There’s not too much that’s ironic about Metallica, but the band’s terrific Reading Festival performance on Sunday night illustrates that such ironies do still exist. The main one is essentially this: here is a huge band that will go to extraordinarily complex lengths to give the appearance of keeping things simple, just like a small band would.
It’s the band’s continued battle, and as they enter the closing stages of new single “The Day That Should Not Come”, halfway through their set tonight, you’d have to decide that they’d won it. Having begun like Blue Oyster Cult‘s “Don’t Fear The Reaper”, the song ends with the bloodthirsty high-speed kind of thrash that Metallica patented when they debuted in 1983, and that’s surely the desired effect. The crowd roars. Undoubtedly, it’s been a success.
Throughout their show, Metallica do what they can to create such small band intimacy and intensity, and in this, they are ably assisted by a great repertoire of tricks. There are huge video screens to give you every detail close-up. There’s a “drumcam” to give you a view of Lars Ulrich‘s sweating face. There’s some terrific pyro during “Ride The Lightning”, which perceptibly warms the night. Even James Hetfield‘s language is back to basics.
“Metallica,” he grunts, indicating the band. “Reading,” he says, pointing at the crowd. It’s as if he’s just discovered us in the jungle, and he’s trying to make contact.
So fronted by the monosyllabic Hetfield, Metallica do a magnificent job of redefining their own age of thrash metal innocence, by homaging their past. While in the recording studio they continue to battle to find a way forward, to climb down from megastardom and reconnect with their younger selves – most recently for the Rick Rubin produced new album “Death Magnetic” – in the field, they do it effortlessly.
The band may be getting older – there are a couple of brief “Intermissions” – but their setlist is forever young. Tonight – apart from the new single and new song “Cyanide” – you won’t find much from the band’s recordings post 1991’s “The Black Album”. Instead, from “No Remorse” through “And Justice For All”, and “Master Of Puppets”, the band revisit their past with a setlist of greatest hits.
All round, it’s a perfectly understandable policy. For one thing, we find today’s Metallica attempting to win one of the biggest propaganda battles since World War II: with the band polling low in opinion public opinion post Napstergate, they are eager to please, and happy to jump through hoops to retain their loyal heartland. For another, more rocking reason, this is simply great stuff. In Britpop terms, Metallica didn’t just make one “Definitely Maybe”, they made three. And from these three triumphant albums, the band drink heavily, and often.
James Hetfield, however, is keen to remind us of one of the reasons we’re here. There is, after all, a new album to promote. “Yes,” says Hetfield triumphantly, as he announces the fact. “Newtallica!”
So far it doesn’t sound so different from Oldtallica – but that may be a reason to celebrate just the same.