The Black Album came first in the ’90s, which was also the first one Bob Rock produced. This was a time, when Metallica started to see the light. That they could not just scream about the stage forever, and stay at the same levels of fan support that they already enjoyed earlier. Much to the dismay of one James Hetfield, it seems. Judging by some of his remarks that still float about the YouTube megasphere.
So, a somewhat painful time of trial and error commenced. Of big controversies within the band that should last the better part of a decade. Of strange elements loaded into formerly pure thrash songs, that incidentally took Metallica out of the safe haven of Thrash Metal underground. And into the light, where the really massive fan bases dwell.
Load – the second one in the series – came on board in 1996, with Reload to follow just one short year later. Now, for those who think the somewhat ill-fated trials on the former record stopped will be disappointed. To the contrary, Metallica put the pedal to the metal and went for – what they called – refinement.
Of course, all started – again – with the album cover. The image on Load – Semen and Blood III – from Andres Serrano already disgusted parts of the band. But for Reload, Ulrich/Hammett again prevailed. And imposed a second horrible cover on the band, going by the artfully arranged name of Piss And Blood XXVI. All this done by a guy who thinks that submerging crucifixes into urine and snapping photos of them will end up in art. As in credible art, or something like that.
Taste is debatable, of course. And James Hetfield later came clear with some hate mail by calling both covers necessary, but a “..matching hatred“. In the end, self-proclaimed art master Ulrich made the band spend a ton of useless time to select a dead ugly cover of questionable design. Instead of using their limited time well to improve their songs.
Because you know what? Refinement is what some of these track needed, and there was not enough time to tidy everything up properly, so I am told. Nobody really cared for what showed on the cover. As long as Metallica delivered the metal everyone craved. Get my drift?
But did Reload really live up to that expectation?
Headphones on, volume up, first listen. Fuel just takes off with a vengeance with Hetfield screaming into the mic. Wow, I think, a fucking atomic attack straight out the door. That’s pretty nasty improvement over Load. And indeed it was. Only it did not last too long. The experimentation continued, as in much more intense.
Wait no longer than track #2 The Memory Remains. In comes some sort of a Black Sabbath riff fest with, a certain weird fuzziness, and a stellar solo or two. Yet, the atrocious leathery chanting by Marianne Faithful at the end really takes the cake in all its sparkly weirdness.
It is indeed one of the most astonishing facts of this record that the songs on Reload are not leftovers from past albums. The tracks are all original, and the band decided to release two tightly staggered records, they had so much material. So that they could get more mileage out of them, as opposed to just one giant double whammy.
Now, Reload definitely sports a much crunchier brand of metal than Load ever mustered. Strong influences of Heavy Metal would follow fuzzy tunes Ozzy would have preferred. Then you get a pretty cool rendition of AC/DC in Slither. So well done that I am still waiting for Bon Scott to emerge. But of course, it is all Metallica style, as it should be. And the sturdy riffing on Carpe Diem Baby still makes me come back for seconds to this day.
But The Unforgiven II really gets us into the thick of things. I like this mix of Nothing Else Matters (Black Album) and Bleeding Me (Load) at first. Which then disintegrates into this nice progression and mid-tempo groove that transform this track into something remarkable.
And I must say, Hetfield really put himself out on Reload. I marvel at this guy who – not many years earlier – was seen as a screamer only. And truly, it does not come easy for him to modulate and strain his voice.
Just take Low Man’s Lyric for instance. The slow ballad with its weird country-ish flavor really flowers, once Hetfield‘s voice kicks in. And it is not the mad piping, the predictable guitar and drum work on that track that really carries the prize. It is the vocalist.
To wrap this up some, Reload is all about experimentation. About taking things to the next level, technically speaking and as a band. Even if this meant to move Metallica beyond the ‘pure’ path of metal. A fact that die-hard fans still loudly bemoan to this day.
With Reload the band definitely moved out of their Thrash Metal underground haven into the light. And rendered the band and its sound accessible to a much larger fan base. Since then, Metallica retained this nimbus of whiskey swirling metallers, so tough that they crunched metal cubes for breakfast. Even if this record and its two predecessors were severely toned down versions of former works. Perception is everything though, and this one really stuck and sold them many a record.
As to the album itself, Reload definitely is better than some. But it will never reach the height of the Black Album. No, sir, it just won’t.