Improbably, Metallica are currently at their peak. Though their recorded output in the 21st century has been relatively lackluster, the live experience operates at a level that is far beyond just about any other band on the planet, metal or otherwise. Thirty years after the release of their gloriously nasty debut Kill ‘Em All, they are still making discoveries about how fast and brutal two guitars, a bass, and drums can be.
They’re also still hitting milestones. On Saturday night (September 21), Metallica played the legendary Apollo Theater, in the heart of Harlem in New York City. At only 1,500 seats, it’s a cartoonishly small space for the band in 2013 (their previous trip to New York found them headlining Yankee Stadium), but the intimacy (and lack of pyrotechnics) did not stop the group from turning a few hundred lucky SiriusXM subscribers into a fine ash over the course of their two-plus hour set (which was also simulcast on SiriusXM’s Mandatory Metallica station).
The event was part of the band’s promotion of their about-to-open 3D concert/action flick Metallica Through The Never, which features both Dane DeHaan fighting a horse-riding embodiment of death and a vivid run through some of the most intense jams in the Metallica catalog.
The set list at the Apollo skewed towards those early blasters: Following the band’s now-traditional entrance to Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” (from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), Metallica plowed through a triple-shot of old school shredders in “Hit the Lights,” “Master of Puppets,” and “Ride the Lightning.” Though they were without the accoutrements that have come to define their live experience (saying nothing of the copious video screens, prop crosses, and 50-foot Lady Justice statues that are included in the concert footage in the film), the band let the speedy riffs and shout-along choruses provide the explosions.
Obviously the lifetime headbangers in the audience were going to adore throwback crunchers like “Harvester of Sorrow” and the instrumental jam “Orion” (which, as always, was dedicated to late original Metallica bassist Cliff Burton), but the most fascinating moments came when the band plucked tunes from the less-heralded corners of their song book. Though ReLoad is nobody’s favorite Metallica album, the band clearly believes that the oft-played single “The Memory Remains” is a killer track, and they have mostly convinced their fan base (or at least the people inside the Apollo) that it can stand next to something like “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” The songs from the mildly adored Death Magnetic also seem to be gaining ground in the live setting, though the straightforward chug of “Broken, Beat and Scarred” seems to have become more fully embraced than the twistier “The Day That Never Comes.”
One of the great joys of seeing Metallica live is experiencing what are now the best versions of some of the older songs. Though the tracks contained on the band’s first four LPs (Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and …And Justice For All) are heralded as classics by Metallica fans, it’s no secret that those albums are literally difficult to listen to because of such poor production quality. And they have never been remastered or re-recorded, which means that the live iterations of the anthemic “Hit the Lights,” the brutal “Blackened,” and the sinister “Creeping Death” are the best those tunes have ever sounded (which also makes the accompanying soundtrack to Metallica Through The Never a more vital keepsake than most live albums by veteran artists).
The main set ended, as it tends to do, with “Enter Sandman,” a song that has been played to death since its release in 1991, but still sounds as powerful and sinister 22 years later. There is a case to be made for “Enter Sandman” as the best metal song ever written, as it encompasses everything that is ideal about the genre: Juggernaut riff, deceptively groovy low-end, killer guitar solo, and a vocal designed to give kids nightmares. Somehow, “Enter Sandman” still sounds scary, which is the mark of only the finest heavy jams.
For their encore, Metallica cranked up the adrenaline with “Creeping Death,” “Battery,” and “Seek and Destroy,” three call-and-response jackhammers whose lyrics celebrate nihilism and hopelessness. And yet despite lyrics like “There’s an evil feeling in our brains,” they all came across like celebrations. Metallica (and metal in general) has been attacked for decades as a trigger for violence and a general nuisance, but the comfort and insight that millions have found in these songs has fostered a sense of community. Frontman James Hetfield referred to his followers as “family” several times throughout the night, and he wasn’t wrong: Though “One” is still alienating to outsiders, it has provided a central point of navigation to all the misfits who have come to find salvation in the noise.
Metallica at the Apollo Theater set list
“Hit the Lights”
“Master of Puppets”
“Ride the Lightning”
“Harvester of Sorrow”
“The Day That Never Comes”
“The Memory Remains”
“Broken, Beat and Scarred”
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
“Sad But True”
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“Nothing Else Matters”
“Seek and Destroy”