Metallica’s two-hour set Saturday night started while the sun was still up, and it ended with what can only be described as a metric shit-ton of fireworks.
As news of the events in Charlottesville swirled around the festival, the heavy metal rockers from Los Angeles had some vague words to offer on the importance of music bringing people together — “We are one because we are here together celebrating life,” said frontman James Hetfield at the start of the set — but mostly they had the crunch of heavily distorted guitar to drown out the outside world.
Watching Metallica play live is a bit like watching a documentary come to life — a critical piece of music history, legends, in the flesh. As one of the big four thrash metal bands (alongside Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth), the group members seemed well aware of their historical legacy, casually making their way around the stage setup without any particular hurry or urgency.
The band opened with “Hardwired” and “Atlas, Rise!” from 2016’s Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, setting the tone for a set with a curiously high proportion of new material — about half of the songs performed were recent, the rest being drawn from the band’s extensive back catalog.
This didn’t seem to bother anyone, in part because Hardwired… is the clearest attempt the band has made in two decades to return to its early roots — decades filled with critical, ill-directioned flops such as St. Anger, Lulu, S&M and Death Magnetic.
Whether giving up on new directions to return to the riffs of Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning represents artistic faineance on Metallica’s part could easily be argued, but that would be missing the point. From the perspective of a live set in front of thousands of new and longtime fans, the return of Hardwired… to the band’s oldest styles was perfect; it allowed the band to draw from its oldest and newest cuts while maintaining a sonic uniformity throughout the night.
That said, the convenience of frontweighting the set with primarily newer songs meant fans had to wait more than an hour for favorites “Master of Puppets,” “Fade to Black” and “Seek and Destroy.” They had to wait almost two hours — into the encore — for “Battery,” “Nothing Else Matters,” and the iconic “Enter Sandman.”
That sonic consistency also meant that, for those less familiar with Metallica, the set was a true marathon of speed-metal, rarely broken for a moment of recuperation or differentiation — the sole exception being a somewhat cringe-worthy interlude 30 minutes into the set, in which the band members all participated in a mini drumline with massive timpani-esque drums. It was a move that might be more at home in a twenty one pilots, Bastille or (especially) an Imagine Dragons set, and in all honesty, with the exception of Lars Ulrich, the gentlemen of Metallica are not very good at drumming.
“We’re getting a little better at that drum thing,” Hetfield shrugged afterwards, “It’s kinda fun.” He didn’t seem particularly sure.
In fact, Hetfield’s inter-song dialogue was one of the strangest elements of the set. At times it was cutesy — he spoke directly to two extremely adorable kids in the crowd with shock-dyed hair about them being the next generation of music listeners. At other times it was oddly casual, like an off-the-cuff comment not really delivered to pump up the crowd — and his attempts to pump up the crowd generally amounted to tapping his microphone and asking, “Is this thing on?”
At one point, he asked, “Do you want heavy, SF? Do you want heavy now?” As the audience cheered its reply, he bellowed: “Metallica gives you heavy, baby!” — which came across more like an “I am Groot” line than a legitimate preparation for a headbanger.
The headbangers themselves were undeniable. The group’s musicianship was never for a moment in question — Hetfield’s intricate rhythm guitar, Ulrich’s double bass drum hits, Robert Trujillo’s flying basslines and, in particular, Kirk Hammett’s lead guitar were impressive displays at the intersection of noise and precision. And as the pyrotechnics took over at the end of the set, the band basked in the floodlights, throwing whole solo cups of picks to the audience and smiling a lot like those boys they singled out in the audience — a softening that might’ve come with age but sure as hell hasn’t extended into their music.