"If you don't think Metallica fuckin' rules, you're a dick!" my friend Jack screamed joyfully into my ear, fists pumping, as the band from the Bay tore into "Enter Sandman" near the end of their jaw-dropping set at New York City's Webster Hall last night. There, sandwiched between a modest (for them) lighting rig and 1,500 upturned faces, Metallica pulled the lever on their thrash metal time machine and brought us all back to the 80s, the 90s—and gave us a peek at what's still to come.
The show itself was packed with diehard fan club members, music industry muckety-mucks, and a few lucky souls like Jack, who'd come by his ticket serendipitously. Ticket scalpers lurked outside, trying to squeeze a few extra bucks out of what was fundamentally a charity show (proceeds went to benefit City Harvest), with an original ticket price of $25. I saw a few friends there who'd been able to grasp hold of last-minute strings, and a whole lot more who'd won big on the ticket lottery. Most of the crowd seemed older; graying at the temples, rationing their overpriced beers, and nodding enthusiastically instead of headbanging. Metallica aren't exactly spring chickens—and neither are the people who grew up listening to them—but regardless, the years seemed to fall away on both sides of the barrier when the band launched into "Master of Puppets" and the whole venue erupted in cheers and motion.
A set like this demands a lot of physicality and steady hands; we were getting the older, wiser, and much more sober version of the band once dubbed Alcoholica. But though they've lost a lot over the years—their sharp edges, their ability to write the Master of Puppets II fans have been clamoring for for decades, definitely some hair—they haven't lost their ability to completely fucking annihilate a stage.
The first time I saw them, several years ago, I had admittedly low expectations, thinking, "Metallica's super lame. What would a black/death/doom metal nerd like me want with those bloated 90s hacks?" The band made short work of those too-cool-for-school reservations by delivering an absolute barnburner (and it didn't hurt that I caught them at Orion Fest, when they were playing Ride the Lightning in its entirety).
With that memory playing in the back of my head, I approached the Webster Hall gig armed with the knowledge that it was bound to be something special; how could it not be? The incontrovertible fact that Metallica rules live, coupled with the prospect of seeing a stadium band on such an itty-bitty stage and surrounded by people who've been down since their early days, was a perfect recipe for destruction. From the moment James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, and Robert Trujillo strode onstage, devoid of fanfare or intro faffery, and noodled the opening riff to Budgie's "Breadfan," it was LIT.
If you have even the barest appreciation for hard rock or heavy metal—or if, like me, you still remember unwrapping a copy of Master of Puppets on Christmas morning when you were 12 and feeling your blown brains dribble out your ears shortly thereafter—you're going to enjoy a Metallica show, and this was no typical Metallica show. You could get close enough to count the Discharge patches on Hetfield's vest (two), see Hammett contort his face like a demon whenever a solo hit, admire Trujillo's shiny mane or take in Ulrich's manic energy. If you'd ever only seen the band as ants in a massive stadium, it was a revelation; if, like many of the older heads there, you'd seen them back in the 80s at rock dives like L'Amours, it probably felt like coming home.
After kicking off with medley of "Breadfan,""Holier Than Thou," and an on-fire "Battery," they stuck mostly to their first five albums, rolling out the dread stomp of "Harvester of Sorrows" and "Fade to Black" in quick succession. A new song, "Moth to Flame," which dropped online earlier this week found its live debut on that Webster Hall stage; the track's knotty, complex thrash riffs were met with roared approval. "Sad But True" led into the evening's most somber moment: "Orion."
That night marked the 30th anniversary of now-iconic bassist Cliff Burton's passing in a 1986 bus crash, and his bandmates paid tribute as best they knew how. The lights turned blue, and "Orion" was unfurled in all its eight-minute-long glory; the instrumental epic's crystalline melodies soared up to the rafters as Hetfield blew a kiss heavenwards and Ulrich raised his drumsticks high. "Thirty years," the burly frontman said. "We miss you, Cliff.
They then immediately segued into one of the darkest songs in their mighty catalogue: "One." With clattering machine gun effects and orange flashes, Metallica offered up their gut-wrenching vision of war, and the evil that men do. That one-two emotional kidney punch hit us hard, and it made me wish that more metal bands (Metallica included) would continue to tackle that very real kind of darkness in their lyrics–and that the hawks and snakes up top who rule over us would listen when they're told, time and time again, that war truly is hell.
A frantic (tic-tic-tok) "Master of Puppets" and monolithic "For Whom the Bell Tolls" followed, ramping the energy right back up to a fever pitch. Even "Enter Sandman"—a song I'll forever associate with the classic rock station my mom used to listen to in the car—sounded impossibly heavy in that setting, as 1,500 people suddenly remembered why the Black Album sold so many millions of copies. The trio of encore songs was perfect, especially the instant ear-splitting singalong to "Whiskey in the Jar." I was impressed to see how many people already knew the words to their new title track, "Hardwired… to Self-Destruct," but really shouldn't have been; after all, this is Metallica, and people fuckin' love Metallica. They closed (as they usually do) with a fast, loose, dirty "Seek and Destroy," ending the night with a glimpse of that same hungry, punk rock energy that got them here in the first place.
Look, Metallica will never be young again. They'll never record another Kill 'Em All. They're a gigantic, beyond-mainstream band who have made a metric buttload of money, recorded a few seriously lame musical missteps, and are extremely easy to poke fun at or dismiss entirely. They've got a serious goofy dad vibe going on. They made Lulu. But you know what? They're also one of the most successful and beloved heavy metal bands that have ever walked a stage, and millions of people find solace, inspiration, and community in their music.
Once you accept these inalienable truths, and accept the band for what and who they are now, it's a million times easier to get swept up in the waves of joy and excitement that overtook Webster Hall last night. I can't remember the last time I felt so genuinely happy at a show, and the hundreds of grins around me said the same. You can write them off, scoff at those who still love them or care about what they're doing, revel in your own superior tastes and obscure record collection, but let's be real here:
Like Jack said, if you don't think Metallica fuckin' rules, you're probably just a dick.
Photos by Daniel Brothers.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's riding the lightning on Twitter.