By Rick Mosher

Metallica has always been something of a problem. They’re loud, ugly, and probably armed. Their lyrics, the ones you can decipher, stink. They’re filthy rich and ludicrously popular, worshiped by hordes of white punks on dope. On the other hand, they’ve been responsible for some of the most soul-stirring rock and roll ever made. Though they toiled in relative obscurity for years, their new album, Load, is being trumpeted by Rolling Stone as the biggest release of the summer, and recently a new twist has been added to the simple Metallica-equals-heavy-metal equation. Metallica, as everyone knows, is headlining this year’s Lollapalooza festival, the ne plus ultra party for “alternative” bands and their fans. Of course, the term “alternative” has become highly suspect, and now that the world’s most popular and well-paid bands are called alternative, it’s never meant less. I trace the beginning of the end to the first time the late, great Blaze, the last bastion of Spinal Tap-oid metal radio in Chicago, first played Helmet. Such miscegenation was bound to cause trouble, and now, five years later, it’s here.

It’s tempting to think of Metallica as this generation’s Led Zeppelin, as each represents the zenith of popular heavy metal for its time, but the comparison doesn’t really stand up. Led Zeppelin was huge from the start, made up of gods who dominated the hard-rock world with a mixture of sex appeal and pseudo mysticism, and a musical arsenal that went well beyond (but of course included) thunderous riffing. The members of Metallica started out as a bunch of leather-and-denim stoners; the four delinquents on the back of Kill ‘Em All look to be about 18, eyes drooping, hair in that familiar Prince-Valiant-gone-to-seed do that burn-outs favor. You can almost smell the bong water. Singer/guitarist James Hetfield, especially, looks like he’s about to pass out.

And while Led Zeppelin’s early recordings are basically pop, complete with hummable melodies and verse-chorus-verse structure, Metallica’s first few records are intricate, obsessively arranged assaults. Often cranked to hyper speed but just as often held to a punishing march, the songs on Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets make Led Zeppelin’s most rocking moments, like “Immigrant Song,” say, sound quaint. Led Zeppelin made perfectly wonderful heavy mainstream rock; Metallica made perfectly wonderful noise.

But there is a band that can reasonably be considered a Metallica analogue, the band that 25 years ago served as the alternative to the Led Zeppelin mainstream: Black Sabbath. Sabbath’s grim, unwieldy take on Led Zeppelin’s riff rock was appreciated, in my high school at least, by only two relatively small groups of males: serious burnouts and kids who owned an electric guitar. Unlike Led Zeppelin or Kiss or Aerosmith, Black Sabbath was almost never in the pages of Creem or Hit Parader. Their albums were available, but never abundant, and forget about finding a Black Sabbath T-shirt. True, they toured the stadiums, but the one time I saw them half the crowd left after Blue Oyster Cult’s opening set, leaving a small but enthusiastic gang of serious burnouts and kids who owned an electric guitar. The difference between Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath may be the distinction that “alternative” at one time referred to; when you chose Black Sabbath, you were pretty much on your own.

Fans of Metallica spent the band’s formative years in a similar situation. Although plenty of people had heard the name, it was usually associated–correctly–with the small but thriving thrash-metal community. As opposed to the blow-dried, androgynous metal of Def Leppard or Poison, thrash metal was fast and furious, a brutal but precise amalgam of speed-freak early punk –Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen–and the heavy riffing of 70s metal. This genre was always marginalized, even in the adventurous climate of the last half of the 1980s. While those in the know were listening to Nirvana and Mudhoney, Metallica was still appealing to that seemingly eternal population of stoned underachievers.

In addition to their related positions on the compass of cool, Metallica and Black Sabbath shared a sensibility. At the risk of sounding reductive, there’s one Black Sabbath song, “Symptom of the Universe” from 1975’s Sabotage, that I’ll bet young Hetfield spent a lot of time with. On this song, metal’s protoboneheads take their one and only hit, “Paranoid,” and boil the original riff down to two antagonistic notes. Even more powerful and atonal than “Paranoid,” “Symptom of the Universe,” with its murderous unk-unk-unk-unk, is the obvious jumping-off point for roughly half of Metallica’s early output, and the basis for Hetfield’s signature insistent rhythm-guitar style (some say he stole it from his early bandmate, Dave Mustaine, but the point remains). Even at a million miles per hour the audacious Black Sabbath attack could be heard.

This description of Metallica only works in the past tense, since (1) they haven’t stayed alternative, and (2) they don’t rock like they used to. I don’t have a lot of patience with the old “sellout” argument; to blame a band for getting popular is to forget why people join bands in the first place: to be noticed. And if your favorite underground band gets huge it has to be at least partly your own fault, unless you never told a soul about how great they are. Also, bands don’t like to make the same record over and over, so their sound is liable to change without notice. There’s nothing you can do about it except sigh and move on. That brings us to the new Metallica album, which can be summed up in one word: sigh.

We should have seen it coming. Ever since Master of Puppets, a harrowing meditation on the abuse of power, Metallica has steadily upped the fluff. The runaway train of “Battery,” the first track on Master of Puppets–drums as artillery sounds like a corny idea, but believe me, it works–carries so much momentum that it’s hard to believe the band would ever slow down. A follow-up, …And Justice for All, wasn’t quite as thrilling, though any record with a song like “One” on it has to be taken pretty seriously. But the next full-length studio album, the eponymous “black album,” which catapulted the band to mainstream stardom, showed an alarming trend toward funereal ballads and a highly unattractive self-absorption; the low point was “Nothing Else Matters,” which featured the memorable declaration “Oh these words I don’t just say.” The album was redeemed by the tremendous “Enter Sandman” and “Wherever I May Roam,” which were a long way from poetry but still hauled enough freight to shake your bones. So it seemed that the worst you could expect of Load was that it might have an even lower ratio of power to pap than the black album.

But Load is a turd of a different color. Metallica have hung on to the goofy balladry–“Mama Said”–but the distinctive, unsettling attack of their louder songs has been replaced by a generic alternametal blur. Most of the songs you’re likely to hear on the radio, like “Until It Sleeps” or “The House That Jack Built,” don’t sound much like Metallica at all. In fact this plunge into the mainstream has already been taken by Alice in Chains, so Load winds up sounding dated right out of the blocks. A lot of it sounds like a cut-rate version of Alice in Chains’ Dirt, which is both a lot scarier and a lot less predictable than anything Metallica has done here. At least Soundgarden–also appearing at Lollapalooza–uses unexpected chord changes and weird melodic twists. On Load Metallica’s big innovation, besides enervation, is a vaguely surf whammy-bar flourish on “Until It Bleeds.” Big deal. There’s simply no excuse for ponderous bullshit like “Bleeding Me,” or “Thorn Within,” which squanders a promising riff on a tedious, energy-sapping arrangement. And “Ronnie,” the story of a troubled kid who pulls out a gun one day and shoots all his little friends, is a shameless rip-off of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy.” Metallica tries to regain its lost muscle on songs like “Wasting My Hate,” “King Nothing,” and “Cure,” but for the most part the riffs just sit there. It doesn’t help that Hetfield’s melodramatic bellow, which was pretty cool when he was howling about sea monsters on Master of Puppets, is now wrapped around some of the most pretentious “fear me” lyrics you’ll ever hear. About the only glimmer of the band’s previous glory is “Ain’t My Bitch,” but even that suffers from stupid lyrics and a boilerplate riff.

There is one interesting development, though, a track called “Hero of the Day.” It’s a strange animal to find on a Metallica album, with a pretty melody and a chord progression lifted directly from Fleetwood Mac’s “Hold Me.” There’s a nice little double-kick drum bridge that perks things up at the right time, too. Hetfield tries to shoot himself in the foot with an embarrassing lyrical flourish (“Excuse me while I tend to how I feel”) but it’s only a flesh wound, and the song survives. Is this a new direction for Metallica? I guess it could be worse.

Let them have their fun, and their millions, and sail off into mainstream glory. You really can’t blame them, and they’ve certainly earned the right to do whatever they want. At least there’s still Pantera. For a while, anyway.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by James Crump and Record Jacket-“Load”.