With new album Death Magnetic showing a return to form after the below-par St. Anger, well documented in the film Some Kind Of Monster, I was keen to finally see Metallica live – having first heard them on record in 1988. They haven’t played in Manchester for 13 years, and have recently only played festival dates in the UK.
We're running late. Afraid that we'd missed the opening of their set, we'd walked briskly through Manchester's rain-soaked centre. Luckily, we hadn't missed anything, except the support act. Just time to try to find our seats, when the familiar tune of Ennio Morricone's Ecstasy Of Gold (from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly) began - the full-capacity crowd cheered and sang along in unison.
And they’re off. The first track is from Death Magnetic, it’s performed in almost complete darkness apart from a laser-fest. We can’t really see anything except for the drums, but we can hear it – it’s loud. Ribcage-rattling loud. In to the second song, also off the new album, and the lights are up. We can see them, finally.
The first thing that struck me was that there were no video screens. But it didn’t matter: Metallica perform in-the-round, which in an arena really means that you can see them even if you’re up in the rafters. James Hetfield flits between eight mic stations dotted around the stage, singing to each corner of the crowd. Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo also use each of the stations to perform backing vocals and stunt guitar solos. Lars Ulrich’s drums are in the middle on a circular riser that is turned to face the four sides of the venue throughout the set.
It’s a pretty serious Metal affair – plenty of running around; marathon songs with numerous time signature changes and an endless supply of riffs; rock-out endings that step up a notch from an already speedy tempo; pyrotechnics; hammy theatrics. As polished as you’d expect from a band that’s been playing this stuff for 28 years. But the overall mood is quite cheerful, joyous even. There’s something quite primeval about the riffs, the chugging guitars and thrashing drums. It’s almost as if you can’t help but to nod your head.
There are moments of levity and self-awareness however. Hetfield asks the crowd if any of them have the new album, ‘with the little coffin on it? … It’s supposed to be a coffin...’ The lighting rig previously high above the stage at one point lowers and is revealed to be four coffin-shaped boxes. During the encore, at a stage where you’re thinking there can’t possibly be more, hundreds of black (what else?) Metallica beach balls fall out of the sky. It’s like they’re out-Tapping Tap. It does look like they are having fun too.
The sound was far too bass-heavy, which was a real shame: you couldn’t actually hear Trujillo’s bass guitar for Lars’s bass drums and the slightly too chuggy guitar sound. So for that reason only 4 out of 5 because it spoiled the music a little.
Highlights for me in the 2-hour set were For Whom The Bell Tolls, Enter Sandman, and a blistering rendition of One. They change the set each night they play, so it’s by no means guaranteed that they’ll play your favourite track, with a few exceptions. Their set consists mainly of classic tracks and it’s a testament to their return to form that the new stuff sits comfortably next to those, sounding, well, classic.
That Was Just Your Life - [Death Magnetic, 2008]
The End Of The Line - [Death Magnetic]
For Whom the Bell tolls - [Ride The Lightning, 1984]
Wherever I May Roam - [Metallica, 1991. aka The Black Album]
One - [...And Justice For All, 1988]
Broken, Beat And Scarred - [Death Magnetic]
Cyanide - [Death Magnetic]
Sad But True - [Metallica]
Turn The Page - [Garage Inc., 1998; cover of Bob Seger song]
The Judas Kiss - [Death Magnetic]
The Day That Never Comes - [Death Magnetic]
Master Of Puppets - [Master of Puppets, 1986]
Blackened [...And Justice For All]
Nothing Else Matters - [Metallica]
Enter Sandman - [Metallica]
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Blitzkrieg - [Garage Inc.; cover of Blitzgrieg song]
The Prince - [Garage Inc.; cover of Diamond Head song]
Seek and Destroy - [Kill 'Em All, 1983]