Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Metallica + Machine Head + The Sword, Newcastle 3rd March 09

If you had told me twelve months ago that not only would I be waiting, with a great deal of excitement, to see Metallica in a massive arena but that I would also have willingly forked out £45.70p for the privilege of sitting somewhere near the back in the top corner of said arena I would have dismissed your prediction as poppycock. But here I am, or rather there I was and the questions we need to address ourselves to are how did this come to be and was it any fucking good?
There can be few bands in the history of music, let alone heavy metal, who once having got it so right then proceeded to get it oh so very wrong as Metallica. My relationship with the band has been something of a love affair and as with most love affairs the starry-eyed, we’ll-be-together-for-ever stage eventually gave way to mistrust, bitter recriminations, years of indifference and finally a sort of nostalgic curiosity for what might have been coupled with the jolting wake-up call moment when one realises that for all the unfilled dreams and possibilities you are where you are and the past has passed.
The day I bought my first Metallica record I was going through a massive Sammy Hagar/Montrose phase and couldn’t decide whether to buy Sammy’s 1978 live album “Loud N’ Clear” or a new album called Ride The Lightning by a band I’d only heard once on the radio (strangely I already had a record with a Metallica-orientated cover – in 1983 Roadrunner Records had issued a compilation album called Metal Battle, with tracks by Anvil, Mercyful Fate, Battleaxe, Venom, Raven, Jaguar etc and although the record had a picture of James Hetfield’s groin on the cover it didn’t contain any Metallica songs). In the end I bought them both, making a substantial dent in the saved-up dinner money and un-used bus fares that formed my weekly record buying budget in the autumn of 1984. In the conservative spirit of heavy metal Ride The Lightning was an evolutionary step rather than a revolutionary jump and as such it did not question the legitimacy of my Iron Maiden, Saxon, Dio or Judas Priest albums but in subtle ways it was a very different beast. I already had a lot of Motorhead records and Venom were one of my favourite bands but although Metallica were obviously, reassuringly heavy metal and the art, photos and aesthetic of Ride The Lightning did nothing to offend my trad-metal tastes it was different - faster, heavier, younger, fresher and better. A record made by men barely in their twenties rather than blokes in their thirties - it might have been simultaneously the last hurrah of the NWOBHM (recorded by Americans in a studio in Denmark!) as well as the beginning of a new chapter in metal.
I went back a few weeks later, with more saved-up dinner money, and bought Kill ‘Em All. I played those records a lot, back to back, interchanging them with Thin Lizzy’s Live & Dangerous or Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind as I did my homework until the new, fresh sounds became the norm, changing the way I understood heavy metal and the way I viewed myself. I first saw Metallica in 1985 at Donnington, sandwiched between Ratt and Marillion and although at the time I didn’t notice it things were changing, indeed they had changed and metal was running away with itself, new bands making new sounds for new times. By the time Metallica toured the “Master Of Puppets” album and played Newcastle Mayfair in September 1986 they were a big band, fresh from an arena tour with Ozzy and a massive, headbanging challenge to the bands that I been listening to for the last five years. The change had come, metal had splintered and diversified. Cliff Burton may have had a Rush patch on his jeans and worn a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt but it was no longer acceptable, hardly even possible to admit to liking Thrash and the older, safer bands. I was to see Metallica a further 4 times, again at Donnington in 1987 and three gigs in the autumn of 1988 on the Justice tour. They were heady days, drunk with passion and the freedom that only those without responsibilities or cares for the future know. Metallica were a talisman for those who grew up in the ghetto of 80s metal and for a few, bright golden years in the bliss of my youth Metallica were the most exciting band in the world, their young metal attack building on shared metal roots and propelling us forward into new places.
Things change. Love affairs cool and die as expectations are reassessed and realities grasped. Metallica were exploding into arenas around the world, playing second-fiddle to Guns N Roses, making records with the git who produced Bon Jovi. What was happening, what had happened to the band I had loved, the band who had made me care about the here and now rather than trying to live in the 1970s? In the summer of 1991 I went into a record shop and came out with two albums, Metallica’s Black Album and “In The Name Of Suffering” by a band called Eyehategod that I’d never heard before and which I bought on the strength of the cover. I played that EHG album back to back. To this day I still haven’t heard sides 3 or 4 of the Black album. And that was that. It was dead and I walked away, got on with my life and if I ever thought of Metallica it was as a band who once had it all but blew it away on lear-jets and limousines.
Not for the last time I was swimming against the tide. Millions were flocking to them in their stadium years and as they pumped out that same crappy, chuggy, happy-go-lucky riff to Enter Sandman again and again in front of tens of thousands of uncritical Beavis’s and Buttheads, as James went through his rehearsed crowd-swearing routine and burped for the cameras their lawyers were doing people selling fake merch outside the gates. This was business, Lars Ulrich as CEO of his own rock n roll corporation, making public statements that called his fans thieves for downloading a song from the internet whilst making a record with Marianne Faithful and wearing eyeliner in photo shoots. We all laughed at Some Kind Of Monster but we were all entitled to – Metallica were a joke. Metallica – once the most vital, alive heavy metal band on the planet were now crass, childish millionaires who couldn’t write a song, couldn’t take criticism and were falling apart. I would have happily left them there, squabbling over their collections of modern art and fretting that even Jason’s short-lived nu-metal practice band was better than Metallica if it wasn’t for one thing – Death Magnetic is actually a pretty good album.
Somehow Metallica made a good album. But lets not get too excited. At the time of the release of Death Magnetic in 2008 and in the midst of all the media frenzy and coffin-shaped boxed editions I took a look at some of the on-line reviews. They were all very similar; return-to-form this, thrash-metal that, riffs-riffs-riffs the other. Even the “rock critic” of the Sunday Times felt able to pronounce, seemingly with no sense of sarcasm, that Death Magnetic was “the best metal record of the millennium”. Obviously the reality is that Death Magnetic wasn’t even the best metal record released that month but it was, and this is the point, the best record Metallica had released for 20 years. If the production was criticised for its radio-centric sound and gripes were aired about the band releasing an alternate version for the Guitar Hero video game when all was said and done it wasn’t a bad album. Certainly not as bad as some of the dross the band had released during their wilderness years of platinum discs, sell out stadium tours and orchestra collaborations. So, as I began to warm to a few of the songs on Death Magnetic and even began to remember some of the lyrics and riffs I wondered if it might be worth making peace with the past and giving Metallica one more chance, maybe even going to see them again.
Arena gigs – I’ve had a few but then again, too few to mention. There’s only one reason bands play arenas – it enables them to maximise profit. At last nights gig the audience were kept waiting in the foyer of the arena so that opportunities to spend money on merch or sample Guitar Hero were not wasted, maybe Lars was sat in his hotel viewing the sales figures on his laptop and judging the right moment to open the doors? Whatever the retail motive for keeping us penned in like cattle when The Sword came on the seats were half empty and the sound dull and muddy. Anybody not familiar with the back-story of The Sword might be forgiven for thinking that they were average but for all their self-proclaimed allegiance to the spirit of true heavy metal I find them a hollow, unsatisfying experience. It’s all about paying dues and The Sword are very much in debt. Exposed as a marketing-departments master-plan to sell watered down metal to the MySpace generation this is a Potemkin-village of a band who’s financial backers have bought them a slot on the years biggest tour but who, when all is said and done, can’t hold a candle to the bands they are so shamelessly copying. High On Fire, The Gates Of Slumber and Grand Magus sound the way they do because they grew up loving Black Sabbath, Celtic Frost and Venom – not Ween and Smashing Pumpkins. It’s simple really.
Machine Head are an irrelevance, a nasty scab on the arse of metal that refuses to fall off. I hate this music – songs buried beneath a flurry of double-bass, vocals rapped out in staccato bursts of tough-guy angst and woolly-hat nu-thrash which seeks to mask a lack of heaviness with a squiggly mess of bouncy half-riffs. Teenagers, impressed by the swearing and the bands heartfelt idiocy, hop and jump about in safe little huddles, arms pulled in to protect their bodies as they bounce harmlessly off their friends. Machine Head have the audience they deserve.
As Saxon’s Heavy Metal Thunder fades into the Ecstasy Of Gold intro tape and the house lights go out the excitement hits me. The arena is filled with screaming and roaring, lasers carve pyramids and pathways through the darkness and the band kick into their 2 hour set. It’s tight and precise, as it should be – Metallica have been touring this material for months – and I start to get that old buzz, to move from Self 1 to Self 2, to use some Ulrich-approved Inner Game Theory. But I am no longer a believer, not one of the Beavis’ or Buttheads’ down around the stage viewing the gig through the medium of an up-held camera-phone. I am not fodder for Metallica’s stadium-a-thons and I want more before I will be satisfied.
It’s not until the band play Harvester Of Sorrow that I really begin to feel at home – not with the audience but with the band. I look around and take in the audience, they are all ages, from small children to large, matronly women chaperoning their retarded sons and a lot of them are not very metal. To my right a group of women wave a bed-sheet with a message on it, giggling to each other as if it’s a Robbie Williams gig, bending their legs and pumping flabby bingo-wings along to the riffs. I realise many of the thousands of people present tonight have no shared metal roots, there is no common bond amongst the audience, no shared values or passions that makes gigs great and unites audience and performer in something much greater than the sum of its parts. They are along for the ride, glad of the change from a night in front of the telly and unburdened by concerns about the validity of playing heavy metal in vast, corporate arenas. And without those references points, the shared history and disappointments they are happy in their roles of spectator, fulfilled just by being there and quite oblivious to the internal contradictions contained in Metallica’s underground heroes to corporate cash-cow story. But look away from the pop-corn eaters, down towards the stage and you can see a band still capable of playing real heavy metal; Hetfield is an authoritative performer, smiling and relaxed, open and friendly but with a presence and respect that is rare from a multi-millionaire. Lars is still a skinny creep with a fat face whilst Kirk seems to be happy enough now that he’s got solos to play again. The other one dresses like a nu-metal basketball player and I can’t help wondering what they saw in him but looking down on the democratic stage-in-the-round layout, blazing beneath the lights I can see again why I once loved this band even if now I only hold them in fond regard.
It’s not all smiles and applause though, as the stage blasts out clouds of rolling fire and the stark, funereal coffin rig hangs over the band like a skeletal claw they play through the core of a set taken largely from Death Magnetic. The tracks sound crisp and snappy, stadium-filling trade-marked Metallica songs that gets the audience moving but as slick, crunchy and adequate as these songs are I won’t be taking them to my grave; Death Magnetic is a good album and better than anybody had a right to expect from this band at this point in their careers but not one that bears comparison with some of the earlier material, which was not merely good but magnificent. I’ll trade you Cyanide for Battery or The Judas Kiss for Creeping Death and then we’ll see who’s laughing
The highlight of the show is the rendition of “The Day That Never Comes” followed by a furious, up-tempo version of “Master Of Puppets”. Metallica have always been at their most epic and dynamic when they take their foot off the peddle and blend heaviness with melody. Both Kirk Hammet and James Hetfield owe a lot to the Blackmore/Schenker/Roth school of guitar playing and the tension and feeling they put into “The Day That Never Comes”, with it’s slow-burn riffs and blazing twin-lead solos shone through, just as the slower melodic section in the middle of “Master Of Puppets” is the foil for the thrashing rage of the riffs and chorus. When Metallica get it right they are as jaw-dropping and uplifting as arena metal gets.
By the time they played Blackened I was won over, engaged by the passion and performance and encouraged that James and Kirk, at least, still remember what the Metal in Metallica stands for. I still don’t want to hear Enter Sandman again as long as I live and the sight of the crowd clapping its hands and stamping its feet along to that brainless, pop-riff was enough to sicken a pig – especially compared to the bemused look of indifference that seemed to sweep over the crowd when the band knocked out Whiplash but these days frenzied madness is in short supply and leathers and spikes have been replaced by kids in cardigans and hair-gel. If you can tune out the surroundings, forget that you have been herded into a huge shed with 12,000 other consumers and focus on the stage you can, at points throughout the set, also forget the misery and embarrassment the band has been through. Just like bumping into an old girlfriend and finding that actually she isn’t, as you feared, a fat old drunken trollop with a wart on her chin and six kids you leave Metallica gigs in 2009 with a slightly warm, fuzzy feeling and promises to meet up again at some point in the future.
That Was Just Your Life
The End Of The Line
Harvester Of Sorrow
No Remorse
Broken, Beat And Scarred
Sad But True
No Leaf Clover
The Judas Kiss
The Day That Never Comes
Master Of Puppets
Nothing Else Matters
Enter Sandman
Killing Time
Seek & Destroy
The photographs used to illustrate this piece were taken by Drone at Manchester, 26th February and Sheffield, 28th February 2009. Many thanks for his permission to use them here.

1 comment:

Pat said...

Dude - you are a poet.