Why Metallica’s Mid-90’s Identity Crisis Was Awesome

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In less than one month, Metallica will unleash their latest metal masterpiece upon the masses. Hardwired…to Self-Destruct marks the tenth studio album from the Bay-Area thrashers. Their first new album in eight years, the double-disc brings to a close the band’s longest gap between studied albums throughout their storied career. Seemingly continuing down the path forged on 2008’s Death Magnetic, hardcore Metallica fans have a lot to be excited about.

But while head-bangers and heavy metal thrashers rejoice, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Metallica. Careers, especially those that go on for three-plus decades are not immune to peaks and valleys. Some will say one such valley was the mid-90’s. But what happened? Why was this the time where a clear line was drawn in the sand? Why suddenly did it become Old Metallica vs. New Metallica? And why was this era of the band’s history actually pretty awesome? Let’s explore.

Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire, Gimme the Metallica I Desire

Through their first four albums, Metallica wrote the book on thrash. Their fifth album, 1991’s eponymous ‘Black Album’, completely broke Metallica into the mainstream. An unprecedented smash success, the album has gone on to become the most successful album of the Soundscan Era. The band was poised for a complete global takeover… but then came 1996. With the release of their sixth album, Load, a clear line was drawn in the sand. This wasn’t your mother’s Metallica. On second thought, it actually may have been your Mother’s Metallica. But what happened?

People, especially rabid fans, fear change. There is a comfort in being able to rely on something. You feel safe. When the music video for the first single from Load hit MTV, it was clear Metallica wasn’t content to play it safe. “Until It Sleeps” sounded nothing like the Metallica the world had known up to that point. Nothing! People were left scratching their heads at what they heard, and saw. Gone was the long hair. Gone was James Hetfiled’s maniacal lyrical delivery. And what the hell are Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett doing with the eye-liner and mascara? And why are they all squeezing and clawing their faces?

To say it was a shock to the system of long-time Metallica fans would be the understatement of the century. But upon listening to Load, the surprises kept coming. Shredding is non-existent. The lightning-quick, technically mind-bending guitar work is replaced by bluesy licks, slide guitar solos and arpeggio-laden licks. “Mama Said” is damn near country. “Hero of the Day” comes off like Soundgarden-light. What was Metallica doing? “Where Is My Metallica?” shouted every fan in 1996.

….And Alternative For All

In the game of life, five years is a long time. In the music world, five years is an eternity. That is how much time elapsed between The Black Album and Load. So much happened in those five intervening years. Grunge exploded. Nirvana led the Seattle anti-rockstar movement, only to see it end with Kurt Cobain’s untimely death. Alternative was in; countless new alternative bands kept popping up what felt like daily. Even established acts from other genres like Motley Crue, Kiss and even Poison tried to sound of the time.

When you look at the stylistic change between 1988’s …And Justice for All and The Black Album, eight minute long progressive rock sagas with complex time signature changes were replaced but a more simplified, downright heavier approach. Even if “Enter Sandman” and “Sad but True” weren’t setting technical and speed records, they are still heavy as hell. Its still metal. Its less thrashy and more heavy, if you will. The drums and bass set the pace. You can feel the bass drum in your chest when listening.

Load, and its 1997 follow-up Reload are so varied in sound and style it’s hard to believe it’s the same band that a mere ten years earlier had given us Master Of Puppets. For the first time, Metallica tuned their guitars down a half-step; a trademark of alternative bands ranging from Alice in Chains to Green Day. Distorted vocals, moments of Jason Newsted popping on his bass and traditional song structures scream of the time. Alternative, and more specifically grunge, were all about keeping it simple. Play the song. Get in and out. Move on. Load and Reload have their share of long songs, but they don’t have the same depth and intrigue of earlier tracks. They just didn’t sound like the Metallica we all thought we knew. But then again, just because it’s different doesn’t mean it isn’t good. You can still jump into the fire; this is just a slightly different fire.

Wherever I May Roam…. On Lollapalooza

One of the most interesting aspects of this era in Metallica’s history is their headlining turn on 1996’s edition of Lollapalooza. Metallica didn’t necessarily seem like the band you would see on this tour. Monsters of alternative rock like Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are synonymous with the touring festival during the early to mid-90’s. It was a showcase for alternative bands.

Metallica were arguably the biggest band in the world at this point in time. Lollapalooza had a track record of bringing different types of bands together. But Metallica? With their sound hinging on alternative and their look drastically changed, now their presentation was changing. Some would say this was Lollapalooza “jumping the shark.” That this signified the changing of the guard in which the tour went from catering to the alternative, to catering to the masses. But Metallica dominated as they always have. Along with Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, and The Ramones to name a few, Metallica brought their brand of brutality to the alternative nation over six weeks.

In a Guitar World interview in 1996, Kirk Hammett said, “Fuck all those fucking elitists who say ‘Metallica’s not alternative’ or ‘They’re too big of a band to play Lollapalooza.’ They’re just being very narrow-minded.”

Metallica clearly felt they belonged on Lollapalooza, or at the very least earned the right to be, given they were one of the biggest bands in the world at the time. Interestingly enough, when Metallica played Lollapalooza 2015, no one batted an eye.

The Thing(s) That Should Not Be

Say what you will about the songs that comprise Load and Reload. The truth is, despite their change in sound, the albums have a lot of great songs. If you were young, say maybe pre-teens in the mid-90’s, there’s a good chance these albums were your introduction to Metallica. Load was the first Metallica album I owned. I remember being twelve years old and trying to keep up in a conversation at my best friend’s house. His older brother and his friends asked me what bands I liked. I told them Metallica was one of my favorite. They then asked what my favorite Metallica album was. I told them Load. They became immediately angry. “Load?” he shouted back at me. “That’s your favorite?” I told him I thought it was one of their best. He responded,” Load…Reload… your mom’s load! That ain’t Metallica!”

I thought he was insane, but now considering Metallica my favorite band, I get his anger. even if I disagree. Why can’t we just enjoy good music for the sake of it? Why does everything have to fit into some pre-defined box? “Fuel”, “Bleeding Me”, and “The Outlaw Torn” are classic Metallica songs. “Ain’t My Bitch” is punishing. We even get a sequel song in “The Unforgiven II.” Hetfield’s lyrics, now more introspective on these albums, show his true ability as a songwriter. Jason Newsted shines more on these two albums than on any of the other Metallica albums he played on. The bass grooves. For the first time Metallica had a swinging rhythm section. Look no further than the Reload track “Carpe Diem Baby”. Listen when that bridge comes in. I defy you not to bounce in rhythm with that groove.

As musicians, this is where Metallica truly honed their craft. Make no mistake. This isn’t Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets. But they don’t have to be. We have those albums. We love those albums. But we don’t need eight Kill ‘Em All’s.

 

Fight Fire With Fire….Is the Ending Near?

Despite any backlash from their die-hard fans, Metallica kept on rocking through the end of the decade. Their double-covers-album, Garage Inc., kept the production style of the Loads. Their track for the Mission Impossible soundtrack, “I Disappear”, was another huge hit for the band. But while Metallica fought off accusations of “selling-out” and “going mainstream”, their biggest opponent, in fact turned, out to be themselves.

Infighting, control issues, and lack of respect for one another nearly tore the band apart. They came out the other side, but they did not get out unscathed though. Jason Newsted, bassist of fourteen years, left the band in 2001. By time 2003’s St. Anger was released, by comparison, Load and Reload seem almost refreshing. The harsh production, lack of guitar solos and the downright odd sound of Lars Ulrich’s drums led St. Anger to end up being the most polarizing work Metallica had released. Where St. Anger sounds forced, in retrospect, these two albums sound like a band fully in control, doing what they want, uncompromising. Making music for themselves first, above all else.

The real identity crisis wasn’t in their look or in their sound, but in them as people. Even Metallica, heroes to myself and to a massive amount of music fans, are not immune to the struggles life throws at you at times, or the struggle within.

 

The Memory Remains

It’s been twenty years since Load was released. Since then, a number of the tracks from that and the follow up have remained fan favorites and in heavy set list rotation: “Fuel”, “King Nothing”, and “The Memory Remains” are played frequently at Metallica concerts. These songs are now thought of in the same vein as classic tracks such as “Battery” and “Harvester of Sorrow.”

Load and Reload may seem like the bastard children of Metallica’s discography, but time has been kinder to these albums than St. Anger. It’s all part of the greater picture: Load and Reload are like the Batman Returns to The Black Album’s Batman ’89. Dark, weird, slightly unhinged, and at times straight up bizarre… but still awesome. They still provide maximum enjoyment. It’s not what you were expecting heading in, but it’s nonetheless fun. St. Anger is the Batman & Robin. But just as that film made everyone rethink where to go with the Batman film franchise, St. Anger did the same for Metallica. It helped to shape what was to come. It led to 2008’s Death Magnetic; The Dark Knight in this analogy.

People still complain that Metallica cut their hair. So What? But that is what people do; especially passionate people. Metallica has some of the most passionate fans going. Metallica is less a band and more a way of life to their dedicated following. By mixing it up, it makes their classic first four albums all the more special. They didn’t keep beating the same drum (See St. Anger.) They never became complacent. Metallica did what every great band should do: they challenged themselves. They broke down their barriers and escaped their comfort zone. Metallica set a great example. If you do what you want and be true to yourself, all will be right in the world. And on November 18th, when Hardwired…To Self-Destruct is released, all will be right in the world once again.