Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Metallica live: the thrash is back.

Metallica, Death Magnetic Tour, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, January 13:
Before we talk about The Biggest Band on the Planet, let's start with the two opening acts, The Sword and Machine Head.

The Sword:

Clack clack clack.

Clack clack clack.

BLAM! Clack
BLAM! Clack
(Muffled singing; hair swinging in slo-mo headbanging motions.)
"Thank you, goodnight."

Nice kids, very sincere, playing to a house of maybe 4,000 people, getting warm but perfunctory applause between songs.

Exit stage left.
House lights.
Set change.
Lights down.

Machine Head:

(Guitar solo)
(Barrage of F-bombs)
(Iron Maiden cover song)
"Thank you! Goodnight!"

The metal version of a warm-up comedian before a TV talk show audience, these guys appear to have been hired to make sure the crowd, now roughly double what The Sword played to, has its headbanging and Raarrgghh! shouting skills warmed up for the main act.

Exit stage left, house lights up — "Metallica will take the stage at precisely 8:55," the radio DJ said while the WB entourage sat in a traffic jam at the freeway exit earlier. But 8:55 comes and goes. Men in gray suitcoats and black trousers, looking a lot like Secret Service guys except for being partially MIG instead of all MIB, move in and out of the tunnel leading backstage.

9:05. The crowd, at nearly-full capacity of 20,000 people now, starts a dammit-let's-get-started cheer, sustains it for a minute or so, loses it. The MIGs move in and out of the tunnel some more. A few of them talk into two-ways and look around the arena, importantly, checking stuff.

9:15. The crowd starts its fourth WTF!? cheer, clearly impatient now. Commotion at the tunnel entrance is picking up noticeably, with dozens of people exiting from backstage and taking positions on the floor.

9:18 — a roadie runs out of the tunnel with a bass guitar in hand, dashes it across the stage, parks it in the guitar cabinet, runs back. The crowd, sensing impending action, roars.

Seconds later, the lights go out; the opening bell chime of Ennio Morricone's "Ecstasy of Gold" rings from the loudspeakers; the crowd is instantly on its feet and screaming. WB has a fleeting thought — all that wait for one stupid bass guitar? — but is enthralled and adrenaline-rushed by the majestic, stirring spectacle of ten thousand lighters burning in the darkness as the volume and intensity of the Morricone piece builds to its high-note finale.

And then the stage explodes in a laser light show so utterly awesome that there's an audible Whoa! (pronounced ho-ly shit!) from 20,000 astonished mouths simultaneously, as the opening crunch chords of "That Was Just Your Life" erupt, and the Metal Masters of the Universe suddenly appear under four spotlights on a huge play-all-four-sides stage set up with eight microphones, a revolving drum riser, and a pyrotechnic system that will burn blue, pink, white, green, and intensely hot orange through the two-hour set list that follows.

That set list will be heavy with tracks from Death Magnetic and Master of Puppets, two albums that prove this band's supremacy at writing songs of complex structure and blazing-fast delivery. Unfortunately, the sound quality at this show, keeping with the trend with most concerts in general, will be essentially horrible (regardless of the claims of excellence made in Mix magazine by Metallica's sound engineers). Every slide on the mixing board is pushed to MAXIMUM, knocking out most of the music spectrum and leaving no difference between bass and drums, drums and lead guitar, lead guitar and vocals. Everything's set to eleven, and the arena is filled with a music-killing decibel overkill rate approaching white noise. (And Mix knows that this is a problem, too. Now, when will its readers — i.e. professional sound engineers — pay attention?) The sound quality for the headliners, of course, is generally better than what it was for the two opening acts, but that's not saying a lot — where Machine Head was all bass, Metallica is all treble.

Luckily, with Metallica, it's not the music; it's the event — the act of experiencing a primal celebration of, well, Raarrgghh! — as part of a giant pulsing organism that knows exactly when to pump its fists, chant, clap, and sing... or something like singing. It's the lighting, the stagecraft, the banter between songs and James Hetfield talking about everyone present being members of "the Metallica family."

All around the Internet, the tawdry and tedious melodrama still unfolds about the many perceived anti-metal crimes Metallica has committed: the radio-friendly short songs on the Black Album, the MTV videos, the testimony against Napster, the simultaneous haircuts, and worst of all, the St. Anger (a.k.a. "Got Pro Tools?") album. But this is a band too big to care about any of that stuff anymore. Metallica does what it wants to do, and you can come along for the ride and enjoy watching four multi-millionaires bashing out your favorite songs, or you can stay home and post to discussion boards about how angry you still are over the Bob Seger cover and the fact that Jason Newsted quit.

Yes, it sure looks like Lars Ulrich is working much harder than he used to at the drum kit, especially with so many of the fast songs coming back to back to back. (A couple of times he appeared to fall behind the timing pretty noticeably.) And while Hetfield rocks a blond mohawk these days, he also has a beard that's snow white. Kirk Hammett (left) is Kirk Hammett, looking how he's always looked and jaunting around the stage as he's always jaunted. And Rob Trujillo is a prowling, lumbering lunatic on the bass, at one point holding the instrument out at arm's length and spinning himself around so many times that the audience got dizzy watching him. Four massive caskets, taken from the Death Magnetic cover, hang over the stage to function as giant lighting rigs, sometimes descending, then tipping, rotating, upending — maybe as a reminder of creeping mortality and advancing age, or maybe just as a reminder to buy the album if you haven't already.

Either way, the Four Horsemen proved to the Motor City that memorable songs are way more than just guttural howls and thumping power chords, and that if you want to hear the great old songs — and the great new songs played in the old style — your best bet is to call in the old guys. Even if they hold up their show over a stupid bass guitar.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Capwell said...

Great review. Oughta be in Rolling Stone. Makes me hoarse just reading it.