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METALLICA; "Load" (Elektra). * * 1/2

It's finally here. "Load," Metallica's sixth full-length album and follow-up to 1991's billion-dollar hit "Metallica," is in the racks. The album debuted at No. 1 on Bill-board's Top 200 album list and is still selling strong. But is this the Metallica we grew up with?

Yes and no.

Yes, Metallica is primarily the same band that broke through the underground thrash-metal scene in 1983 with "Kill 'Em All." Back then drummer Lars Ulrich, bassist Cliff Burton and guitarists Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield were young rockers with denim, leather and zits.

The two subsequent albums, "Ride the Lightning" and "Master of Puppets," sold more than 2 million copies apiece without radio or MTV support.

After Burton was killed in a bus accident, the band recruited former Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted.

Metallica's angry grind and street credibility were accepted by most metalheads and modern music buffs, even with the slower tunes of ". . . And Justice for All," including the single "One," hit the racks.

Here's where the "No" part comes in. When the eponymous album "Metallica" came out in 1991, things got drastically different. Sure the power chords and growling vocals were Metallica, but the arrangements were often softer and shorter.

The singles "Enter Sandman," "The Unforgiven," "Sad But True," "Nothing Else Matters" and "Where Ever I May Roam" made it on both radio and MTV. Some hard-core fans cried out about the album's apparent turn to commercialism, but others held tight and the band's marathon of capacity-peaking shows continued all over the world. Can you say "Selloutica"?

Enter "Load."

It can't be compared to "Ride . . ." or "Master . . ." or even ". . . Justice. . . ." It can't really be compared to "Metallica," either. It's just a new album with a different tack. Once again, can you say "Selloutica"?

The band's rawness - which gave Metallica its appeal in the first place - is gone, kaput, out the window. The mega-metal grooving arrangements have been dumped, thrown out and left for dead.

Metallica has become a mainstream commercial rock band. Not quite glam, but very close. (In fact, Ulrich even looks like U2's Bono these days.)

The music's changed from "Creeping Death" and "Fade to Black" to "Hero of the Day" and "Wasting My Hate." The changes are reminiscent to when Coca-Cola introduced New Coke to the loyal guzzlers of the original recipe.

In fact, it sounds less like Metallica than other bands that are hot, or were at one time.

Take the opening cut from "Load." It rides a lick stolen from the Knack's 1979 hit "My Sharona"; and the single "Until It Sleeps" sounds like something Seven Mary Three did - namely "Water's Edge." Then there's a Kiss nod: Whether intentional or not, the opening beat and guitar hook of "Cure" sound hauntingly close to "Heaven's on Fire." Then there's a twangy country lick during "Mama Said," which can be traced to, ahem, Waylon Jennings.

Metallica isn't what it used to be. It might never be again. One thing's for sure, "Load" will sell, well, a load. But old fans won't really shove each other to get to it.

"Load" is for newer fans, who, hopefully will take the older albums for a spin to discover Metallica's true spirit.

RATINGS: four stars (* * * * ), excellent; three stars (* * * ), good; two stars (* * ), fair; one star (* ), poor, with 1/2 representing a higher, intermediate grade.