The Canon of Heavy Metal: What if Load & Reload Were One Album (Part I): Why Do We Care?
Twenty-five years later, why do Metallica’s Load and Reload continue to fuel so many “what if?” discussions?
Danny Bednar is Canada’s second greatest geographer of outer space, an amateur heavy metal musicologist, and part-time Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at Western University. He works a 9–5 at the Canadian Space Agency and is an author with Mango Publishers. All views are his own.
All fans have ‘what ifs’ for the discographies of their favorite bands. For the last 25(ish) years one “what if” has persisted in the heavy metal, and more specifically the Metallica, community. What if the band had edited the material that made up Load (1996) and Reload (1997) into one (masterpiece) album?
With Load celebrating it’s 25th anniversary we are likely to see more of these discussions between now and Reload’s own anniversary in 2022. While they are all in good fun, and a right of fandom, it becomes curious, why do we fans do this? What is role of these fantasy track listings?
While this phenomena happens with many‘sibling albums’, it’s not always a matter of the material being released in close proximity. Note that Metallica’s debut album Kill ’Em All (1983) and their sophomore effort Ride the Lightening (1984) came out closer to one another (12 months) than did Load and Reload (17 months). Yet, live medleys aside, there aren’t threads upon threads of “What if Kill and Ride were one album?”
The lack of similar discussions around Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lightening reveals that the entertaining Motherload/Unload/overload etc… discussions are perhaps more than just fan playlist and fantasy curation. The oft-provided reason is that Load and Reload were recorded at the same time. But, as we’ll see, that’s not entirely true. Recording history aside, is there maybe more to this impulse?
Maybe something about being music fans, something about the two albums themselves, as well as something about Metallica’s history, provide some additional insight into the reasons behind this popular alternate-metal-history endeavor.
The History of Load and Reload
After a three year tour supporting their self-titled, globally successful, 1991 album Metallica (AKA the Black Album, AKA 16x platinum in the U.S.), and an appearance at Woodstock ’94, Metallica were ready to begin work on a follow-up. Having amassed a considerable amount of rough material, the band entered the studio in February ‘95 to record what they thought could become a double album.
By January 1996, after 11 months in the studio, they come to the decision to polish off the 13 most-complete tracks for an initial release of that summer. The rest of the material would be reserved for a follow-up album sometime in 1997. The decision against going with the originally intended double album was a combination of factors. One of these was the offer to headline Lollapalooza in the summer of 96. In recent interviews, drummer Lars Ulrich has also indicated that the two albums approach nixed an additional requirement off their recording deal with label Elektra. In Martin Popoff‘s excellent book Metallica: The Complete Illustrated History, front man James Hetfield explains it as simply as follows:
“We were more than nine months into the recording and we weren’t even done half of the songs…we realized it was just too much to do. Too much to swallow” (Hetifled in Popoff, 2013).
When Metallica and their new sound finally emerged from the studio, they shook the metal community even more than the “selling out” of the Black Album had five years earlier (this was a band accused of being “sell-outs” as early as their second album).
Featuring a cover by artist Andres Serrano that depicted semen and blood squeezed between two plates of glass , Load was released June 4, 1996. The album was surrounded by controversy even before its release. The (early) internet fan ‘backlash’’ to the album was put into motion by negative reactions to the moody video for Load’s lead single Until it Sleeps and magazine photo shoots which featured Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett wearing (gasp!) eye shadow. On top of it all, they had (gasp again!) cut their hair, adopted a mid-tempo bluesy sound, and joined the mega-popular, MTV-hyped, alternative music festival Lollapalooza. Metallica, the former thrash gods of the underground, had apparently let the success of the Black Album get to their heads.
The backlash from metalheads of yore didn’t hurt the album commercially. It debuted at Number 1 around the World and has since been certified 5x Platinum in the United States. For the rest of 1996, and first portion of 1997, Metallica would tour Europe and North America promoting Load and reassuring fans they were still very much metal with a relentless set list made up largely of old school fan favorites.
Retuning to the studio in the summer of 1997, Metallica finished the half-complete songs they had left behind a year earlier. Making clear in interviews that these were not “left-overs”, the band reassured already-weary fans that these were simply songs they hadn’t gotten to finalizing before the decision to release Load and go on tour. On the song selection process for Load versus Reload, bassist Jason Newsted broke it down as follows in a 1997 in a discussion with Channel V Australia:
So what happens is you pick and say ‘this song has guitar’ ‘this song has bass’ ‘this one has some vocals’, ‘this one has lyrics written’, ‘this one is this far along’ ‘this one is this far along’. ‘K, there’s 12 or 13 we can finish’. ‘These ones over here, this has only got a drum track, this has only got that, these are gonna have to wait’. That’s exactly as simply as it was, there was not any kind of ‘A here’ ‘B here’, worse [or] better (Newsted to Channel V, 1997).
Just how much work was done in 1997 to whip what would become the Reload tracks into shape has been a bit of a recurring topic in Metallica fan circles. Within this debate rests part of the justification for the assumption that Load and Reload songs can be mixed-and-matched, since they all come from the same recording sessions. Indeed, demo recordings from 1995 provide evidence that the following Reload songs existed in mostly fleshed-out form when Metallica completed Load: Devil’s Dance, Fixxxer, Low Man’s Lyric, Carpe Diem Baby, Unforgiven II, and The Memory Remains. On the other hand, much of the rest of the songs have no identifiable timelines (Bad Seed was jammed throughout the Load tour, so we know it existed as an idea before 1997).
Most accounts, including form Ulrich himself, are that all 27 songs from Load and Reload existed as rough sketches to some degree as early as the summer 1995. Answering this very question, Hetfield however had the following to say about how much “work” was done to the demos when the band returned to the studio in 1997.
Living with these songs for two years, the four of us came back with very different ideas of what they should evolve into. The good news was that we still liked them, and we wanted to put them out. But we wanted to come up with some newer sounds. We had recorded guitar tracks for a lot of these songs already, but they sounded a little dull; so we re-did them . We really stretched the limits of what a guitar and amp can do, which was fun (Hetfield in an interview for the December 1997 issue of Guitar World).
Reload, like its predecessor, would debut at number 1 and go on to be certified 3x platinum in the United States. Despite being painted by many as a softening of Metallica’s sound and image, the two albums are among Metallica’s darkest in lyrics and sonic tones. While Load is a far more bluesy album, it’s downtuned crunch is as heavy as many of the songs on the Black Album. Meanwhile, the album’s lyrical themes of mass shootings and cancerous death are more realistic, and mature, takes on life’s dark side than the band had done on their previous efforts. For its part, Reload is the more ‘experimental’ of the two, with “gloomy” an adequate descriptor for the track list as a whole (spare opener Fuel). Reload has perhaps been best summarized, by Popoff, as having “recurring doomy, bluesy, Alice in Chains-like vibes”.
Today Load and Reload have found a comfortable spot in the hearts of many in the ‘Metallica Family’. Load was an entry point for a ton of younger Metallica fans, and the presence of radio hits from the two, like King Nothing and Fuel, next to 8os standards One and For Whom the Bell Tolls blurs the lines of Metallica eras to many new and casual fans. For diehards, there is love, and disinterest, laser focused onto various points of the two albums. Because of their recording history, fans have often operated on the assumption that the two are essentially a split double album. As a result, one debate has raged: what if instead of 2.5 hours of shocking new mid-tempo, doomy blues-metal, the band put out one single album of our favorites.
Why Is This A Common Discussion Among Metallica Fans?
I am not the first Metallica fan to consider the hypothetical singular CD made up from the Load/Reload material. As mentioned, the topic has been well-trodden in forums and threads across the internet. This also isn’t unique to Metallica, it happens anytime a band releases two albums close together or even just a standard double album. But beyond their proximity, are there maybe other driving forces behind these “What if?” questions and revisionist track listings? Why do we fans get obsessed with hypothetical re-workings of a band’s past catalogue.
First, and not specific to Metallica, is the notion of “filler”. Rooted mostly in the history of vinyl and 1970s ‘album-oriented rock’ (AOR), filler, as a concept, emerged in the 60s when the music industry shifted from singles to full albums as the primary means of releasing music. “Filler” was the term adopted for all the seemingly mediocre, or downright bad, songs recorded in order to fill out a full album that may have only had one or two hits the label/radio/fans were actually interested in (even the artist could sometimes feel they had produced junk for the sake of filling the record). Today, the idea of filler thrives on those of us who grew up on physical media and memories of the ‘perfect album’ that required no skipping.
In the vinyl era, filler manifested physically. It meant having to get up to move the needle past a dull track. For cassette and CD kids, those precious filler-free albums meant that tossing a single CD in your car or backpack would guarantee as much exciting music as possible with the least space. This concept, even in the era of streaming, persists today. As we chase that mythical skip-free dragon, anything on a new release that gets in our way adopts the dreaded moniker of ‘filler’.
For Zoomers and younger Millennials, this may seem weird. The idea of filler is less of an discussion point these days. For example, I don’t foresee future Taylor Swift fans debating the merits had Taylor edited Folklore and Evermore into a single release. In the streaming era, it’s really not an issue how much material artists release, people will listen to what they want. Additionally, for many consumers, music has become what some call “audio wallpaper”, with listening a far more passive, playlist driven, experience than days of yore. With this, the idea of full albums as a listening experience is fading to history. But, this was not yet reality in the CD-era of 1996–1997.
While Metallica at the time of Load’s release had dabbled in long albums (the two albums before Load were both over an hour), they were not known for allowing so much material through their revered Metalli-filter. By most accounts, including their own, Metallica are perfectionists in the studio (so much so that they have only released 10 albums in 40 years of existence). The A Year and Half in the Life of Metallica documentary that articles the making of the ‘Black Album’ showed the Metalli-filter in action. Essentially, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich battling each other, along with producer Bob Rock, in a fight for artistic supremacy. The result being that anything at risk of being ‘filler’ was left on the cutting room floor.
Similarly, in discussions about the making of …And Justice For All, Lars and James have emphasized the overly-perfectionist nature of their (old) creative process. Recognition of this hyper-perfectionism was one reason for creative directions chosen on 2003’s St. Anger, an album known in Metallica fan circles as even less-edited that Load and Reload.
When it comes to album length, the result of the Hetfield/Ulrich Metalli-filter is as follows:
Kill ’Em All (1983) 51:20
Ride the Lightning (1984) 47:25
Master of Puppets (1986) 54:47
…And Justice for All (1988) 65:24
Metallica/Black Album (1991) 62:40
Load (1996) 78:59
Reload (1997) 76:02
St. Anger (2003) 75:04
Death Magnetic (2008) 74:46
Hardwired…To Self-Destruct (2016) 77:42
For many music fans, long (hour plus) albums are a red flag for the dreaded ‘filler’. And while the perfectionist Metalli-filter has developed larger holes over the past two decades, it was certainly strange for Metallica fans at the time of Load and Reload, among all the other changes, to feel like there was potentially “filler” on a studio album from the band. It seems fair to suggest that two very long albums in such a short period was the precipice for feelings among some fans that Load and Reload were ‘some killer, much filler’.
As for modern threads on Load/Reload combinations, most discussions seem to be driven by those of us who forged our musical interest long before mp3s or streaming. Having grown up in an era where music was housed on physical media and the listening experienced was less tailored and more connected (for better or worse) to physical media, every song matters. We grew up in a time where If you only owned 10–15 albums total, or you only brought two or three albums to play on your Walkman during a road trip, you couldn’t afford to pack an album where you only like 3 of 14 songs. Recalling our physical-media constrained lifestyles, we continue to consider, and even argue, these mythical, filler free, perfect album dragons with our fellow pre-streaming kin.
When is a Record Done?
The second reason I will propose for this phenomena, and related to the previous, is the very long and very awkward length of both Load and Reload. Also rooted in the vinyl and AOR eras is the idea that a the perfect rock/pop record should be a brisk 45 or so minutes. However, Load and Reload, each, and depending on the medium, stray pretty damn close to double-album length. With so much material, fans are bound to consider ideas of ‘fatigue’ when trying to take in and connect to so many songs. Looking at the jewel cases on our shelves, we inevitably consider, ‘what would I think of this era of the band’s catalogue if it was only the 12 songs I love most?’
In the 2004 documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Lars Ulrich lays awkwardly on a couch, below a high priced painting, philosophizing on the nature of creating art. Before being interrupted by one of his kids, we get a strange insight into Lars’ thoughts at the time on art and deciding how long things should be.
“Where are the starting points and where are the end points, you know what I mean? When is a song done? What the fuck does that mean anyway, done? When is a record done? You know when, where, does a record start, where does it end? Um where does the process begin, where does the process end. All that type of stuff you know what I mean…it’s really interesting…yes sweetie? (Ulrich, 2004, Some Kind of Monster).
Streaming be-damned, and Lars’ musings be damned, among many music fans there remains ideas of exactly “how long an album should be”, and no small part of the heavy metal/Metallica family is made up of such vintage mindsets.
Because they came out smack-dab in the middle of the CD era they are never really considered double albums, but in many ways Load and Reload are each double albums crammed onto a single CD. Had they been released a decade earlier they would have easily been double vinyl records. Just look at the length of Load and Reload compared to some classic vinyl era double albums:
Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones) 67:07
Tommy (The Who) 75:15
Reload (1997) 76:02
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John) 76:20
Load (1996) 78:59
The Wall (Pink Floyd) 81:08
Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin) 82:59
White Album (The Beatles) 93:33
Indeed, today their vinyl pressings are doubles, and perhaps for those with a vinyl mindset of ‘how long albums should be’, this is the correct way of thinking of them, as two separate double albums.
But in the CD age, they were not doubles. By the mid-90’s double albums became even bigger, as we can see by some of the most popular double CDs released in the timespan of the two albums in question:
1997 Reload (1997) 76:02
1996 Load (1996) 78:59
1997 Life After Death (Notorious B.I.G.) 120:39
1996 Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Smashing Pumpkins) 121:39
1996 All Eyez on Me (2Pac)132:20
So, while undoubtedly double vinyl’s, neither Load nor Reload were true double CDs. Nonetheless, the length of each album still puts them in awkward territory of neither a true double CD, nor really a single CD.
Comparing them to the highest selling single CDs of their respective CD-era years we see how awkwardly long each is as a stand alone CD by a major artist.
1996 Spice (Spice Girls) 39:56…a true outlier and in Reign in Blood territory of brisk (yeah I just compared the Spice Girls to Slayer)
1995 Jagged Little Pill (Alanis Morissette) 57:23
1995 Tragic Kingdom (No Doubt) 59:38
1997 Pop (U2) 60:09
1996 Razorblade Suitcase (Bush) 61:43
1997 Nine Lives(Aerosmith0 62:54
1997 Share My World (Mary J. Blige) 65:15
1997 Reload (1997) 76:02
Ænima (Tool) 77:18
No Way Out (Puff Daddy) 77:52
1996 Load (1996) 78:59
Along with Tool and Puff Daddy, Metallica were pushing the limits of what the single CD format could hold. But unlike Tool and Puff Daddy, Metallica recorded two such medium-pushing albums at (mostly) the same time. With way more material than a single CD, or even any major artist’s double CD, Metallica ended up with the ‘sibling albums’ approach, spreading two individual monster releases apart by 17 months.
Oddly, there was actually recent precedent for breaking up more than 2.5 hours of studio material into separate, but related, albums. Metallica’s tour mates from several years earlier, Guns N’ Roses, fueled by Axl Rose’s growing desire for epic grandeur, released two equally long albums recorded at the same time. Though instead of several months or a year apart, GnR opted for releasing both giants on the same day, essentially making it an unofficial double album. Below we can see the combined lengths of these giant sibling albums compared to some of the longest double CD albums from major artists at the time.
1997 Life After Death (Notorious B.I.G.) 120:39
1996 Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Smashing Pumpkins) 121:39
1996 All Eyez on Me (2Pac)132:20
1991 Use Your Illusions I + Use Your Illusions II (Guns N’ Roses) 152:04
1996/1997 Load + Reload (Metallica) 155:01
So, Load and Reload are indeed…freaks, with GNR the only fellow mainstream rock/hard rock/metal band to release such massive (length wise) albums to the market within such short order during the CD era. As a major act, and certainly as a major metal act, Metallica is essentially alone in recording 155 minutes of new material in the same batch of (all be it scattered) lengthy studio sessions and then releasing it all to the public in the span of 17 months.
The result? A contributing factor in our need to ask “what if?”. With a band as good as Metallica, we know that in 155 minutes of material there is bound to be 60 minutes (or whatever our personal concept of an album is) of pure metal gold.
Maybe if we more often thought of both Load and Reload as double albums in their own right, the discussion would move to “purifying” Load or Reload on their own rather than combining them. On the other hand, had they each been brisk 45 minute-long single CDs, maybe this discussion wouldn’t arise at all. But the way it is, we can’t help ourselves. The sheer amount of music and the number of tracks (27) we got means we can come up with seemingly endless permutations of a 13 track album (20,058,300 to be exact, 124,903,451,312,640,000 if we consider possible track order permutations).
“It Felt Right At the Time”
The third reason proposed as to why fans take on this alterative album narrative so often is the first to be somewhat specific to Metallica. It is the reluctance of the band themselves to ever really reimagine, or hypothesize about, things that are already done.
Personally, I admire this and have used the band’s “it felt right at the time” mantra to own and feel a sense of confidence in my own past decisions. And for a generation of consumers who saw how the Star Wars Special Editions kick-started an endless devolution of digitally enhanced remixed/reimagined products, it is comforting to know that, aside from some basic re-mastering, Ride the Lightning will always be Ride the Lightning.
Metallica fans know therefore that it’s quite unlikely the guys themselves would provide such a playlist to answer our queries about what could have been. Metallica is, historically, not a band to dwell on the past (sometimes to their own detriment). When it comes to their careers, Metallica tend to focus entirely on what’s next. With this attitude, the band’s two major decision makers, and founders, Ulrich and Hetfield, have always had the same response when asked “what if” questions.
I’m proud of all of those decisions because I know at that time, they were the truth and it was the instinctive and the right thing to do. And then, 20 years later, it’s like, ‘Well, how would that have sounded if the snare was on?’, or, ‘How would that have sounded if we did two instead of four?’. I don’t know — but I don’t really think about it, to be honest with you, other than when I’m confronted with it in interviews. And I wouldn’t change a thing about the past. Of course, how far are you gonna push that? Of course, yes, bus accidents and things like that, of course. But the point of what I’m saying is I just don’t spend a lot of time sitting there, going, ‘Well, if we hadn’t done that,’ and, ‘If we did this instead…’. “I’m just always too busy about what we’re doing next, and that’s just my MO. And I think all of us in Metallica generally operate like that. So we’re just always excited about the next thing, the next thing, the next record. (Ulrich on Trunk Nation, Aug 5, 2020).
For his part, Hetfield has also equally turned to the “it felt right at the time” refrain in discussing past decisions. Speaking to the Columbus Dispatch in 2008, Hetfield had this to say about decision making and his lyrics on 2008’s Death Magnetic as a newly sober lyricist:
“Yeah, there are a lot of armchair managers that think they know what’s best for Metallica. They over-think everything: ‘Why did they do this?’ ‘Well, now that he’s sober, now that they’re happy, he’s going to write some happy (stuff) and it’s all going to be over.’ We’re the happiest we’ve ever been and we’re coming out with Death Magnetic? I don’t know, no one knows. It just felt right” (Hetfield in 2008 to the Columbus Dispatch).
Whether its the mix on …And Justice For All, the attempt at commercialism on the song Escape way back in 1984, or the lack of solos on St. Anger, the answer has always remained the same.
With such anti-revisionist beliefs driving the band, any hope of a ‘Metallica approved’ paired-down Load/Reload’ playlist is likely out of the question. Instead, fans are left to their own devices in wondering how the Metalli-filter might have been applied to Load and Reload material had things been different in 1996.
The “Perfect Album” as Alternate History and Self-Defense
The final reason, and second specific to Metallica, is the place of Load and Reload in the band’s historical timeline. Load and Reload aren’t just two albums released close together. They are two massive shifts in direction released close together. They are also two critical jumping-on points for 90s kids and jumping off points for some 80s kids. With these factors comes a battle for the soul of the material that makes up these two albums.
Should all the ‘soft’ songs be cut so that its one hard 60 minute album of faster-tempo metal and less of a deviation from past albums? Or, should Metallica have leaned into the blues-metal and Sabbathy sounds to release a 60 minute record of all mid-tempo crunch? The permutations are many, and with millions of Metallica fans, many with different views of what mid-90s Metallica “should” or “could” have been, the desire to craft Load and Reload to our own personal histories is infinitely tempting.
Ironically, while diehard Metallica fans are the ones advancing this discussion, it is also us who identify with, and love, some of the deepest tracks. One would think this type of “only the best” desire would be more a concern for casual fans of the band. While many of us are diehards of at least one or more bands to the extent that we entertain ourselves by crafting alternate timelines, we are also casual fans to countless other bands that we know much less about. When I buy the record of a band I like, but am not deeply connected to, I reasonably hope that the record plays front to back without me going “uhhh I don’t like this one”. But evne if I feel there is “filler”, I’m not gonna start considering alternate track listings.
So why, if we Fifth Members and deep-cut lovers are the ones who love the so-called ‘filler’, are we also exploring their erasure from history? Recalling the factors just mentioned, please entertain me for a paragraph or two of psycho-analytical bullshit…
Perhaps among many of us, the alternative reality where Load and Reload were distilled to their purist form is one were Metallica makes a critically revered and fan-adored impact on the musical world of 1996/1997 and we, as devoted fans, are vindicated in our commitment to the band. In this alternate reality we aren’t pre-emptively taking defensive postures when Load and Reload come up in metal environments. Perhaps, in this alternative reality, we don’t have to worry about the strawman metal-hipster who only wears indie-label band shirts and provides their intrepid analysis that Metallica “hasn’t been good since Justice”.
Maybe because so many of us Millennials were impressionable and sensitive teenagers when Load and Reload came out, we were socially cornered into being insecure about our place in the confusing and frustrating metal community. As 90s Metallica fans we entered metal fandom against the better wishes of the incumbent 20-something and 30-something ‘cool’ bangers who told us we weren’t true metal heads because we listened to “sellouts” like Metallica. Maybe these alternative histories help us imagine a world where our heroes are never criticized.
Maybe…but maybe we also just really like to make playlists…it reminds us of mix tapes.
Why Do We Care?
I do hope we are at least open to the idea that there be more behind our pop-culture revisionist desires, whether its Metallica or anything else. Analysis aside though, I think many of us enjoy pop-culture revisionism as a genuine form of intra-community entertainment and fandom sharing. Whether we make ‘best of’ playlists or enjoy the full Load and Reload albums in all their gloomy glory, at the end of the day, its all in good fun. Filler, fatigue, revisionism, or sensitivity, 1996 or 2021, loving these albums, and embracing everything on them, just feels right.
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