Review Summary: Exceptionally underrated.
No matter how tough it is for a band's fans to grasp, there usually comes a time when a group change their sound to how they see fit (or how the public sees fit). Or... at least that's until everybody starts accusing some of them for betraying the original fanbase... yeah, you know where this is heading. Metallica were the biggest example of this very conflict in the mid-90s; what used to be a group of long-haired thrashers who were hailed in the metal community turned into a group of bluesy dudes with short hair and martinis. Weird? Most definitely. Much like Megadeth's Risk, however, the resulting record Load was a bold step in a new direction fans had never seen in Metallica's music. 17 years later, does the record hold up? In actuality, it holds up much better than when it was released all the way back in 1996.
While incorporating blues and southern rock elements, Metallica's style on Load is still firmly rooted in traditional heavy metal. The sound is clearly not as thrash-oriented as earlier works, but then again, neither was their self-titled record five years earlier. They'd already been gravitating toward this softer style, and Load shows it in full bloom. Boasting stylistic qualities such as groove metal ("2x4"), alternative rock tendencies (the highlight "Until it Sleeps"), and even a country tinge of all things ("Mama Said"), there's a heavy amount of variety throughout. However, despite the abundance of genres and tones the record plows through, it always feels focused and seems more concerned with the sum of its parts rather than individual songs. With that said, however, there's clearly a number of highlights; take the aforementioned "Until it Sleeps" for example. The album's lead single, "Until it Sleeps" practically bleeds emotion with James Hetfield's grim vocal melody and Kirk Hammett's strikingly Alice in Chains-esque clean guitar work. The chorus, played in 6/4, is a great payoff for the suspenseful verses it follows; Hetfield's vocals finally burst out in his traditional gravelly bark as the Kirk's guitar work becomes a more crunchy metal sound akin to earlier Metallica releases. Also worth mentioning is the opening track "Ain't My Bitch." The track appears to be a throwback to the band's older work until the solo comes in; while Kirk Hammett always had bluesy touch to his soloing and overall lead work, "Ain't My Bitch" takes things up a notch by being the first song in their discography to use a guitar slide to achieve the desired effect. Embellishments such as this are what make Load such an interesting departure for the band. Finally, songs such as "The House that Jack Built," "King Nothing," and "Bleeding Me" represent the band's knack for making solid midtempo songs and building a solid foundation for any instrumental nuances that would accompany them.
As for individual efforts, the band members make a more cohesive presence here; they don't get much time to show off (other than Kirk with soloing), but rather feel like a single entity. As odd as it may seem, this actually ends up being more beneficial than it was for The Black Album, letting the listener breathe and take in the atmosphere each song puts out. While it would have been nice to hear a few more solos and interesting drum fills, everything feels balanced all-around. The biggest flaw of this record, however, is just how damn long it is. While most of the songs maintain the listener's interest, there's occasionally dragging feeling, specifically with the closing song "The Outlaw Torn." The song, while initially boasting a nice doomy riff, wears out its welcome pretty quickly. The solo at the end is pretty aimless, and the fact that it fades out with this directionless feel makes it seem unfinished, despite its length of nearly ten minutes. Supposedly, the original cut of the song was over ten minutes, but they had to cut a minute off so it would fit the record; unfortunately, this seventy-nine-minute running time is the big issue with the album. Even "Bleeding Me" could have benefitted from a shorter length than eight minutes, again losing direction around the half-way mark with limited vocals and a dull patch instrumentation-wise.
However, the album's length is the only big gripe I have with Load. The rest of the record is an exceptionally underrated metal/hard rock experience that takes the band's music into entirely new territories. While it's certainly the black sheep of Metallica's discography (possibly barring St. Anger), Load is an excellent album with great songwriting and a high level of diversity.