On June 4, 1996, hundreds of thousands of Metallica fans started flocking into stores to buy the band's newest album, Load – to the tune of 680,000 units sold in America during that first week alone. Others despaired, however, over the surprising new experiments with the beloved thrash metal pioneers' sound.

The funny thing is, most of the songs captured for Load over the preceding nine months of painstaking studio work had a lot in common with Metallica's previous album, the commercial watershed known as the Black Album – if not their preceding thrash classics. And despite some similar complaints from the band's die-hard mosh-pit dwellers about the Black Album, it still shifted an unprecedented 12 million copies around the globe. So, could it be that all the furor surrounding Load was somewhat exaggerated or, perhaps, related to the way in which Metallica was now presenting itself, visually and in interviews? This question certainly bears investigating, but let's focus on the music first, shall we?

Load’s first number, the venomous “Ain’t My Bitch,” would have fit the Black Album like a glove, and so would the equally pissed-off “Wasting My Hate” and mid-paced riff-mongers like "2x4," "The House that Jack Built," "Cure" and "Thorn Within." Likewise, the anthemic, big screen panoramas of “King Nothing” and “Hero of the Day” seem cut from the very same cloth as “Enter Sandman” and “Wherever I May Roam.”

Furthermore, Load's wonderfully self-pitying "Poor Twisted Me" harks back to "My Friend of Misery," and even the epic doom twins, “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn,” were really just slightly bloated sequels to “Sad but True” or even ...And Justice for All's "Harvester of Sorrow" and Master of Puppets’ “The Thing That Should Not Be,” for that matter.

So, was all the outrage caused by the truly unconventional (for Metallica) country music stylings of the heart-tugging "Mama Said," or possibly the altogether weird revenge story line of "Ronnie"? The only remaining culprit, at this point, was Load's big single, "Until it Sleeps," with its incremental melody and an artsy music video filled with striking visual references to the works of Hieronymus Bosch, and directed by Samuel Bayer (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins). The video represented a major departure from those Metallica had produced beforehand, and while the song become Metallica's first U.S. Top 10 single, perhaps it forced fans to confront the visual changes that, most likely, fueled all this animosity against what it represented, not what Load sounded like.

In his unofficial Metallica bio Enter Night, author Mick Wall deduces that, "for Lars Ulrich, the logic was [that] if Metallica could no longer fulfill the role of outsiders, then the least they should do is [rise] to that pantheon of bands that existed somewhere way beyond the conventions of rock fashion." Quoting Ulrich from a 1996 interview, Wall wrote, "Now you got U2, R.E.M. - and Metallica. After [Kurt] Cobain came along everything became so blurred. Nowadays, bands are just bands: some are harder, some are softer, but heavy metal and pop and this and that ... it's all just one big f---ing soup."

Listen to Metallica Perform 'Poor Twisted Me'

It may have been this philosophy that gave the members of Metallica carte blanche to break out of their familiar head-banger mold, even though Load, by and large stuck to their most recent musical guns. There was, for example, their brand new haircuts, as seen in CD package's band photos, which alternately depicted the quartet in stylish outfits, sometimes wearing drag and  makeup, all of it shot by photographer Anton Corbijn, known for his work with U2 and Depeche Mode.

This direction, James Hetfield would later claim in a 2009 interview, was driven by Lars and guitarist Kirk Hammett. "The whole 'We need to reinvent ourselves' topic was up," he said. "I think they [Lars and Kirk] were really after a U2 kind of vibe, Bono doing his alter ego. I couldn’t get into it. The whole 'Okay, now in this photoshoot we’re going to be 70s glam rockers.' Like, what?"

Even Load's cover image came in for criticism. Though it looked, at first glance, like the flames on a hot rod, artist Andres Serrano had created the effect with a mixture of bovine blood and semen pressed between two sheets of plexiglass (the original was later purchased by Hammett), and this too somehow became a controversial talking point. "Lars and Kirk were very into abstract art, pretending they were gay [and] I think they knew it bugged me," Hetfield continued. "I love art, but not for the sake of shocking others."

Metallica was definitely coping with changing internal and external forces while conceiving the music and surrounding elements of Load, something Hetfield told Wall might not have come to pass had bassist Cliff Burton still been alive. "I [think] there would have been some resistance [and] I probably would have had an ally that was very against the U2 version of Metallica," he surmised.

Burton's replacement, Jason Newsted, also wasn't thrilled with the new direction, telling Playboy, "At first, it didn't sound very much like Metallica to me. I like the fast heavy stuff. I don't think Metallica should do country. I don't think that tasted very good to me."

Still, Hetfield defends Load's contents. "There's some great, great songs on [Load]," he told Wall, "but all the imagery and stuff like that was not necessary."

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