MotherLoad: How Load and ReLoad Could Have Been One Great Album
It never seems to end, the discussion among Metallica fans on Load and ReLoad. Released in 1996 and 1997, respectively, Metallica’s twin follow-ups to their enormously successful 1991 self-titled Black Album continue to spark heated debate almost a quarter-century later: Did they sell out? (They didn’t.) Was it all Bob Rock’s fault? (It wasn’t.) Is ReLoad just the leftovers? (It’s not.) Did they go soft? (Kind of.) Did they get over-confident? (They did.) Are the Loads metal? (Yes and no.) Was the blood and semen on the cover of Load Metallica’s way of coming out of the closet? (Yes. But, of course, no.)
I discovered Metallica in the post-Load era and therefore did not feel let down by the Loads. If memory serves, it was Christmas 1999 when a friend gave me …And Justice for All (1988) on CD. It was my very first (conscious) brush with Metallica and I was completely blown away. Soon after, I got the 1983 debut album Kill ’Em All and ReLoad to satiate my appetite for Metallica. An odd order to be sure, mostly dictated by my limited 14-year-old’s budget. Just imagine my confusion coming of off Justice and listening to Kill ’Em All and ReLoad back to back. Was this really the same band? I wasn’t bothered by it, I thought it was kind of cool and liked all three.
As I filled in the gaps in album chronology over the years, I never had much of an issue with the variety in Metallica’s music — not all bands can be Slayer. I developed my own preferences and early on I gained a respect for the Loads, and even considered ReLoad my favourite Metallica album for years.
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While I still applaud Metallica’s bravery in experimenting with their sound, I have come to think of the Loads as deeply flawed. I firmly believe that a certain Danish drummer, who shall remain unnamed, got a little cocky and let his confidence in his band and their material get the better of his ample good sense (something that, in my opinion, happened again to a lesser extent on 2016’s Hardwired…to Self-Destruct — but that’s another article).
Bloat and ReBloat
Before going any further I would like to apologise for the above pun. I couldn’t help myself. I am truly very sorry.
Now then, my main issue with the Loads is, for lack of a better word, their bloatedness.
With 14 and 13 songs respectively, each of the Loads is nearly 80 minutes long. Compare this to their immediate predecessor, the Black Album, which was 62 minutes and 40 seconds. Of course this is not the whole story, the duration isn’t a problem in and of itself. It’s what happens over the course of the albums. With both Load and ReLoad, it feels like quantity took priority over quality, like they wanted to show the world that “hey, we’re prolific songwriters” without paying the necessary attention to what they were putting out.
Now, this is not to say that the songs are bad. Venturing into subjective territory, it’s more that a large portion of them do not live up to the high standards of Metallica.
On previous albums, the music felt not only written but crafted, the songs becoming more than the sum of their parts. This is what has always set Metallica apart from their peers; their material has the quality not only of songs but of compositions with movements and themes, a sense of journey. This is evident as early as Kill ’Em All (think The Four Horsemen and Seek and Destroy) and is all but obvious by Master of Puppets and Justice. Even the Black Album, within its stripped-down and streamlined format, frequently has that sense of craft and composition (The Unforgiven, Wherever I May Roam and Nothing Else Matters spring to mind).
Much of the Loads songs feel by-the-numbers, riff-verse-chorus-solo-etc., the songs being exactly the sum of their parts and not an iota more.
While the Loads are by no means void of well crafted compositions, there is an abundance of songs which are almost AC/DC-esque in their straight-forwardness: Ain’t My Bitch, 2 X 4, Cure, Wasting My Hate, Ronnie, Prince Charming, and Attitude are prime examples of this. The arrangements are conventional and many of the riffs are (God forbid!) stock, sounding like Papa Het put them together with little thought, perhaps sitting on the sofa sipping a lukewarm beer and watching the Giants on the telly. However they came about, there just isn’t much in the way of Metallica’s grand craftsmanship of yesteryear.
Another closely related issue is the similarities between many of the songs, if not in the riffs and melodies then their mood and feel. To me, Cure and Ronnie on Load sound like variations on the same song and the same goes for Prince Charming and Attitude on Reload. Across both albums, The House that Jack Built, Thorn Within, Slither, and Where the Wild Things Are seem like variously successful attempts at capturing the same idea and brooding feel.
One Great Album
I contend that many of the songs that found their way onto Load and ReLoad should have been left on the cutting room floor, perhaps with some riffs and elements spliced into the prime cuts, leaving the ‘Tallica Boyz with one strong album. This is a well known idea among Metallica fans, with everyone having their opinion on what songs should be included on the album and how they should be arranged.
I call this hypothetical album MotherLoad and my personal version of it looks like this:
2. The Memory Remains
3. Devil’s Dance
4. Until It Sleeps
5. King Nothing
6. Bleeding Me
7. Carpe Diem Baby
8. The Unforgiven II
9. Where the Wild Things Are
10. The Outlaw Torn
Metallica: The MotherLoad, a playlist by Skúli Á. Sigurðsson on Spotify
If Load and ReLoad were one album.
Not only do I feel that these are the strongest songs, I feel these are the “most Metallica” songs; this is the reason for much of the more experimental and out-of-left-field material is left off. While choosing the songs I consider the strongest to be included did not present any dilemmas, choosing the “most Metallica” songs meant that I omitted some which I am quite fond of. Foremost among these were 2 X 4, Poor Twisted Me, Bad Seed, and the wonderful Low Man’s Lyric.
At 62 minutes and 15 seconds, MotherLoad would be about as long as the Black Album but with two fewer songs. With only 10 out of 27 songs making the cut, many will see glaring omissions. Others will be confounded by some of the songs included, with yet others balking at ReLoad making up 60% of the album.
As for the song sequence, it is intended to stay faithful to Metallica’s previous albums and the Loads themselves to the extent possible.
In the first half, note that the opening trio is the same as Reload’s and is followed by the fourth song from Load; also keeping with Metallica’s tradition of this slot being occupied by a ballady song. The badass King Nothing comes next, as it does on Load, retaining the dynamic found on the Black Album, where The Unforgiven is followed by Wherever I May Roam, that OG of Metallica badassery.
The second half finds less in common with previous studio releases but Bleeding Me opens it on a low-key note, building to a crescendo, much the same way Nothing Else Matters opens the second disc of S&M. The placement of The Unforgiven II is meant to recall that of Nothing Else Matters on the Black Album. While both Unforgivens are the fourth songs on their respective albums, II got moved to the number eight slot as Until it Sleeps seemed out of place wedged between the adjacent ReLoaders. The Outlaw Torn closing the album pays homage to the way the song closes Load and Fixxxer, its mirror twin, closes Reload.
Inclusions — a defence
While I see no need to defend including Metallica classics like Fuel, The Memory Remains, and Until It Sleeps, I will touch on some of the numbers that made the cut. For fun, if nothing else.
The Unforgiven II
The Unforgiven II is, and has always been, my favourite Unforgiven. Yep, I am one of those rare weirdos. Not going into the nitty gritties, I will make two key observations.
First, James Hetfield’s singing on this track is some of the very best of his career — notably much better than on the first entry in the Unforgiven trilogy. He sounds amazing, his voice is full, and he traverses his range with apparent ease, all the while remaining expressive and conveying the story perfectly, supported by vocal harmonies in what seems to be all the right spots.
Second, I consider The Unforgiven II to be the best lyrics James ever committed to paper. Full stop. The story-telling is impeccable, the sadness, regret, and horror palpable. The lyrics aren’t just words to a song, it’s true poetry worthy of the likes of Nick Cave (think Where the Wild Roses Grow) and Leonard Cohen (think his live recitations).
Carpe Diem Baby
An oft-lambasted entry from ReLoad. For the longest time it was a personal favourite and I still hold it in high esteem.
The lyrics, the music, the bluesy groove, James’ snarl, and Kirk’s melodic solo — it’s all about the attitude, the badassery. Which is probably exactly what grates on those not keen on the song; the lyrics and singing too bombastic, the riffs, licks and beats overly bluesy, and the leads not metal enough.
Lyrically it is probably my favourite number from the Loads — except for The Unforgiven II and maybe The Outlaw Torn. Yes, it’s basically a bunch of clichéd but cool phrases thrown together but it works, dammit! “Bleed the day and break the rule”, “It don’t feel good until it hurts”, “Tear the map and shoot the sign”, “Live win, dare fail, Eat the dirt and bite the nail”, all delivered with absolute abandon by The Almighty Het.
I particularly like Kirk’s understated solo, the way it builds up and harmonizes fits the mood perfectly. Note the great staccato phrasing in the middle. It’s all about the atmosphere, not meant to impress but to complement, not to soar but to seethe.
What’s not to like? To each their own.
While its inclusion will need no defence to most, I want to mention that I seriously considered leaving Bleeding Me out. This will seem blasphemous to many but while Bleeding Me is a great song, The Outlaw Torn, in my opinion, does everything it does and does it better: It’s brooding verses are more muscular, it’s chorus is stronger, and there isn’t the same sense of repetition lyrically and musically. It is telling how much better and more interesting the S&M version of the song is, with an entire symphony orchestra augmenting and amplifying the music.
However, Bleeding Me has that one awe-inspiring section:
I am the beast that feeds the feast
I am the blood, I am release
Come make me pure
Bleed me a cure
I’m caught, I’m caught,
I’m caught under
The menacing riff, the perfect entrance of the bass and drums, the bark of a “yeah” and the two venomous James Hetfields growling in harmony. And those magnificent words, some of the most potent of that era. To me, this is what makes the song and truly elevates it above your standard Load fare.
Where the Wild Things Are
I’m assuming this one raised some eyebrows as I have frequently seen it cited as not just the worst song on ReLoad but hands down the worst Metallica song ever. I beg to differ.
As noted earlier, the song is reminiscent of The House That Jack Built and, to a lesser extent, Thorn Within and Slither. It is, in my opinion, the best attempt at this direction, elevated above the others by the dreamy verse, the build-up to the chorus over a simple-yet-effective riff, and the veiled menace of the hook. Then there is that surreal section after the solo, with its sneering incantations over a down-right threatening, militaristic beat. There is also something decidedly nightmarish in Hetfield’s delivery of the words throughout, something vaguely sinister, which I find fascinating.
In a way, it represents Metallica’s several experiments with this slow-and-creepy doom-boogie format but it is also a solid song in its own right.
Omissions — (dis)honourable mentions
Unsurprisingly, I myself see no criminal omissions from MotherLoad. However, there are three songs in particular that I imagine some will feel are unfairly left out.
Hero of the Day
First there is Hero of the Day. The second single from Load, no less.
It’s a good song but except being one of the very rare (only?) Metallica songs primarily in a major key, it doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table. It’s like an upbeat version of Bleeding Me, without the emotional weight and musical heft.
Interesting but unimpressive, it doesn’t make the grade.
This is the best and “most Metallica” song to be omitted, in my opinion, and was the last to get the boot when, after some thought, I cut MotherLoad from 12 to 10 tracks.
The problem is that Fixxxer is the mirror twin of The Outlaw Torn, which, despite Fixxxer’s great, catchy chorus, is simply the stronger song. Including Fixxxer as well as Outlaw would have been redundant and so it got the axe.
Aint My Bitch
I really dig this one. Truly, I do. In the same way I dig AC/DC and Motörhead’s straight forward rock-n-roll. Not in the way I dig Metallica, it just doesn’t provide that Metallica fix. Straight-forward rock songs just aren’t this band’s forte — see also Cure, Prince Charming, and Attitude.
What lifts Ain’t My Bitch ever-so-slightly above the rest is the solid, if stock, main riff, and that sweet fast-chugging section of the chorus. However, the lyrics are uninspired, the songwriting is obvious and the arrangement conventional — “I’ve already heard this song before”, indeed. Kirk’s slide solo, while interesting and pretty cool, feels more like a casual exercise in curiosity than a serious contribution to a musical composition. It’s a decent song but a poor man’s Fuel, at best.
An Oddities E.P., Non-Album Singles, and Bonus Material
With only 10 out 27 songs making in onto MotherLoad, there is plenty of music with which Metallica could have fooled around with.
In the spirit of The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited previously, and Beyond Magnetic subsequently, Metallica could have put out an oddities extended play record. This could have featured the Loads’ more experimental cuts, ranging from the straight-up country of Mama Said to the twisted groove of Poor Twisted Me.
The $16.98 E.P.: Poor Twisted We should, in my estimation, look like this:
1. Hero Of The Day
2. Mama Said
4. Bad Seed
5. Low Man’s Lyric
6. Poor Twisted Me
Metallica: The $16.98 E.P.: Poor Twisted We, a playlist by Skúli Á. Sigurðsson on Spotify
A hypothetical oddities E.P.
An E.P. along these lines, obviously a bit of fun but yet ambitious, would have given Metallica an opportunity to flex their creative muscles without alienating the more conservative segments of their fanbase. And it would have made a good bonus CD for MotherLoad’s inevitable deluxe limited edition.
Then Metallica could have released non-album singles. With its chorus, an edited version of Fixxxer might have made a strong radio single. Back in the real world, Better Than You did get a single release — and a Grammy. One might even consider 2 X 4 as potential single material. And some of the remaining songs could serve as B-sides, many of them not really worthy of anything grander.
Finally, with several songs to go, Metallica would have had reserves for any sort of bonus material, soundtrack contributions, charity singles, or simply material from which they could recycle future music.
Wouldn’t that have been something?
Back in this, the real world, MotherLoad was released as Load and ReLoad. There was neither an oddities E.P. nor any non-album singles.
Having burnt our take on it to CDs back in the day and, in the streaming era, put together and constantly refined playlists, we the Fans will carry on the debate of the merits of a MotherLoad and what it should look like. We will never agree but we will continue to argue and discuss. We will keep having our fun with the idea of a Frankensteined MotherLoad. And we’ll never stop, we’ll never quit ’cause we’re…
Let the battle rage on.