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"I only like Metallica's first four albums!" It's a phrase many people have heard when discussing this band. It's a statement usually taken to mean the metalhead in question is truly, absolutely only into metal and will take none of that sell-out crap. That they only enjoy, of course, their early thrash metal albums; the only good Metallica albums. Is it a matter of them being pure and unscathed by the forthcoming commercial breakthrough that culminated in the sell-out albums that followed? Is it because their songwriting and riffwork prowess was inherently superior? Or is it simply because they're metal? Now, I'm not here to make a case for or against those first four; everybody has heard them, everybody knows what they sound like, and consequently everybody has differing opinions about them. Maybe you only like the first two, maybe you only like the debut, maybe you don't like them at all. It's not a big deal, because discussions regarding Metallica aren't very interesting these days. I, for one, like a few songs here and there, but listening to those albums as a whole doesn't do much for me.
In any case, there's this widely shared view by the metal community claiming that, after ...And Justice for All, the band sold out and began sucking. Maybe some fans still like their self titled, or some tracks out of it, since even if it's poppy and commercial, it's still metal. However, once you get past that point, very few actually find some worth in Load. It isn't a metal album; not at all. It is, at best, a hard rock album with some experimentation with other genres thrown in. Even then, a small group of people still like it, or at least one or two of its tracks. I've even met a person who once claimed it was their favourite Metallica album! Strange, huh? But then it may still be at the very least understandable, since they probably like the new adventurous take on songwriting the band took on the album, or something like that.
But then you get to ReLoad, and shit hits the fan.
It's just an album full of Load out-takes, isn't it? Even the band themselves have said so; that it's simply a bunch of songs that didn't make it into the first one, or that it's merely its second half. The result is still the same; it's still one of their least-liked, and certainly their least well-remembered album in general. Hell, I could say most people haven't even listened to it all the way through beyond the first four or so songs. And here's where I have what is one of the weirdest opinions regarding the band, ever: Even though I don't like or dislike their early albums since I would rather listen to much better 80s bands, ReLoad is my favourite Metallica album. In fact, I could say it's probably my favourite commercial album from the 90s.
Musically speaking, it's absolutely fun to listen to; it's catchy, and so focused on the interplay between simple songwriting and simple riffs, that I can only imagine the sad context in which these songs must have been written. That's because, for me, this is where the band truly found a ground that worked perfectly in their favour. After years of writing some rather bland thrash, trying (and mostly failing) to make poppy heavy metal, and then releasing an album full of experimentation in a way that I can only see as a desperate method to find what could end up working for them, they released a straight out hard rock/grunge album which was so far away from what fans could ever expect, that everyone pretty much promptly hated it right away.
The music is very mid-paced for the most part, for one. However, instead of opting to go for the chug-chug Pantera riffing which was so popular at the time, the riffs are very bluesy, and they have a distinct melancholic rocking sound to them. Load had the issue of being sometimes too ambitious for its own good, as the band weren't used to playing some of the styles in it. However, this one mixes bare bones rock stripped down to elements which were much easier to arrange with a couple of more experimental tracks. As a consequence, there's little to no filler here. Every song has, for the most part, solid main riffs coupled with one or two other riffs that mostly just play off motifs from the main one, giving the songs an overall sense of cohesion. To put it in better terms; on other albums, the band just went way over their heads on what they could accomplish musically, which is why some sections simply don't work out in the end. But on ReLoad, they already had years of experience on their shoulders, and at the same time they were trying out for a very simple approach regarding the riffwork, the songwriting, and their performances. Therefore, they excelled at it by toning it down.
A good example of this improvement via toning down is Lars Ulrich's drumming. He has never been particularly good or interesting as a metal drummer, but he adopted a very minimalist style for both Load and ReLoad, resulting in a performance that not only made much more sense given his abilities, but is also infinitely more enjoyable because his metal background allowed him to play with a particular groove that wouldn't have worked out right if he were a standard rock drummer. The drums also have a very wide resounding sound-space, which allows them to shine without getting too bright like they did on The Black Album. This is especially true for the sound of the kick drum, which is trebly as per usual but doesn't get rough on the ears because there are pretty much no double bass drumming parts whatsoever, aside from a couple of seconds on "Fuel" and "Bad Seed". And when they do appear, they're slow; giving the music something that I can only describe as a marching feel, instead of the tickticktick produced by the stream of 16th notes that plagued ...And Justice for All. This, coupled by the fact that the album is pretty mid-paced overall, means Lars's performance and sound fits much better than on other albums, actively complementing the riffwork while having a few moments to shine by itself.
The drumming has a very interesting interplay with the bass. Jason Newsted is a good enough bass player, and he has a very rough tone here. Not only is he able to work around the low end by playing around the drum patterns, but he will sometimes start playing a bass line different from the guitar riffs, but in a way which mixes both the rhythmic and melodic parts. His work on "Devil's Dance" and "The Memory Remains" is particularly stand-out, as it is the most varied and probably the coolest to listen to, but his dark, brooding bass lines on "Fixxxer" are the ones I enjoy the most.
I've listened to this album a couple hundred times already and I always find some little melodies in the background that are so subtle you wouldn't notice them without headphones, and yet so essential that such sections would feel half-empty without them! I have never been a big fan of Hammet's soloing on other albums, but his bluesy style fits ReLoad's theme perfectly. He also tones down considerably on his overuse of the wah-wah pedal, instead opting for a very tasteful mix of bluesy pentatonic scale soloing and slower, more emotional sections. His solos on "The Unforgiven 2" and "Carpe Diem Baby" are very good examples of this, and probably my personal favourites.
There are layers of guitars in the background here and there which work surprisingly well, even though they're so subtle you can't actually notice them without actively looking for them. Considering Kirk's career, I would have never thought of him as a subtle guitarist, ever. Early on he mostly just lapsed into weedly-doos and wahwah-wees whenever he wanted, regardless of their place in the songs. Even his work with the wah pedal works out better here because he uses it in a way more reminiscent of a "voice" instead of as a way to mask his shitty playing. Take the solo on "Where the Wild Things Are"; it's much slower than what he usually plays, it's very short and to the point, and, given the context and theme of the song, his use of the wah pedal sounds downright frightening because of it.
However, in spite of the brilliant performances present here, it's the songwriting and arrangements that really do this album for me. The songs are of medium-length on average; not being either too short or too long for the most part, which allows them to build up their themes comfortably. There's a lot of variation, even if at the core it's a simple album! From dumb sing alongs like "Fuel" (which I love to sing along to even though more than half the lyrics are James Hetfield shouting the words "YEAH!" and "HEY YEAH!"), to pretty ballads such as "The Unforgiven 2" and "Low Man's Lyric", which are actually quite different from each other. The former is the best power ballad in their career while the latter sounds closer to a dark bluesy folk song. I really like that "All ah want from you is forgive mayeeeeh..." section on it; which also features something akin to Hetfield trying to do a southern accent or something, which I guess works considering the general vibe of the track. "Carpe Diem Baby" is my favourite track off the album because it manages to mix pretty much all of these elements in the fashion of a dark/light interplay. Even if the lyrics are terrible - "Then make me miss youuu ohh yeaahh~!"
On that note, Hetfield's singing lessons really come to shine, with him giving off the single best vocal performance in his entire career. ReLoad uses a big amount of vocal overlays and harmonies which perfectly support the already strong main melodies, and improve a good performance by what is usually a merely decent singer. He gets to sound great on the ballads, and also on even stranger songs such as the psychedelic aforementioned "Where the Wild Things Are", where he sounds maddened and despaired, to the Motörhead-influenced (that's right!) "Prince Charming", where he sounds downright rockin'. Nevertheless, it's the vocal harmonies that really cut it - I'd be hard pressed to find a section where there aren't two or more Hetfields singing at the same time, exploring both his lower and higher registers which hadn't been very present before.
Production-wise, I'd say it's the best work they ever did. I'm not sure if there's any aesthetic difference between this and Load's, but they're still both good. The guitar tone sounds crunchy, and way heavier and thicker that what you'd expect from a hard rock album, so that's obviously a plus since the guitar tone has always been Metallica's strongest asset. As I already mentioned, the drums sound huge, but at the same time they sound rich and full of dynamics - you can hear and distinguish the tiniest things, like when Lars hits a hi-hat with more or less strength than usual. The mixing isn't muddy in the least bit, allowing you to listen to every single little detail on everyone's performance - from the low gurgles of the bass, to the guitar picks lightly scraping against the strings. If you look for it, you'll find it. The rhythm guitar doesn't completely overpower the leads as it did on the self titled either, so when the solos come into play, they take the centre stage.
The album isn't without a couple of flaws, but they're nothing out of the ordinary. "Better Than You" doesn't do much for me in general, and sometimes I lose interest during the a couple of sections in the middle section of the album. If you took the best tracks off Load and put them here instead of its weaker sections you would have a hell of an album - but it would also be like 100 minutes long and that would be kind of overkill. In any case, this really is my favourite Metallica album, and it's the only one I actually listen to all the way through on a regular basis. I'm pretty sure I'm all alone here regarding my views on it, but that's okay. I enjoy it whole-heartedly, and I guess that's because I've never been the biggest fan of the band's other works. But enough of that, you should probably give ReLoad a chance, and listen to it in a mood other than "this is a sell-out album and therefore it sucks because it's not the usual Metallica". It's a fun little rocking album that manages to remain consistent most of the way through, which is a feat no other album by the band has accomplished so far. The saddest part out of this is that they found the best sound in their career, the one they could be really comfortable with playing, only for most of their fans to completely hate it and lash out against them - no wonder Lars ended up suing them.