"I feel like I need to briefly explain what a great “bad” record is: It’s a record where the creators are clearly not fully engaged with the project, which is reflected in the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that’s palpable in the music. That makes it “bad.” But instead of making the record less enjoyable, this “badness” actually makes the album more fascinating—so long as the artist in question is a genius—because it provides insight into what makes the artist’s “great” records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety. That makes it great. Dylan’s infamous 1970 debacle Self-Portrait is the Sgt. Pepper of great “bad” albums; the closest to a modern master of the form is Ryan Adams." - STEVEN HYDEN, "The Five-Albums Test," -AV Club 7/19/2011
I want to go for the gusto and suggest Load and ReLoad by Metallica (two albums taken together because they feel like the same project) is GB to the extreme. Should I turn back now? Am I swan diving off a cliff by even mentioning these two albums?
Metallica is just one of those bands that have not aged well. The string of classics that they made in the 80s are the pinnacle for headbangers and are not to be messed with. Master of Puppets (1986) is quite simply one of the best albums of all time regardless of genre and ... And Justice for All (1988) is ambitious to the nth degree. Many guitar players struggle to compose a single song with one or two decent riffs, Metallica have songs with dozens of mind bogglingly impressive and complicated thrashers within. They are bona fide leaders in the heavy music arena. They took thrash and speed metal and refined it to find international mainstream success with 1991's Metallica (aka "the Black Album"). Then the trouble started and the hair came off. (During Alice in Chains' 1996 "Unplugged" show Mike Inez had written the phrase, "Friends Don't Let Friends Get Friends Haircuts..." on his bass for the members of Metallica who were in the audience that night.)
That's right, the Bay area bangers (James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and, in the mid-90s, Jason Newstead) cut their fuckin' hair! Not a good sign for the conservative "heavy metal" crowd. For all the rebel and outsider stances, a majority of metal fans/bands are pretty conservative and don't accept people who break the rules of "hard, fast, and loud...and long hair." Metallica didn't look right (Hammet's black eyeliner and nail polish!) to fans when promotional pictures began coming out for the follow up studio album to "the Black Album". Fans couldn't go stream or download the album before its release in '96/'97 so these promo's and a single like "Until it Sleeps" were early warning signs to fans that Metallica was going in a very, very different direction, with or without their followers.
I'm not going to recount the making of these albums - that's what Wiki is for after all: Load and ReLoad - I want to highlight the qualities that make them so delightfully GB. The guitars and the vocals are the departures that really make these albums worth exploring with new ears. On classic Metallica albums the guitars all rage in fast heavy speed riffage and the solos all shred, on the "Load series" they're more refined and eclectic.
Upon Load's release metal fans claimed the band had gone "alternative," but when I listen to these songs now I don't really hear a band trying to sound like the latest trend. The influence of bands like Soundgarden ("Until it Sleeps" was inspired by that band's "Fell on Black Days" and I think it completely works) is in the music, but they don't sacrifice heaviness, they just move it around. Metallica refuse to bludgeon listeners with a non-stop barrages of thrash, which of course is why the "party line" fans were angry. "2x4" and "Aint My Bitch," two riff oriented stompers, are often lodged in my ears for days (I might even say they rival Pantera for groove metal champions, but they're not quite that good).
Hetfield's voice is more emotive and stronger on the Load album then on any other. His singing takes a leap forward from his standard bark and grunt of the 80s. The band's early albums feature ballads like "Fade to Black" and "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)," but by 1991 the band broadened their horizons with mid tempo rockers and ballads as well as more exotic arrangements. Orchestral parts and strong vocal melodies are part of "the Black Album's" success and, in my opinion, the qualities that mark Load/ReLoad. Case in point, "Mama Said," a country tinged ballad that succeeds despite a band whose entire catalog displays absolutely no roots pathos whatsoever - again, this is the kind of track that inspires blood curdling screams of, "noooooooo!" from the metal militia, but is something of an artistic confessional. Hetfield manages singer-songwriter honesty in the middle of a heavy rock album singing, “Apron strings around my neck/The mark that still remains/Left home at an early age/Of what I heard was wrong/I never asked forgiveness/But what I said is done," Sneaky bastard!
Lead guitar player Kirk Hammett wrote a significant amount of music for these two albums and stretches his chops over both records too. He cooks up southern fried slide guitar for the first time on "Ain't My Bitch" and "Mama Said" for example and then there's the textural playing on "Hero of the Day" and "Bleeding Me" (which again features slide guitar), all of which are creative and well-composed lead parts. Throughout there are inventive solos and the band even "jam" on "The Outlaw Torn," stretching out for over ten minutes (though edited down to a few seconds under the ten minute mark due to the eighty minute total time limitations of a compact disco). Boogie riffs, ballads, and bombast...this is some mighty fine GB friends. Ya know it's bad, but it hurts sooooo good.
ReLoad is a heavier, less melody driven set of songs written (and mostly recorded) during Load, but for reasons such as parts of songs not being completely finalized, ReLoad was finished up after the Load tour and once again released to unhappy fans. The album isn't as rewarding as Load because it is more straightforward. The highlights though still show a band trying to think outside the very limited box of "metal."
"Fuel" is a kick ass barnstormer and one of the best examples of Metallica's interest in Misfits-esque punk. "The Memory Remains" is an evocative late-Sabbath style rocker with Middle Eastern tonalities and Marianne Faithful's damaged croon wafting through like smoke at a hookah bar. This is surely one of the oddest Metal singles ever to be released, but it's a ton of fun. "Low Man's Lyric" is of note for the hurdy gurdy playing and again, a particularly good lead vocal.
The worst song on these two sets is the needless and embarrassing "The Unforgiven II" from ReLoad. Cool guitar sound notwithstanding, this piece is a textbook example of overindulgence and following any idea no matter how stupid when recording GB albums (never a band to take constructive criticism, "The Unforgiven III" was released in 2008 on the album Death Magnetic - which is an even worse song). The band proudly said, "fuck you" to anyone and everyone who dismissed their experiments and for that Load/ReLoad are GB.
One final word about the artworks that grace each of the album's respective covers. Throughout these columns we'll find that GB albums almost always have truly AWFUL art. It's as if the band is warning their fans before they drop the needle, "don't go in there!" Drummer Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett are the "artsy" members of Metallica and they took creative control with the group's image during this period. The logo changed, the haircuts, the nail polish and eyeliner, the black and white photos, and, the cherry on top, album art featuring work by artist Andres Serrano. The art for Load was created by mixing the artist's semen with cow blood between plexiglass and, for the sake of continuity; ReLoad's art was a picture of Serrano's blood and urine.
So irritating to James Hetfield was the band's visual aesthetic, the singer took delight in slamming the art in interviews. He said at the time, "Lars and Kirk were very into abstract art, pretending they were gay. I think they knew it bugged me. It was a statement around all that. I love art, but not for the sake of shocking others. I think the cover of Load was just a piss-take around all that. I just went along with the make-up and all of this crazy, stupid shit that they felt they needed to do."
Bottom line: Metallica became a huge worldwide success and they had to find ways to amuse themselves to alleviate the boredom of being "Metallica." They allowed guitarist Kirk Hammett to contribute more music than ever before and they attempted to redefine who they were as a band. This was a painful rebirth and reinvention, but buried under the fan base's anger (retrospectively) there are some damn good tunes on these reviled records. Metallica reverted back to the heavy shit again on the studio albums following the "loads" and regressed to full on celebration of the past by playing the entire "Black Album" and Ride the Lightning records at their new festival, Orion Music + More, this past June 23rd/24th.
*Next Month: Bob Dylan