Metallica always keep you waiting. Thing is, Metallica are always worth the wait.
Just ask the 16,000 Winnipeggers who took in the band's sold-out concert at MTS Centre on Thanksgiving.
First they had to wait five years for the band to come back to town on their World Magnetic Tour. Then they had to wait six months for the show after tickets went on sale (and sold out in minutes). Then they had to sit through two opening acts, a 45-minute changeover and the usual pointless blather from a disc jockey trying to pump them up by yelling, "Are you ready!!?"
Like, duh. Of course they were ready. Especially once they got a look at Metallica's insane setup. The literal centrepiece of the action was a massive rectangular stage, which was set smack-dab in the middle of the arena and took up nearly half the length and most of the width of the floor. The drum kit was on a circular riser at the centre, with two lines of back-to-back amps running lengthwise down the stage. Eight microphones and monitor setups were dotted along the edges at regular intervals. Hanging above were eight spoked trusses loaded with moving, programmable lights. Four giant sheet-metal coffins housing another crop of lights were suspended between the trusses, with four more coffins hanging at each corner of the arena. The gig hadn't even started yet, and already it was totally cool.
Once the lights went down and the strains of Ennio Morricone's Ecstasy of Gold came up to usher the San Francisco metal gods onstage, it got even cooler. And as the four members — singer-guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo — tore through an 18-song set of old favourites and new material, there was no getting around it: They're still the masters. We were their all-too-willing puppets. And their massive 135-minute show was one of the biggest and best arena spectacles of the year. Here's a song-by-song breakdown:
That Was Just Your Life: Morricone fades and the heartbeat rhythm and twangy mood music that introduce this Death Magnetic opener begin — but they're still playing over the PA, which is kinda weird. Metallica use their own music to introduce their show! After about 90 seconds in the dark, Hetfield cranks out the main riff to the tune and the band kicks in — as does a laser show. Green, red, and purple beams rain down from all sides, tracing geometric patterns and marking pinpoint trails across the otherwise shadowy stage. Only Hetfield is somewhat visible, lit from underneath as he barks out his vocals and crosses the stage from mic to mic between every verse. The epic tease carries on for the length of the seven-minute track — until the stage is flooded with white light for the final crescendo. Easily one of the sharpest and most stylish openings I've seen.
The End of the Line: As the band moves into the second cut from Death Magnetic, we get our first real look at them. Hetfield is decked out in black jeans and T-shirt, with a big black wristband and a rag in his back pocket. With his short hair slicked back and his chunky goatee, he looks like an Amish garage mechanic as he swaggers around the stage. Corkscrew-topped Hammett, also in black pants, is wearing some sort of sleeveless shirt / vest thing. He strides and jogs across the stage on the balls of his feet, tending to hang out in the corners. Hulking bassist Trujillo is sporting dark shorts, an athletic top and white gym socks; he spends most of this time slowly skulking and lumbering around the stage like some kind of wrestling-team monster, his bass slung as low as it will go. Ulrich, bashing away behind his orange Tama double-bass setup, is — surprise — also clad in a black T-shirt; it's the first of about a dozen he'll sweat through over the course of the night.
For Whom the Bell Tolls: The band's set list includes six wild-card spots so they can play different songs every night. This thundering track from 1984's Ride the Lightning gets the first nod. "Hope you want some old stuff," Hetfield says by way of introduction. The crowd does, judging by the reaction. As the musicians blast away, four of those coffins slowly drop down from the ceiling and start tilting and turning, illuminating both the musicians and the audience. Kirks unfurls a blistering whammy-bar solo, and when the song ends, Ulrich jumps up from his kit like a Jack-in-the-Box and starts bouncing around. This is pretty much his M.O. — any second when he doesn't have to be hammering away, he's up and about, egging on the crowd or darting over to the edge of the stage to shake hands.
The Memory Remains: The second wild-card pick of the evening, and something of an odd choice — this midtempo riff-rocker from Reload isn't exactly one of their bigger songs. In a backstage interview before the show, Hammett told me they tend to play simpler songs on Monday nights because they're still getting up to speed after being off the road (now that all four members are fathers, they alternate a week of shows with a week at home). In any case, the audience doesn't seem to mind, and energetically takes up the whoa-oh-oh singalong at the end.
One: And Justice's For All's big anti-war single gets fittingly big production. After the battle sound effects drift out of the PA over the darkened room, massive columns of flames burst out of vents scattered around the stage. I'm dead-centre on the side and a dozen rows up — easily 100 feet away — but I can feel the heat. Lars' drum set, which was facing west at the start of the show, has shifted a quarter-turn to the right so the other side of the crowd can see him head-on. During the middle section of the song, there's more pyro — a line of flames shooting up from the centre of the onstage amp line — and these flames change colour from red to blue to green. Toss in some strobes that flash in perfect time to Ulrich's machine-gun snares and you've got another incredibly visual number. Afterward, Hetfield takes a straw poll, asking how many new fans are in the house. Tons of hands go up. "What took you so, so long?" he cracks. Then he asks how many old fans are here. Another slew of hands. "Thank you, you freaks!" he offers.
Broken, Beat And Scarred: Back to Death Magnetic for this punchy, muscular rocker, with its memorable (if slight ungrammatical) refrain of "What don't kill you make you more strong." Gotta say, putting the stage at the centre of the arena is a brilliant move on Metallica's part. Not only does it multiply the number of front row spots for the rabid fans — and there's no shortage of those down on the floor — it puts everybody in the stands closer to the action. And, perhaps smartest of all, it allows the band to sell virtually every seat in the building. But along with that, Metallica know how to make the most of the space. All three guitarists are constantly shifting around the stage, working every nook, cranny and corner of the room. Even Ulrich grabs his share of the spotlight, mugging for all he's worth while he's playing and tossing broken sticks and glasses of water into the crowd when he's not — when he's not dashing offstage for a new shirt, that is.
Cyanide: Another meaty number from Death Magnetic. Trujillo climbs onto the amps and straddles the line where the pyro cannons are. Here's hoping nobody hits the wrong button or he's going to be singing falsetto. After this one, Hetfield announces: "We're finally going to play a heavy song." Finally? What does he think they've been doing?
Sad But True: Maybe he meant slow and heavy, because that pretty much sums up this basher from 1991's Black Album. Down come the coffins from the ceiling again. Hammett sports the latest in a series of angular custom guitars — he has a new one every song — while Hetfield seems content to alternate between some weathered-looking Les Pauls and Destroyers. The song closes with a short solo spot for Trujillo, who makes his bass sound rumble like a unmufflered motorcycle.
The Unforgiven: The next wild-card spot goes to this Black Album power ballad — the first instalment in the band's Unforgiven trilogy (so far, anyway). Hetfield alternates between his electric axe and an acoustic guitar set on a stand beside him. Very pretty.
All Nightmare Long: Another new number? That's impressive; for most bands, new songs prompt nothing but bathroom breaks and beer runs. But these guys are hitting Death Magnetic heavy, and fans are sticking around. This one also starts with a moody taped intro, before shifting gears into barnburner mode. Some moshing breaks out in the pit on the side of the stage. That's also pretty impressive; considering there's only about five metres between the edge of the stage and the hockey boards, you would have thought the fans were crammed in their way too tight to move. It's Hammett's turn for a brief between-song solo spot, as Ulrich's drums take another quarter-turn starboard.
The Day That Never Comes: Still with the Death Magnetic. Hetfield picks the opening arpeggios while leaning on an amp with his ankles crossed. When the inevitable thrashing starts, Trujillo heads down into the pit to headbang with the fans — and those coffins descend once again.
Master of Puppets: Now we're talking. Much as everybody obviously digs the Death Magnetic fare, there's no mistaking the frenzy that greets this 1986 classic (it's no wonder producer Rick Rubin told them to imagine they were writing songs for Master of Puppets when they were working on the new album). Hetfield gestures to the crowd to sing; they don't need much encouragement before taking over as he hoists the microphone over the first few rows. Until you've heard 16,000 beer-soaked fans bellowing "Obey your master!" at full volume, you haven't heard anything. The lasers get another workout while Hetfield and Hammett deliver some harmonized guitar licks.
Damage, Inc.: The last open spot of the main set gets filled by another Master of Puppets cut. Have to give a thumbs-up to Lars — who does the set lists — for the nice grouping. The multi-coloured pyro and bursts of flame come into play again — and considering they don't play this song every night, they're perfectly timed with the action.
Nothing Else Matters: It's back to the Black Album for the two closers. First up is this grim slow-burner. Hammett has another wee solo spot at the front (while Ulrich's drum tech changes his snare and he swaps shirts yet again) and Hetfield props himself on a stool to sing and strum a double-neck guitar (though both necks seem to have six strings, which seems pointless). The crowd happily handles vocal duties again.
Enter Sandman: Hey, it's their biggest hit; you knew it was coming sometime. Maybe the only surprise is that they didn't save it for the encore. "Are you still out there?" Hetfield growls at the crowd over the grinding riff. They are. And obviously, they're not letting the band go that easily.
Helpless: After Hammett and Ulrich come out and play a few chords from BTO's Not Fragile — which a lot of people don't seem to recognize; next time try Takin' Care of Business, dudes — Hetfield explains that this is the point in the show when they play a cover tune by one of their influences. Thankfully, he didn't mean BTO; instead, they crank out this Diamond Head oldie. Which is all well and good, but honestly, I would have rather heard Whiskey in the Jar, Stone Cold Crazy, Sweet Caress or Turn the Page. Oh well, that's the luck of the draw.
Whiplash: OK, maybe the cover wasn't my top choice. But they make up for it with this frenzied number from Kill ’Em All. It sounds even better than it did when I heard them play it at a 3,000 amphitheatre in Austin. Actually, this entire show may be better than that one — and that one was pretty awesome. At the end of this song, they pretend the show's over again — but instead of leaving the stage and making everybody call them back, they act like they're giving into demands for one more song and strap on their guitars. Hetfield even pretends to check his watch — as if he's wearing a Timex under his sweatband.
Seek & Destroy: What better way to close than with another killer first-album riff-fest? Hetfield gets the house lights turned up and asks for one more singalong. "Tomorrow, you're gonna wake up and someone's gonna ask you, 'Hey how was Metallica?' " he says. "And you're gonna go ... Because you've got no voice. You're going to leave here with no voice, but a big smile." As the song starts, dozens of giant black balloons imprinted with the band's white lightning-bolted logo are dropped from the rafters. Some get snagged for souvenirs, but most seem to end up back on the stage, and the bandmembers spend much of the song booting them into the crowd as they play. When it's all done, there are indeed smiles on most of the 16,000 attendees. And one question on their minds: How long do we have to wait for them to come back again?