Wow. If I’m being honest, Metallica ceased being an exciting live proposition for me around the end of the eighties. Too sloppy, too self-absorbed, too self-regarding for my tastes; Even the Black Album, which I proudly stand up as a fan of, fell flat in the live arena ‘back in the day’. So the prospect of a trip to a freezing stadium in Manchester (in the middle of fucking June! Kirk Hammett was onstage rugged up like it was the middle of November!) to witness the Phantom Lords live again really didn’t fill me with much of anything that could even vaguely be labelled as excitement. That all changed today in Manchester.
Opening track Hardwired does nothing to allay your humble interlocutor’s fears; it sounds rushed, it sounds ill-considered, it sounds under rehearsed. But after that, everything improves. Abso-motherfuckin’-lutely. The new songs -by which I mean anything from St Anger onwards – aren’t as good, but even The Memory Remains slays tonight, with it’s punked-up ending suiting the bleak, unlovable surroundings to a tee. Disposable Heroes is played as well as any time I heard it back in the halcyon days, and The Unforgiven escapes the gory demise I’ve seen it suffer a few times too.
Much of this unexpected success has to be laid at the feet of James Hetfield. Quite literally, I haven’t heard him sing like this in thirty years. His voice, once such a powerful, alcohol-fuelled weapon of war, seemed to have been rendered impotent by the man’s sobriety and the advancement of the years(at least it did in my fevered, non-medically-acute mind); tonight, aided by thousands of well-oiled co-conspiritors, the rage is back and sounding frankly awesome. I don’t know what world supplies of kudos are looking like at the moment, but we need to shovel as much of it as we can in Papa Het’s direction after this world class performance.
He’s in avuncular mood, too, stopping between songs to deliver chatty repartee and easy humour; we don’t expect good time chirpiness from this band (unless Lars Ulrich has been on the sauce), but the mood fits tonight, so let’s run with it!
And talking of Lars, this most-maligned of drummers actually reins it in this night, largely resisting the temptation to over egg the percussive pudding in favour of simple steering the ship with the aid of some truly bombastic stickwork. He sounds truly huge at the start of Moth to Flame. And then there’s Kirk Hammett, decked out tonight like a bizarre cross-fertilisation of Michael Jackson and Carlos Santana but also delivering some of the best soloing I’ve heard come out of his fingers in absolute aeons. What’s going wrong with my world? Everything I knew is being turned on it’s head!
Sad But True crushes. There’s no other word for it, Robert Trujillo’s gargantuan bass tone holding down the not-inconsiderable bottom end alongside Hetfield’s titanic grind whilst Hammett solos off into the stratosphere. For fans of true heavy metal it really doesn’t get much better than this in the live arena. Now there’s a sentence I never envisaged myself typing…
Welcome Home (Sanitarium) is similarly effective, the song’s intensity building and Hetfield delivering a spine-tingling vocal. What little sun there was by has now conceded defeat to the lowering clouds that blanket the stadium and fucked off home, leaving the impressive lighting rig to take hold of our eyes inside the Etihad, and despite the hypothermia-inducing temperatures the atmosphere is hotting up to such an extent that extended solos from Trujillo and Hammet (including a most unexpected run through The Stone Roses‘ I Wanna Be Adored!)and an inexplicable run through St Anger can’t dampen our spirits. One is, as you’d expect, an utter showstopper, with the production being among the best I’ve ever seen, anywhere. The backing graphics depicting trench warfare are gut-wrenchingly brilliant, but the band manages to live with the surrounding bells and whistles by once again delivering one of the best versions of the song I’ve ever heard. Hetfield and Hammett lock down the harmony leads in career-best style, the result being stadium metal in absolute excelsis.
The rain is absolutely hammering down now, the uncovered stage ensuring that every snare beat covers Ulrich in a fresh spray of freezing cold water, but the band are undaunted. They soldier on (no pun intended) through a frantic Master of Puppets, proving that in the future underwater gigs in a futuristic Costneresque waterworld will be not only be possible, but bloody brilliant. The downpour is Biblical but all of us are undeterred. Hence Master of Puppets becomes the undisputed song of the night. When you consider that Manowar refused to play over the Channel just a few hours later at Hellfest because their leather pouches hadn’t been sufficiently polished, or something, the sheer brutal professionalism of Metallica and their dedication to delivering for their fans whatever the conditions becomes even more laudable. Hail and fucking kill indeed…
It’s old school all the way for the remainder of the set proper, with For Whom The Bell Tolls, Creeping Death and Seek and Destroy rounding things up and delivered from a little island in the middle of the throng. Creeping Death in particular is greeted with delirium by the faithful, if only because the massive pyro that accompanies the song is a valuable heat source that brings immeasurable succour to our saturated clothing.
The encores – a spirited and thrashy Lords of Summer followed up by the inevitable closing one-two of Nothing Else Matters and Enter Sandman – send every man, woman and child out into the soaking, slithery Manc streets happy and sated. Make no mistake, I came if not to bury Metallica then certainly to deliver a hearty meh! in their general direction. That I left as happy as every other person in the Etihad shows just what sort of form Metallica are in at the moment. And that is such a heart warming thing to report. An unqualified triumph!