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Metallica's ''Load'' is latest in series of hit records

Controversy abounds as the heavy metal band headlines alternative music-fest Lollapalooza

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Clad in a burgundy leather blazer, a half-unbuttoned gold shirt, and dark suede pants, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett hangs from a giant wooden cross, feigning a struggle for consciousness. His head sways to the bleak music reverberating throughout the dim and dusty Hollywood soundstage where the band is filming the video for ”Until It Sleeps,” the first single from its blockbuster-in-waiting, Load, which is due out in four weeks to the day. Suddenly, the music peters out as the director barks, ”Leave the cross up, take Kirk down!” Two assistants rush to release him from his bonds. ”I can see how this would be a good form of punishment,” Hammett mumbles, completely mesmerized by the flickering replay on a nearby monitor. He studies his own tortured image for several minutes. ”The funny thing is,” he finally adds with a lazy smile, ”I felt totally comfortable up there.”

Over the last 15 years, Hammett and the rest of Metallica — drummer Lars Ulrich, singer-guitarist James Hetfield, and bassist Jason Newsted — have grown accustomed to such unorthodox positions. As outcasts, the gloom-and-doom rockers scraped by for nearly a decade without radio play; as prophets, they abstained from party-till-you-puke-your-Bartles & Jaymes anthems in favor of raw guitar fury; as saviors, they moved the masses with 1991’s nine-times-platinum Metallica. Today, fresh from a where-have-those-guys-been hiatus, they find themselves in another strange place — an alternative-dominated world where metal music serves largely as a macho reminder of ’80s overkill. But not only are Metallica surviving, they’re trampling the alternative landscape with a leaner sound, a No. 1 album (Load, released June 4, tops the Billboard charts this week, having sold a hefty 680,000 copies in its first 7 days), scads of modern-rock-radio play, and — the ultimate alterna-visibility gig — top billing on this summer’s Lollapalooza tour.

Metallica’s rebirth has not come without pain, however. Since March, when Lollapalooza organizers first announced that Metallica would be their headliners, modern-rock geeks and Metallifreaks alike have divided sharply on whether an old-guard headbanging sensation belongs squarely in the middle of a supposedly free-spirited avant-garde fest. And they weren’t the only ones scratching their heads. ”I don’t know anything about Lollapalooza, really. The only thing I know is that it has freaks,” Hetfield offers with a laugh. ”We have a bunch of freaky fans ourselves, but they don’t tie bricks to their nuts,” he adds, referring obliquely to one of the more genuinely indie-minded performances in Lollapalooza lore — that of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow in 1992. Still, the band was more than ready for the challenge. ”Let’s face it, we’ve been around the block a few times,” says Ulrich. ”There really aren’t many places where we can play in unknown situations. Lollapalooza is something we’ll walk into and have no f—in’ idea what’s going on.”

Meanwhile, tour organizers climb an uphill tightrope. Lollapalooza cofounder Perry Farrell, who’s selling his ownership in the festival, has publicly trashed the bill — which, in addition to Metallica, features fellow crash-and-bashers Soundgarden, Rancid, and the Ramones (whose Lollapalooza performances will be among their last). Side stages will showcase more diversity and considerably less testosterone (Girls Against Boys, the Ben Folds Five, Soul Coughing), as well as a rotation of eclectic guests (Cocteau Twins, Waylon Jennings). Still, the white-male, power-chord-playin’ main stage has scared away other acts, including Bjork. (Says Susanne McCarthy of Flower Booking in Chicago: ”All my bands with offers said, ‘We’re not interested in playing because the machismo crowd won’t get us at all and we could be killed.”’)

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