Metallica appears to be doing well. But looks can be deceiving. While the band continues to sell millions of albums (and put on great mind-blowing live shows), the quality of the band's new music is slipping.

It's a shame the last two albums have been nothing but mediocre, especially if you reflect on such albums as "Kill `Em All," "Ride the Lightning," "Master of Puppets" and ". . . And Justice for All." Even the more mainstream hard rock of the band's 1991's self-titled black album had an intense edge to it."Load" (1990) was the obvious step from the black album, but it was a mixed bag. From the hard march of "King Nothing" to the uneven "Hero Of the Day," Metallica seemed confused and appeared to be reaching for anything that would surprise anyone who was familiar with the band's style.

In "Load's" case, the freshness went stale fast.

"Reload" isn't much different when it comes to sluggish surprises. While "Load" had a "My Sharona" chord-progression sound alike with "Ain't My B----,"

"Reload" has another early '80s-song sound alike. "Fuel" starts off with the chant "Give me fuel/Give me fire/Give me that which I desire." Think of Toni Basil and you get: "Oh, Mickey/You're so fine/You're so fine you blow my mind."

But what will irk the true Metallica fan is the fact the band toyed with one of its best songs. On the black album, there was a gem of a tune called "The Unforgiven."

The moody string-picking intro brought to mind Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "A Fistfull of Dollars." And the lyrics touched the hearts of a good sample of Metallica fans. The song was about facing the world and society alone.

Well, if you haven't heard it yet, "Unforgiven II" - which is being played on the radio day in and day out - is a bastardization of the powerful original. It starts the same as the original but finds itself losing luster after the first couple of true chords. Even guitarist Kirk Hammett's solo tries to capitalize on the original's dynamics but fails to soar to the next level.

Lyrically, "Unforgiven II" is about a loner who finds a girlfriend, so (sniff, sniff, sob, choke) the two misfits can confide in and lean on each other when facing the big, bad world.

The album's first single "The Memory Remains" is one of the strongest cuts on the album. But when Marianne Faithful's raspy druid-like chants cut through the music, images of Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge" stomps around the brain (complete with midgets and a 2-foot styrofoam set).

Songs on "Reload" were recorded and mixed from the sessions that comprised "Load." And it's apparent that "Load" got the best of the batch. And even then, that fruit was a little mushy.