When the Bay Area bruisers ended a lengthy absence from US stages with a charity show at LA’s Wiltern Theatre in May, the lucky few witnessed a band absolutely at the pinnacle of their musical powers and palpably loving it. Never have Metallica had such a robust repertoire to draw upon and it’s been many years since they had such grinning passion to perform it (revisiting their older tunes with a fan’s ears and enthusiasm) or such solidarity within their ranks (current bassist Rob Trujillo has fitted in as his predecessor Jason Newsted never did).
Having established themselves as the most influential band to emerge from the thrash metal scene of the early 1980s, Metallica crossed into the mainstream without compromising any of their street cred. Combining a prog-rock sense of sonic adventure (notably on 1988’s . . . And Justice for All) with blue collar, denim ‘n’ leather headbangin’ dynamics inspired by the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Diamond Head, Motörhead, Iron Maiden etc.) and a punky “f*ck you” posture, Metallica’s invigorating embrace was vast. They brought metal back to the streets after cock rock had turned it into some androgynous fantasy which was as much about hair and makeup as music and sentiment.
Having conquered the metal world, Metallica reached-out to non-heshers everywhere with their 1991 self-titled opus, where their previously complex song structures were reined in, the melodies honed, and singer/guitarist James Hetfield’s voice suddenly morphed from a regular thrash growl into a spine-tingling, high plains roar both menacing and wounded. A string of less-than-stellar (though still big-selling) releases followed; Newsted (who was hired after the eccentric Cliff Burton was killed in a tour bus crash in Sweden in 1986) came and went; and Metallica fans held their breath.
They needn’t have worried. Their heroes returned with Death Magnetic in September: an album that embodies everything good about Metallica, all the time. The songs are sing-able but not sickly; the aura is escapist yet still gritty; Hetfield’s machine-precise rhythm playing still helms the ship; and lead widdler Kirk Hammett has once again been allowed to unleash the most over-the-top six string histrionics this side of a Saturday morning in Guitar Center. Much-maligned drummer/motormouth Lars Ulrich—who’s long taken shots for his technical limitations in a chops-obsessed genre—offers the imaginative, stuttering punctuation which has become one of his band’s trademarks, seldom resorting to the default blast-beats or extended double-kick salvos of his metal peers. Trujillo’s bouncing-on-his-bed enthusiasm seems to have reminded his new bandmates of what a great thing they might be pissing away, and the arrival of über-producer Rick Rubin—famous for grounding rock stars who’re losing the plot—has truly focused the quartet.
Metallica, who’ve already sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, have just released an album that’s debatably in the top three of their fine nine to date and are currently a peerless, slackjaw-inducing live phenomenon. Sell your mother to be at this show.
Metallica, Lamb of God, The Sword at Citizen’s Business Bank Arena, 4000 East Ontario Center Parkway, Ontario, www.cbbankarena.com; Fri., Dec. 12, 7PM. Tickets $57.50-$77.50 (SOLD OUT)