Metallica’s “Load” Cover: When Art Gets a Bit Too Fluid

Metallica’s 1996 album “Load” presented a fusion of art and metal, showcasing a cover that sparked as much intrigue as their music. The album’s artwork, a mix of blood and bodily fluids, became a defining moment in the band’s visual legacy.

A split image displaying on the left the album cover of Metallica's 'Load,' featuring abstract, flame-like patterns of swirling red and black, with the band's name at the top and the album title below. On the right, the artist Andres Serrano, who created the artwork, is pictured with a friendly, subtle smile, his curly hair graying at the roots, indicating his maturity and creative spirit behind the iconic album art.
Metallica’s “Load” cover and Andres Serrano

The Art Behind Metallica’s ‘Load

When Metallica released their album “Load” on June 4, 1996, fans were in for more than just a musical surprise. This artwork, a creation of the renowned artist Andres Serrano, was part of his controversial series crafted in 1990. Serrano’s distinctive approach involved mixing bovine blood and his own semen between two Plexiglas sheets, resulting in an abstract, yet deeply evocative image.

Serrano, known for his unorthodox use of bodily fluids like blood, semen, and urine, often submerged objects in these fluids to create his compositions. His “Blood and Semen” series, including the piece used for Metallica’s album, exemplifies this method, presenting abstract forms that are both intriguing and unsettling.

These works explored themes of sexuality and religion, often intertwining them in a way that challenged societal norms and sensibilities.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Serrano’s art, particularly pieces like “Blood and Semen V”, sparked controversy for their bold use of materials like urine, blood, semen, and milk. These works explored themes of sexuality and religion, often intertwining them in a way that challenged societal norms and sensibilities. The creation of the “Blood and Semen” series during the height of the AIDS crisis added an additional layer of context and provocation, juxtaposing the symbolism of life (semen) with that of death (blood).

Serrano’s approach, especially evident in works like “Piss Christ” and the “Blood and Semen” series, was intentionally confrontational. His art aimed to shock and challenge the audience’s perception of what is sacred and what is profane. By combining religious iconography with elements related to sex, bodily fluids, and death, Serrano’s work became a focal point in the cultural and ideological battles that defined America in the 1980s and 1990s.

Metallica, Godflesh, and Serrano’s Art

The journey that led to the striking cover of Metallica’s “Load” album began with guitarist Kirk Hammett’s discovery of Andres Serrano’s work, an encounter facilitated by an unexpected source. Hammett, an avid fan of the band Godflesh, found himself introduced to Serrano’s art through Godflesh frontman Justin Broadrick.

During a meeting with Godflesh in San Francisco, Hammett’s appreciation for their music paved the way for a conversation with Broadrick. This interaction proved pivotal. Justin Broadrick introduced Hammett to Serrano’s work through the music video for “Crush My Soul”, which Serrano directed. The video, characterized by its provocative and controversial style, left a lasting impression on Hammett. Its distinct imagery, blending religious iconography with intense visuals like cockfighting, marked Serrano’s debut in directing music videos.

Justin Broadrick introduced Hammett to Serrano’s work through the music video for “Crush My Soul”, which Serrano directed.

The production of the “Crush My Soul” video, which cost $75,000, was bold and transgressive, to the point that mainstream music channels like MTV deemed it too controversial to air. This unapologetic approach to art resonated with Hammett, sparking an interest in Serrano’s broader portfolio.

This newfound fascination led Hammett to introduce Serrano’s work to the rest of Metallica. The decision to use “Semen and Blood III” as the cover art for “Load” represented a significant shift for Metallica, both musically and visually. It was a move that ignited controversy and sparked discussions among fans and critics, marking a new, daring era for the band.

Broadrick later reflected on this sequence of events, observing how his introduction of Serrano to Hammett may have influenced Metallica’s choice of album art for “Load”. While he acknowledged the creative freedom of artists, Broadrick couldn’t help but feel that Godflesh had played a role in planting the seed for Metallica’s artistic direction, even if they weren’t directly credited for the discovery.

The Artistic Divide in Metallica

Metallica’s decision to feature Andres Serrano’s “Semen and Blood III” on the cover of their “Load” album wasn’t just a random choice; it was deeply rooted in the band members’ personal interests and internal dynamics. Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett’s profound interest in abstract art played a significant role in this decision. This inclination towards exploring new realms of artistic expression was indicative of Metallica’s experimental phase during the mid-to-late 1990s.

However, this artistic venture, particularly the choice of the “Load” album cover, wasn’t universally embraced within the band. James Hetfield expressed his discomfort with this direction, a sentiment he shared in a 2009 interview. Hetfield felt that the changes in the band’s image, including the controversial album cover, were at odds with his personal identity and what he believed Metallica stood for. To him, the “Load” cover art and its associated imagery represented a departure from the band’s authentic essence.

Hetfield felt that the changes in the band’s image, including the controversial album cover, were at odds with his personal identity and what he believed Metallica stood for.

Hetfield’s resistance to the “Load” cover art stemmed from a belief that it failed to represent Metallica’s true spirit. During these years, often referred to as the band’s “wilderness” period, internal disagreements over the band’s image and sound were pronounced. Hetfield was particularly against the reinvention of the band’s image, which he felt was epitomized by the “Load” cover.

Hetfield viewed Ulrich and Hammett’s artistic choices, including their appreciation for abstract art and the selection of Serrano’s artwork, as somewhat of a betrayal or mockery of Metallica’s ethos. This led to Hetfield removing at least half of the pictures intended for the album’s booklet, a move that highlighted the internal conflicts within the band.

On the other side of this artistic divide was Lars Ulrich, whose deep-seated appreciation for fine art can be traced back to his childhood. For Ulrich, art offered a sanctuary, a realm distinct from his identity as a member of Metallica. His affinity for Serrano’s work, reflected in both the “Load” and “Reload” album covers, was a personal expression of his connection to the art world.

Ulrich regards the covers of “Load” and “Reload”, both adorned with Serrano’s art, as his favorites. He values the imagery and the artistic statements these covers represent, mirroring his broader interest in and engagement with the art world beyond his role in Metallica.