By David Browne
Updated June 07, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

If the metal crowd has a Sisyphus, it’s Metallica. For these four dogged disciples of boys-club machismo, music is neither a job nor an adventure. It’s an immense boulder to be muscled up a mountain, and they approach each song on Load with grim, teeth-gritting determination. ”I’m digging my way/I’m digging my way to something better,” sings guitarist James Hetfield in ”Bleeding Me.” The lyrics evoke a standard Hetfield theme — the tormented individual who endures a hellish psychological or physical ritual in order to purge himself of sin or evil — and the music echoes the toil in his words. Starting with a snaky, loping riff, the song — one of the majestic highlights of Load — throbs, roars, subsides, and whips itself into a whirlwind over the course of eight grinding minutes. By the time they reprise that opening lick, the band have scaled yet another peak — until the next number, that is, when they start the process all over again.

Five years have passed since Metallica spewed their last studio album. Metallica wasn’t merely one of the few rock albums of 1991 that grabbed you by the collar and made you listen; it also represented a career-capping leap for the San Francisco-based band. In songs like ”Enter Sandman,” Metallica expanded upon their machine-gun-style speed metal without any loss in intensity, and with a massive gain in depth.

In pop music, of course, five years can be an eternity. In that time, Metallica sat back, became embroiled in a lawsuit with their label, and watched their world change. Peers like Megadeth thrashed themselves into a punch-drunk daze, and new-generation metallists like Pantera eagerly picked up the slack. Even the heavier side of alterna-rock made Metallica seem like cozy veterans, the classic rockers of heavy metal.

If you’re familiar with the way the band attacks a song (imagine a rabid dog latching on to your leg), Load offers few major surprises. None of the hip-hop thrash of Rage Against the Machine for these guys. Listen closely, though, and the influence of alterna-rock is felt, albeit in subtle ways. A new sense of economy and concision inhabits Metallica’s assault. Gnashers like ”Ain’t My Bitch” and ”King Nothing” are lean and trim, like a thick steak with the fat trimmed off, and ”Until It Sleeps” is nothing less than the band’s ”Don’t Fear the Reaper,” an ethereal melody built on guitar textures with the intricacy of a spider’s web.

Metallica also exhibit signs of emotional growth — again, very subtly. Hetfield, whose pug-nose-to-the-grindstone vocal style has never been especially easy on the ears, relaxes his throat enough to actually sing, most notably on ”Until It Sleeps.” In ”Wasting My Hate,” Hetfield growls the lyrics as usual, but the sentiments — ”Don’t waste your breath/And I won’t waste my hate on you” — are, for him, conciliatory. Further evidence of maturity is the self-deprecating humor in ”Poor Twisted Me.” Even more striking is ”Mama Said,” Hetfield’s declaration of independence from his parents’ worst traits. Midtempo songs aren’t new to Metallica, but ”Mama Said” is set to, of all things, acoustic guitars and a wispy curl of country-flavored pedal steel. What could have been a novelty becomes — shock of shocks — a stately cry for both comfort and liberation.

Naturally, speed-metal fans who feel the band peaked with apocalyptic symphonies like 1986’s Master of Puppets won’t be thrilled. Attempts at greasy-spoon boogie don’t swing like they should, and ”The Outlaw Torn,” the nearly 10-minute-long album closer, proves that improvisational noodling is better left to today’s nuevo-hippie jam bands. Ironically, grunge, a music born of far less musicianly boys and girls, has made the once famously raw Metallica sound slick, almost mathematical. (The latest Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins albums are more bristling and savage than Load.) The album’s clean but parched production serves only to make the music sound tame.

Load doesn’t transport the band to another level the way Metallica did, but neither is it as overindulgent as 1993’s windy concert box Live S—: Binge & Purge. Falling somewhere in between, it captures the band’s earnest pursuit of its Sisyphean mission: to create hard rock that reaches grown-ups and basement-dwelling teenagers. It’s Metallica’s load to bear — and it’s likely they wouldn’t have it any other way. B