anton Corbijn

Look Out, R.E.M.: Metallica has gone downright alterna-arty for some of the songs on its new album, "Load."

Latest album offers easy accessibility to anthem rock

By Gina Arnold

IN THE United States, where a person's socioeconomic status is difficult to determine by outward symbols like race, accent and clothing, love of heavy metal is one of the few class indicators left. The genre's popularity--which waxes and wanes each decade--is often a gauge of society's frustrations. Thus, sociologically speaking, the fact that Load, Metallica's first album in five years, recently debuted at the top of the Billboard charts may well mean that we are about to return to an era where thunky metal reigns supreme.

Metallica used to be referred to as the only "smart" metal band on the planet--though what their smarts consisted of, other than not writing songs about beer and broads, was always a bit hazy. But ever since bands like Soundgarden, the Butthole Surfers and White Zombie have made "smart metal" de rigueur, Metallica, with its pompous lyrics about war and death and its jarring stop-start tempos, has started to look like one of the dumber ones.

Of course, Metallica is also one of the most successful. In 1992, the advent of both Nirvana and Beavis & Butt-head seemed finally to have killed hair bands. For the last few years, alternarock--bastion of the junior-college kid--has been ascendant. But metal, pure metal--thunky martial rhythms, huge screeching guitars and turgid lyrics by the kind of guy who thinks Lord of the Rings is War and Peace--has always had a rather important place in our society.

For a host of angst-ridden blue-collar kids who are never going to snuggle up to Weezer and the Smashing Pumpkins, Load will fill a huge void by providing a bunch of the kind of big, dumb rock anthems that have been missing since "Enter Sandman" finally got played to death.

Contrary to popular belief, however, Load does not veer as far away from Metallica's metalloid roots as the video for the single "Until It Sleeps," with its new look and imagery culled from R.E.M.'s arty "Losing My Religion" clip, would have you believe.

True, Metallica's four members--James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Jason Newsted and Kirk Hammett--have all cut their hair and donned eye makeup, a la Nine Inch Nails or U2. But compared to Oasis or even the Smashing Pumpkins, their musical vision is still relatively harsh.

Also, as on previous Metallica albums, the subject matter is suitably bleak, focusing on Hetfield's surprisingly well-expressed angst and self-loathing. One of the great appeals of Hetfield's songwriting is that, unlike that of most metal bands, his hatred is directed at himself, as opposed to being directed at more common and easier targets, like women. ("Ain't gonna waste my hate on you/gonna save it for myself," he sings on "Wasting My Hate," a sentiment that comes as something of a relief.)

THANKS TO CALMING aspects like these, Metallica was one of the first metal bands to be embraced by an alt-rock indie underground, thus paving the way for the kind of hybrid metal now exhibited in records by bands like Filter and Ministry. By incorporating the huge metal sound of Metallica and its lesser satellites into punk and grunge, groups like the Smashing Pumpkins, Helmet and the Offspring greatly enlarged their core audience.

But metal bands who have attempted the same trick backward (and in high heels as it were--or in this case, in eyeliner) haven't been quite as successful, judging by slow ticket sales to Lollapalooza, which Metallica is headlining alongside a raft of more out-there punk bands.

In fact, it turns out that metal audiences are almost more sensitive to stylistic changes than indie-rock ones, and bands that attempted similar audience mergers by toning down the more ridiculously metal elements of their shtick--speeding up tempos, removing weedle-wee solos--have suffered accordingly.

Metallica has actually been much more successful at amalgamating other aspects of hard rock into their mix than most of their ilk, probably because it always eschewed the more obviously offensive aspects of metal to begin with. They never were big on glammy pop songs, instead attempting a sort of metal intellectualism via abrupt changes in time signature and other needlessly esoteric gestures.

But Load provides a much more accessible version of their sound. Gone are the horribly ponderous songs about death, and lyrics that used words like "dost" and "thou." In their place are catchy tunes and anthemic choruses. This may piss off their heavier fans, but overall, it makes for a better record. After all, what's considered profound for metal could hardly be called imaginative or insightful by any other standards, and Load still has that giant, straight-ahead martial bottom, many truly lengthy songs that plod heavily toward their point, and a bunch of throaty, tortured vocals by Hetfield.

Load could not by any means be called humorous, but it does have a slightly lighter feel to it than most metal (and Metallica) albums. This quality may be due to the album's tunefulness and the relatively wide range of beats it encompasses, from the almost groovy "2 x 4" to the folky and balladic "Mama Said." "Ain't My Bitch" has a ZZ Top-ish slide-guitar effect. "Hero of the Day" is the most mid-tempo song Metallica has ever written, suitable fare for a Bryan Adams fan.

There also are a fair measure of truly catchy riffs. You wouldn't know the highly accessible "Until It Sleeps" was metal except for the fact that it's six long minutes long and contains a gratuitous mention of The Beast. (Metal music must make at least one mention of The Beast; it's the law.) "King Nothing" is another strong number, with a pithy and true chorus: "Be careful what you wish for/you just might get it and then it all crashes down ... where's your crown, King Nothing?"

"Poor Twisted Me" is the closest thing to a funny song that Metallica's ever written, a kind of joke on Hetfield's massive self-loathing. "The Cure" uses that banal "ol' devil" voice so beloved of metal acts. "Bleeding Me" and "The House That Jack Built" are boring enough to fit right in on a now-dated record like ...And Justice for All. But elsewhere, Hetfield is in fine form, sounding more and more like a cross between George Jones and Eddie Vedder.

If Load has a flaw, it lies in the extreme lack of subtlety that characterizes all metal music. Thud, thud, thud. Also, it is immensely long--78 minutes of unrelenting gloom and doom. Many a casual listener would be satisfied with far less.

The best thing about Metallica is that it is neither pretentious nor embarrassing, which in this day and age is a feat in itself. Load is hardly going to change the face of music as we know it, but it's a damn sight better type of metal than much that has come before it. Perhaps there is such a thing as progress, after all.

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From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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