Depending on who you talk to, Metallica either have kept metal alive by constantly updating their sound or have been responsible for killing off the music during the '90s in some sort of calculated, slow burn. Rock critics generally applaud the foursome for taking chances in an otherwise predictable genre, while rabid fans agonize over the band's allegiance to metal. Are Metallica bending too much, they ask, to the demands of an ever-changing rock world?
Metallica's seventh album, Re-Load, comes on the heels of last year's Load, a record that purportedly drove an alternarock stake through the heart of the band's metal career. But strident fans were responding more to the band's short haircuts on the CD booklet than to any musical change on Load. Despite what they say, both that record and Re-Load — which were originally slated to be a double LP — are more influenced by bluesy rock & roll than by any '90s trend. And like all Metallica albums, Re-Load is strongly rooted in the group's apocalyptic metal sound.
Still, there are a few departures. The biggest change is an increased emphasis on rhythm. Up to now, Metallica have been more interested in fist-shaking assaults than in butt-wagging grooves. But songs such as "Slither" and "Bad Seed" possess the dance-floor lure of, say, AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long." Both numbers swagger with powerhouse rhythm guitar accompanied by singer James Hetfield's thunderous voice. The evil bump and grind of "Devil's Dance," featuring Hetfield's monstrous groans, is equally gyratory, yet it out-ghouls Marilyn Manson.
The second-biggest deviation here from the Metallica formula is the band's continued exploration of country & western. "The Unforgiven II," a follow-up to the '91 hit, comes complete with a Stones-y slidelike guitar and sweet — yes, sweet — harmonies. Still, "The Unforgiven II" isn't as captivating as its echoey, cavernous predecessor. The country influence works better on "Low Man's Lyric," which incorporates what sounds like Irish flute and a bagpipe's drone. Its lyrics are true to country as well — "Bring this poor dog in from the rain," sings Hetfield, lamenting the plight of the downtrodden.
Hetfield's voice has gotten more assured with each Metallica release since 1991's "black album." In between guttural growls on Re-Load, he actually croons and harmonizes outside his normal safety blanket of roaring anger. Lyrically, he still relies on the warped imagery of puppets and clowns, as well as metal dungeons-and-dragons-type doom. He strays into less-predictable territory, though, on numbers such as "The Memory Remains." There, he paints a picture of dashed fame, singing about a "faded prima donna." Marianne Faithfull — yes, Marianne Faithfull — contributes some Marlboro-wrecked "la la la" 's to the track, almost personifying the lyrics.
But does Re-Load rock? The aptly titled "Attitude" says yes, sporting ferocious dual lead guitars and full-throttle, bluesy energy. Hetfield sings, "Just let me kill you for a while/Just let me kill you for a smile." On the head-banging scale, it gets a seven. The punishing "Prince Charming," meanwhile, features Hetfield's deviant vocals and psychedelic wah-wah by guitarist Kirk Hammett.
Metal fans should still be grateful for Metallica: Wherever the band may roam musically, it presents hard-rock fortification against SoCal ska lite and scary pop phenomena such as the Spice Girls. But if the foursome is not capable of making a truly bad record anymore, Re-Load is not one of their greats. Like the transitional albums that moved the band from the pure aggression of Kill 'Em All to the flawless "black album," Load and Re-Load are just steppingstones in the ongoing Metallica legacy.