Load, released approximately five years after the commercially successful album Metallica, saw the band shifting toward hard rock and away from their thrash metal roots. As on previous releases, the album's fourteen songs began as rough demos created by principal songwriters James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich in Ulrich's basement recording studio, "The Dungeon". In early 1995, the band took over thirty demos into The Plant Studios, where they would work for approximately one year. Metallica worked with producer Bob Rock, who had been at the helm during the recording process for Metallica.
The songwriting dispenses almost entirely with the thrash metal style that characterized the band's sound in the 1980s. In place of staccato riffs, Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett experimented with blues rock-based tones and styles. Additionally, Ulrich adopted a minimalist approach to his drum recording, abandoning the speed and complex double bass drumming patterns of previous albums, and using simpler techniques and playing styles. Hetfield displayed a lyrical evolution, writing what many said were his most personal and introspective lyrics. "Until It Sleeps", the album's lead single, addressed his mother's unsuccessful battle with cancer, and "Mama Said" also explores his relationship with her. All of this marked a departure from the political and social overtones of ...And Justice for All and Master of Puppets. Hammett, encouraged by producer Bob Rock, also played rhythm guitar on a Metallica album for the first time, having previously only played lead parts with Hetfield playing all the rhythm parts to achieve a tighter feel, in contrast to the looser feel they were looking for here.  Hammett continued playing rhythm until Death Magnetic when Hetfield once again played all the rhythm parts. 
At 79 minutes, Load is Metallica's longest studio album. With the CD length at 78:59, initial pressings of the album were affixed with stickers boasting of its long playtime, simply reading "78:59". "The Outlaw Torn" had to be shortened by about one minute to fit on the album; the full version of the track was released on the single "The Memory Remains" as "The Outlaw Torn (Unencumbered by Manufacturing Restrictions Version)", with a running time of 10:48. An explanation on the single's back cover stated:
When we were doing the final sequencing of the 'LOAD' album, the record company told us that we couldn't go a second past 78:59, or your CD's wouldn't play without potentially skipping. With our 14 songs, we were running about 30 seconds over, and something had to give, so the cool-ass jam at the end of 'Outlaw' got chopped.
Load was Metallica's first album on which all tracks were down-tuned to E♭ tuning. Hammett states:
I started tuning to E-flat for my riff tapes because I copied a lot of the Hendrix stuff. You know I used to try to figure out Jimi Hendrix solos, Stevie Ray Vaughan solos, Thin Lizzy solos and those three bands tune to E-flat. And so a lot of my riffs were in E-flat, and I guess when James would hear the riffs tuned in E-flat and he'd try to sing to 'em, I think he kind of liked it. He liked the break it kind of gave his voice. He didn't have to pitch that extra half step. And that's also why on both Load and Reload the primary tuning is E-flat rather than E.
Hetfield also felt that the change to Eb was a bonus, as it was easier to perform string bends in the riffs. 
The band had recorded songs on earlier albums in tunings lower than E; "The God That Failed" on Metallica which was in E♭, and the same album's "Sad but True" and "The Thing That Should Not Be" from Master of Puppets were in D tuning. The Australian CD release of Load includes a bonus interview CD that is unavailable elsewhere. 10 songs from the album have been played live including "King Nothing", "Until It Sleeps", "Ain't My Bitch", "Bleeding Me", "Wasting My Hate", "Hero of the Day", "The Outlaw Torn", "2 X 4", "Poor Twisted Me", "Mama Said". Songs that have not been played live in their entirety are "The House Jack Built", "Cure", "Thorn Within", and "Ronnie".