I’ll be upfront about this: I’ve not sailed on the good ship Metallica for about 15 years, and I’m aware of sounding like my dad by having what I consider to be ‘my era’ when it comes to their music. That era begins with Kill ‘Em All and ends with their self-titled fifth LP, commonly referred to as the ‘Black Album’ (though, I must say, the latter hasn’t held its value for me quite as much as the other records). In fact, when it comes to most things metal, I find it hard to enjoy anything contemporary. I say that not as a judgment but as a fact, one that I’m aware is bound up in my youthful love for the genre and the feelings it once stirred.
I last saw Metallica play live 18 years ago, at Wembley Arena. That ticket cost £11. Amazingly, last night’s gig, at the O2 in Greenwich, cost a measly fiver, which makes it the cheapest arena gig I’ve ever seen, even with the £1-per-ticket Ticketmaster fee plus a quid per order for ‘delivery’ (in quotes because the event was actually ticketless; entry was via the credit card you paid with).
The O2 struck me as a decent enough venue of its size – the sound was loud but clear, and the view from the upper tier was good, thanks to the 45-degree slope and the centre-of-arena stage. If it wasn’t for the 100 minutes I spent queuing – to get in, to buy merch and to buy some grub – the experience would have been pretty much perfect.
So, what brings me to these parts, with the obvious exception of a bargain ticket price? Well, word on the street was that Metallica had returned to the sound that brought them critical acclaim back in the mid-Eighties, when Master Of Puppets blew a Metallica-sized hole in thrash metal and set heads such as mine a banging. Their setlists were apparently being built around their early records, and Death Magnetic, a new album with Rick Rubin at the controls, was ready to touch down, which it did last week.
Whether or not it was a smooth landing has been a topic for debate on many a message board. The songs have almost universal praise, but the way they’ve been presented, in a ‘much too loud on top of way too loud’ fashion, has taken the shine off the record for many people.
I admit I found the album very hard-going to begin with; very wearing on the ears. I initially put this down to my unfamiliarity with the form, as I no longer follow the genre, as well as the fact that this album didn’t have the emotional resonance of the Metallica records I loved in my teens.
This may well have been the case, but it is clear that dynamics have been sacrificed for a wall of constant volume. It took six or seven plays before I could say that I was starting to enjoy the album, which I’m cheekily retitling Deaf Magnetic. I’m a real wag.
The O2 gig was the second ‘launch party’ for the album, the first having taken place three nights before in Berlin, and an atypical setlist was promised. Rumours that the band would perform Death Magnetic in its entirety were unfounded, but five tracks got an airing: That Was Just Your Life, The End Of The Line, Cyanide, The Day That Never Comes and Broken, Beat And Scarred. These were scattered around a set that only twice dipped into the band’s post-‘Black Album’ works, for Until It Sleeps and Frantic. James introduced the latter with an ironic: “This is from the very well-loved St Anger album. Say what you will, but this song kicks ass.” I could see his point.
The biggest cheers of the night were reserved for a gut-rumbling The Thing That Should Not Be (complete with otherworldly vocal effects, this was my favourite performance of the night) and Master Of Puppets. During the latter, James incited the crowd to “sing it loud and proud”. Amusingly, he was referring to the slow mid-section guitar solo, and 20,000 people started singing “do-do do do do do do do dooo…” James also scored big with his plea, near the beginning of the show, for people to put away their cameras and phones, forget about YouTube, and just enjoy being in the moment. As a frontman, he shone. I was continually impressed.
After an hour and 45 minutes, the main set closed with a frantic Blackened, before the house lights were turned on for a three-song encore: Stone Cold Crazy, Jump In The Fire and Seek And Destroy. Huge black beachballs bearing the Metallica logo rained down on the audience, and the stage was soon covered in them. It’s not a scene I’ve ever pictured when the words ‘arena’ and ‘inflatables’ have been spoken in quick succession, but it’s nice to make a fresh deposit in the image bank.
For me, then, this gig was a resounding success – and, I must say, a surprise. The years rolled back and I loved everything about it except for the queues. All those things I’d not experienced for ages: eyeing up all the different T-shirts (both for sale and on people’s backs); waiting with mounting anticipation for this leviathan of a band to make their entrance, and seeing the crowd treat them like returning heroes, gods even, when they did; and the simple, visceral kick of two bass drums rattling my ribcage – it was all a thrill. Which suggests that you can take the man out of the metal, but you can’t ever take Metallica out of the man.