Art is Dumb: Revisiting Metallica’s Load & ReLoad
Put on your fanciest monocle and fill your belly with your finest bag of wine; today we’re discussing art.
Some Kind of Monster, the most delightful documentary in the history of hatewatching, provided us with a heartwarming scene in which Metallica co-founder Lars Ulrich packs up his collection of absurdly valuable contemporary art and then proceeds to get ripshit drunk while making a very large fortune from auctioning the pieces.
What prompted the Danish Prophet to hand off a Jean-Michel Basquiat to some hedge fund-managing asshole (I’m assuming)? He got married, had a couple of kids, and needed to get rid of his bachelor junk. I would have sold off the Pac Man machine before cleaning house of the modern classics but I’m barely a hundredaire, so what the hell do I know? This auction was the culmination of a long obsession with modern art for Lars. Along the way, his tastes shaped the image of a band very much in transition from young thrash punks to one of the biggest bands in the world.
Somewhere after creating one of the best-selling albums of all time, Ulrich took an interest in the cutting-edge and transgressive contemporary art of the 80s and early 90s. Though the band spent the latter half of the 90s releasing music that can be considered significantly more radio friendly than any other period in the band’s long history, Lars and co-conspirator Kirk Hammett pushed the visual boundaries of Metallica by working with controversial artist Andres Serrano. The result? More than 10 million CD racks in American homes proudly display artwork featuring some dude’s jizz.
Load introduced Metallica’s brand new logo atop a photograph of Blood and Sperm III, a mixture of bovine blood and semen pressed between plexiglas. ReLoad used Serrano’s Piss and Blood, another mixed media combination of cow’s blood and, uh, piss. Who was this strange artist and why was he so keen on working with substances that emerged via his pee hole?
Andres Serrano gained global infamy with his groundbreaking 1987 work Immersion (Piss Christ), a beautifully shot photograph of a small crucifix dunked in a tank of urine.
This 60″ by 40″ image has scared the goddamned bejeezus out of the religious right for the entirety of my life. Exhibits of the piece are regularly protested and the art itself is occasionally vandalized. Over the years its existence has been the go-to argument for fundies to, uh, de-fund arts in America. Though almost 30 years old, Piss Christ still enrages scores of the pious and charlatans alike. If you want to give a young Libertarian a coronary, show them Piss Christ and let them know it was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. Seriously, do it.
As much as Piss Christ enraged the mainstream, it fascinated a world of artists and musicians. Fear Factory named a song after the work on their Groundbreaking album Demanufacture. The crust junkies among you will recognize the title was taken on as the moniker of Pisschrïst, Australian d-beat band. Legendary industrial band Godflesh were so taken by Serrano’s work that they hired him to direct the video for “Crush My Soul” (eagle eyed viewers will note that the video features deceased masochistic performance artist Bob Flanagan, best known for his roles in mega-disturbing videos “Happiness In Slavery” by Nine Inch Nails and Danzig‘s “It’s Coming Down”). Kirk Hammett, longtime Godflesh fan, loved the video for “Crush My Soul” and suggested that Metallica work with the controversial artist.
Or, you can let noted art historian James Hetfield break it down for you:
“Lars and Kirk were very into abstract art, pretending they were gay. I think they knew it bugged me. It was a statement around all that. I love art, but not for the sake of shocking others. I think the cover of Load was just a piss-take around all that. I just went along with the make-up and all of this crazy, stupid crap that they felt they needed to do.”
The cover of Load is easily one of my favorite album covers of all time. Regardless of your opinion of the hard rock direction of the band, you cannot argue that the visual is deeply compelling. Knowing the origin of the materials is just icing on the cake (brb barfing).
It would be a disservice to conclude any discussion of Load-era art without mentioning the video for “Until It Sleeps”, the first music video released in the two-album cycle. Directed by Samuel Bayer, auteur behind pretty much every big modern rock video of the 90s (including “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Zombie”), “Until it Sleeps” perfectly encapsulates the art of the time. The visuals are rich and expressive; they feel expensive. Harkening back to years of massive budgets and world-famous directors, the video is undeniably 90s without any horrifically dated tropes like fisheye lens or grainy filters. It is incredibly unfortunate that some of the emotional heft of this video about Hetfield losing his mother to cancer is softened by Lars Ulrich’s baffling decision to use the climax of “Until It Sleeps” as an opportunity to show off his new nipple rings.
Best of all, “Until It Sleeps” is clearly an homage to The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, a massive triptych depicting the Garden of Eden, the Earth, and a siqq rad gnarly vision of Hell. Bayer recreates some of the surreal and horrifying images used by Bosch. Unfamiliar with Bosch? The 15th century Dutch painter and likely crazy person has influenced the artwork of countless metal records since the dawn of distortion. He has been called the first heavy metal artist. You won’t find any argument from me.
In May of 2002, Lars Ulrich walked in to Christie’s with Basquiat’s Prophet I and walked out with a few million dollars. A year later, he and Metallica LLC would release Ja Rule collaboration “We Did It Again” for the soundtrack to Biker Boyz and the universally derided St. Anger thus putting a cap on the hard rock era of the band and ushering in the era of terrible nü-Metallica. The years since have been artistically dull, aside from a fascinatingly strange and mostly unlistenable collaboration with Lou Reed. What can we expect next? As the band approaches their 35th year of existence, perhaps they should work with an artist that can really capture the essence of their latest sound. Based on the rough demo of “Lords of Summer” that Metallica demanded fans pay $1.29 to hear, I suggest the rotting corpse of Thomas Kinkade.
While compiling this piece, I was tempted to define the “Big 4” of artists from this era of the late 80s/early 90s. You’re welcome.
Andres Serrano – Undeniable talent. Political commentary. Loathed by a large swath of the population. MEGADETH
Matthew Barney – Deep commitment to a niche that seems foreboding or even comical to a wider audience. Also previously employed the talents of Dave Lombardo. SLAYER
Chris Ofili – Arbitrarily shoehorned onto a list of 3 more-famous artists. ANTHRAX
Jeff Koons – Awful. Not good. Very bad. Beloved by the rich and the stupid. Will.i.Am