Metallica Weighs In with a Heavy Load

Rumor has it that Metallica has gone soft, that years of

profitable music-making, touring and MTV airplay have made the

mercenaries of metal into money-grubbing wusses and tender-footed

pretty boys. With media flurry surrounding the release of Load,

Metallica's first studio album in five years, that impression is

understandable: now see the video for "Till it Sleeps," with Lars Ulrich

being caressed and painted vermilion by a living statue; now see Kirk

Hammett prancing around in dark eye makeup. Then flip through the

CD's liner notes: here we see them puffing on fancy cigars, there we

see them strutting around in furry coats and tight trousers.

Pansies!

Here is my advice to you: throw away the CD booklet. Turn

off your television. Listen to the album. You know how

Metallica keeps insisting they still rock? They aren't kidding.

In "2X4" -- a down-tempo rocker with, of all things, a swing

beat -- James Hetfield growls, "The joy of violent movement pulls you

under." It's a perceptive thesis of the 14 new 'Tallica tracks which are,

in tone, tempo and intensity, violent movements in a new direction,

one that brings the band back to metal's roots in country and blues

without turning retro. Instead they fuse those elemental beginnings

with the traditional Metallica sound, creating new textures and

possibilities.

Throttling guitars open the furious "Ain't My Bitch," a

Motorhead-esque come-on with all the subtlety of a 6 a.m.

jackhammer on a Sunday hangover. What the song doesn't do

is flail itself incessantly; it comes up for desperate gasps as

Hetfield's newfound voice warns, "and now it's time to kiss your ass goodbye"

before returning to the driving melody. "Hero of the Day" introduces

itself with a poppy, loping guitars -- but breaks halfway through the

song into full-speed thrash and double-time drums.

Other tracks reflect moody aspects of the band, ones we

glimpsed in songs like "Fade to Black" and "To Live is to Die."

"Bleeding Me" is driven by the same bell-like guitar tones as

"Sanitarium," and in many ways "Bleeding" functions as an updated

version of "Master of Puppet's" classic nod to institutionalized

insanity. This time, instead of blaming outside causes, the song looks

within: "this thorn in my side is from the tree I planted... I take the

leash, I'm bleeding me."

Hetfield's voice is deliciously expressive throughout Load.

Though he began showing signs of talent on Metallica's 1991 release,

his new vocal range really comes through in songs like "Bleeding Me,"

"Till it Sleeps" and the tender "Mama Said." He can still growl and

snarl with the best of them, but his ability to let down his guard is a

genuine relief. This change, more than anything else, illustrates that

while ball-busting guitars can drive a point home, there's nothing like a

moment of vulnerability to get to the guts of a gnarly anecdote --

especially when you're Metallica, and vulnerability is rare enough that

it acts as a kind of culture shock to your listeners.

"Mama Said" is one of these surprises. It opens with a single

acoustic guitar and the reminiscence of a mother's lessons. At the end

of the first verse, the song could go in any direction, but it takes the

most unexpected road -- a country slide guitar accents the chorus. It's

a rebellious boy's cry, made of the same cloth as "Dyer's Eve" and

even "Am I Evil?" but the homecoming lines, "I need your arms to

welcome me, but a cold stone's all I see," are a glimpse of Hetfield's

own struggle to resolve his mother's early death. The child in "Dyer's

Eve" thrashed at the bars of its crib; the adult in "Mama Said" soars,

aflame with naked truth.

The band takes a stab at blues while nailing grunge-rock's

whining to the wall in "Poor Twisted Me," a satirically self-pitying

chant that stomps both George Thoroughgood and legions of angsty

Gen-Xers with a single thump of the boot. As headliners of this year's

Lollapalooza tour, Metallica are taking part in the dethroning of a

musical movement which has of late become a pathetic self-parody.

"Oh, it's too good to be/That all this misery/Is just for oh poor twisted

me," Hetfield grumbles, irony dripping from his jowls.

In "Wasting My Hate," Metallica explains that they're not

exactly losing sleep over those who might slag them -- or who might

get in the way of the band's steady climb. Replete with slicing guitars

and a punchy rhythm, the song is Metallica at its core; heavy, slippery

and efficient in its aggression. "The Outlaw Torn" features a lengthy

guitar section that starts slow, but reveals shades of infernal Hendrix

towards its climax. What Metallica may have traded away in brute

strength, they have regained threefold in intensity.

"And if I start to come undone, stitch me together/And when

you see me strut, remind me of what left this outlaw torn," Hetfield

requests. It's an important message from a band shedding its past and

looking to the future, trying its damnedest to hold onto its greatest

possession -- its heart. In their five-year absence Metallica's musicians

have grown, and the changes they attempted with their self-titled

album have come to a head on Load. This ride is definitely worth the

wait.