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When it comes to the likes of Metallica, not even the band knows what's going to happen next.

From the multi-platinum sales of the band's first three albums without the aid of music videos during the MTV-smothered '80s, to the monster multimedia assault of its "Binge and Purge" video and CD boxed set to a direction shift on its new album, "Load," the San Francisco-based quartet has done things its own way."Nothing we've done has been calculated," lead guitarist Kirk Hammett said during a call from a restaurant in Los Angeles. "Things just sort of happened over time."

Metallica - featuring Hammett, rhythm guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Jason Newsted - will play the Delta Center Thursday, Jan. 2. The heavy rants of Korn will open the show at 7:30 p.m.

In addition to the new album, Metallica changed its appearance.

Everyone had run-ins with barbers and headed to the dressing room for a glam-like makeover. Hammett also indulged himself in a barrage of body-piercing sessions.

"We took a couple of years off and all this stuff happened," Hammett said about the new look. "We didn't think it was that big of a deal. And it really surprised us that everyone else made such a fuss. But it's cool, because we like controversy."

Like is too soft a word, let's try love.

In the early '80s, when the other heavy-metal bands were teasing their hair and dotting their faces with beauty marks (Poison and the likes), Metallica prowled the Los Angeles Sunset Strip and assaulted listeners with a faster, more-aggressive style that tapped into the Motorhead vein.

Hammett, who had formed another grinding metal band - Exodus - before he joined Metallica, said his latter band's fame took all who were involved by surprise.

"We were shocked," he said. "I figured we'd be a club band for the rest of our lives. No one knew what to think when we'd crank out `Whiplash' and `No Remorse.' "

Controversy followed Metallica, which at that time featured bassist Cliff Burton, everywhere it went. The band settled for "Kill `Em All" as its debut album title because the record company refused to use the working title - which is unprintable in a family newspaper. In earlier interviews, Hetfield has said "Kill 'Em All" was how the band felt about the big-label executives who initiated the refusal.

After Burton was killed in a bus accident in 1987, the band regrouped with Newsted and made "$5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited." The band used the "$5.98" title to prevent record executives from jacking up the album's retail price.

"We love controversy," Ham-mett reiterated.

The most controversial move the band has made in the past five years - with the exception of co-headlining a tour with Guns N' Roses - is playing Lollapalooza earlier this year.

"That show was different because, for obvious reasons, it wasn't our production," Hammett said about the former modern-music/culture-themed festival. "But it appealed to us because it was so controversial."

Founder Perry Farrell of Porno for Pyros fame felt the festival - which in the past featured the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction - had run its course and threw it up for grabs.

"Load," Metallica's follow-up to it's widely successful "Metallica" album, contains bits of country, blues and surf chords and was just another logical step in an unpredictable career.

"The album isn't much different than the last," Hammett explained. "But it did shock us when it came out.

"We aren't afraid to do things our own way," Hammett said. "The only thing we were worried about was getting the album out."

After a pause, Hammett said the band is returning to the studio in May for a new album.

"That's relatively quick for us," he said, acknowledging the band's tradition of releasing an album every two to three years. "But we really love to be controversial."