Aging Suburban Parent Metalhead (“ASPM”) Concert Review #1:


Metallica, LA Forum 12/18/08:


Ok, let’s get out the obvious bad stuff so we don’t dwell on it: James Hetfield never could sing very well and still can’t, so Metallica won’t be playing melodic power pop anytime soon. Kirk Hammett would be less bored playing with Joe Satriani. Most importantly for my purposes, Lars Ulrich doesn’t play drums in the conventional sense. On the way to the show I was listening to a bootleg of a Donnington show where Lars was sick and the guys from Slayer and Slipknot filled in on drums. They were ferocious and drive Metallica unlike Metallica had ever been driven. But watching Lars on this night—and expecting to come away disappointed—I was pleasantly surprised and impressed and hit upon the theme for today’s lesson: Metallica is Black Sabbath.


In retrospect, this strange thesis seems sort of obvious from a musical point of view. I remember reading once that Hetfield is close friends with Tony Iommi. Now I think I understand why. Both guitarists were at the forefront of genres that are identified by their riffs, and both guitarists seem to have an endless supply of riffs that can build songs. Moreover, the riffs are so prominent in their songs that both guitarists are supported by drummers who aren’t drummers—they are percussionists. Lars even plays with weird looking mallets. He gets up and jumps around his drum kit like a mad elf. This is not a guy who is locking down a band with bass and snare. He is adding accent, punch and drama in a futile attempt to keep up with Hetfield’s manic rhythms. This is exactly what Bill Ward did with Sabbath. Think about the song “Black Sabbath.” The drums are nothing more than an embellishment to the OD’d three chords that define the song. On classic Metallica (think “Battery,” “Fight Fire with Fire,” “Ride the Lightening”), the drum tracks are made up of a series of stock tropes (“riffs” anyone?) that fill the gaps. This is like Sabbath on any number of tunes from their first incarnation (“Hand of Doom,” “Supernaut”). Think how the Sabbath sound changed with Vinnie Appice—a drummer in the more usual sense—just like Metallica with Lombardo or Joey Jordinson.


Listening to these drum titans play with Hetfield, it’s easy to wonder about what might have been had he been teamed up with a guy like that all these years. But then of course it wouldn’t be Metallica. The melodic Lars tom rolls and overuse of cymbals are hallmarks of Metallica sound—a sound that is all about a bulldozing rhythm guitar sound that destroys at will. The rest of the musicians need to find somewhere to fit in (sort of like early Motorhead).


Which brings us to the show on the 18th, which was simply mighty. Hetfield’s new material combines the slinky “lead” riffs from the band’s “middle period” with his palm-muted trademark style. The opening minute of “Broken, Beaten, Scarred” contains two or three riffs that could have come from Lynyrd Skynyrd and would have supported entire songs for lesser bands. For Hetfield, they just slip into rhythms that seem impossible to keep up. The band’s current tour features an open, flat stage that the band members roam around. This shows complete confidence. There is no “backstage” with the band addressing the audience with faux authority. Instead, the audience can watch the band from all sides—the band is vulnerable. (Which isn’t a shock for a band that has already put its “Spinal Tap” DVD; after “Some Kind of Monster”, what could these guys actually have to hide?) Amazingly, the band members are able to move about the stage and stay in time. The monitoring set up must be a technical wonder in itself.


Metallica rolled through the highlights of the new album as well as the classics. The new album should not be overlooked. “Broken, Beaten, Scarred” has a middle section that isn’t a solo or a tempo change; I don’t really know what to call it; it’s a “jam” I guess that eventually returns back to main riff and leaves the listener perplexed but amazed. A couple of the transitions (like on “Day that Never Comes”) seem forced, and, as my friend Kelly Nixon said at the show “You can almost hear the Pro Tools on that one.” I would add that you can also hear the “Guitar Hero” cash machine. “Cyanide” and “All Nightmare Long” have melodic bass guitar figures that return throughout the songs and rocked The Forum like successive but friendly earthquakes. No doubt this has much to do with the presence of finger picking, former slap happy bass giant Robert Trujillo.


The band also played from its stock of thrash classics. “Fight Fire with Fire” in particular ended with a barrage of instrumentation that could give any current blast-beated death metal outfit a run for its money. “Master of Puppets” and “Ride the Lightening” were monsters. Surprisingly, the band also hit on “Four Horsemen” and included “Motorbreath” as an encore. The latter is particularly dated on its own, but in this set, its speed-freaked assault fit in perfectly, especially as it followed Budgie’s proto-techno-math-metal “Breadfan.”


All in all, a nearly flawless show by highly competent band playing like it has something to prove again; i.e., a perfect set up. Just to hear these songs that LOUD was a joy. I don’t know how long Metallica can keep this up, but the December 18, 2008 show at the Forum deserves the highest ASPM rating: Strap The Kids In The Car Seat And Check Them At The Valet If You Have To But Don’t Miss This Show.