Has anyone tried to take a running leap onto one of the extreme corners of SoFi Stadium and scramble across the vastness of the entire roof? It sure looks doable, although getting back down would prove the real challenge I suspect. Certainly not worth the risk if you’re a local and want to be allowed to attend the venue, but I doubt you’d get more than a night in jail and/or a hefty fine. Some rich out-of-towner has to attempt this, and make sure a friend is there to record the feat.
We were pondering this as we walked all the way around the place Friday night. Peering over the top of the thing, I thought about how small a human would look all the way at the top, and how the roof would be the whole universe to that human, while that human would become the sole focus of all the other humans in the vicinity as we became aware of what was happening. A momentary feeling of vertigo gripped me, thinking of being a tiny speck way up there. All attention would focus on the speck. The intensity would reach a peak; then what? Getting back down in this sense might prove even more trying.
Inside, SoFi Stadium is almost as imposing as its exterior. The sold-out show swelled to nearly around 80,000 souls, inconceivably topping Taylor Swift’s single-night attendance record for this venue (your move, Beyoncé?). Regardless, the people on other sides and levels of this stadium are waaaaaay far away; the nosebleeds looked terrifying. Metallica’s stage setup is a wonky circle; inside it they call the snakepit, and in a room this vast, I think they did a great job making themselves accessible to any fan. There were cylindrical video screens surrounding the stage on tall pillars, so that you could see the stage and video no matter where you were seated. My mind obviously went to U2, the pioneers of all efforts to make stadium shows more intimate, clearly influential on this production.
Unfortunately, whereas U2’s groundbreaking 360 tours in 2009 and 2011 boasted pristine sound quality at both venues I experienced it at, the same could not be said for Friday’s Metallica show. Caveat: there were no roofs on those 360 venues. SoFi is quasi-open-air; the roof arcs “over” the walls as if hovering, and while I’m no sound engineer myself, I suspect that this venue was designed, as many sports arenas are, with the goal in mind of amplifying the overall noise, not so much clarity.
The question was, how much would that matter at a modern Metallica show? It definitely mattered during Mammoth WVH’s opening set. I’m getting a little tired of the pervading trend of cranking the bass drum up so loud that it pulverizes all the other frequencies in the mix; who benefits from this? I would’ve preferred to hear Wolfgang Van Halen shred; his guitar solos barely peeked through the low-end din from time to time. Admittedly the songs sounded like generic nu-metal crossed with maybe a Buck Cherry-style hair-metal revival sound, not exactly my bread and butter but it probably would’ve appealed to a lot of Metallica fans if they could’ve made out what was being played and/or sung.
Things improved a little for the next band, which I guess we’re calling Pantera, or else there was a “CFH” emblem on some of the screens and tour shirts that I’m told represents “Cowboys From Hell”; maybe they had toyed with the idea of calling themselves that out of respect for the deceased half of Pantera? In any case, it was bizarre seeing ol’ barefoot Phil Anselmo walk onstage in broad daylight; I’d only previously seen him in the dark, most recently with Superjoint Ritual in 2004 (sorry to admit I really only remember the opening band from that night haha). He looked about like I remembered, only instead of all the macho posturing and whatnot that Pantera fans might expect, Phil was all about the love. It’s like he…grew up, or something.
Anselmo has been a controversial figure for years; he’s said and done a LOT of idiotic things onstage and off, but I have to say my impression over the past few years is that he’s learned some lessons and has tried to make amends in whatever limited capacity he’s able to, disavowing the confederate flag and offering at least a plausible explanation for his most recently documented white-power salute. The world seems to have forgiven Axl Rose for his bigoted past, but Anselmo probably doesn’t have the astute handlers and PR crew that Rose has, so between this and his staunchly “evil” image, he’s had more of an uphill battle. I admit I got rid of all my Pantera stuff long ago and hadn’t listened to them in a very long time, so it was quite a rush of nostalgia, hearing all these songs again.
I found I’d lost all the anger I had towards Phil. I was mainly pissed at him because metal has enough of a problem with nazis without one of its most visible and respected vocalists flirting with racist symbolism no matter how flippant he may be. As I’ve said many times, though, if we don’t give people room to learn and grow, if we write them off forever, those are people WE’VE made enemies of. As I sat there and watched Phil stalking the stage, listening to these songs that changed my life once upon a time, I just felt happy for him. As far as I know it’s been two decades since he went on tour singing his most famous songs; the acrimonious 2003 breakup of Pantera and the tragic deaths of two of its founding members in the ensuing years (with whom Phil never managed to make peace while they were alive) all made Anselmo seem more and more like a has-been. Despite everything, I feel like he’s earned the right to try and claw his way back into the spotlight.
That goes for bassist Rex Brown as well; what did he ever do to anybody? In the drum seat in place of Vinnie Paul was longtime Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante, presumably because Dave Lombardo was already in every other thrash band. It was the guitar slot that was the make-or-break pick, however, and in this case I think it’s reasonable to hold two conflicting opinions: no one could possibly replace Dimebag Darrell, and the only person who could possibly replace Dimebag Darrell is Zakk Wylde. Reporters have asked Wylde about this possibility over the years as if it was inevitable; he was a good friend of Dimebag’s and in terms of style and ability he’s the only guy I can think of who could fill those shoes. So again, I could’ve DEFINITELY used a little less bass drum amplification and a little more guitar definition!
Now, did this feel like a Pantera set to me? No, it did not. It felt like what it’s claimed to be, a tribute to the past. The old energy was not at all there, although Phil sounded fine (when his mic wasn’t cutting out) and nobody was a weak link. You would not have seen the old Phil Anselmo, I don’t think, basking in this huge crowd, singing the closing refrain of “Stairway To Heaven” for the hell of it at the end of the set; that would not fit the image. Part of it, surely, is that I’VE grown up too; I’m not trying to revisit the mindset I was in back in the heyday of Ozzfest and whatnot, nobody wants that. So as much as this set was a nostalgic thrill for me in several ways, I may be unable to fully connect with Pantera any more because I sort of killed off the Pantera fan that I once was. A part of him is still inside me, surely, and he can just stay buried right where he is. Either way, it was really good seeing ya again Phil, Zakk!
By the time Metallica came onstage the SoFi stands were absolutely stuffed, although there was PLENTY of room on the floor still. I have to assume that they only sold a certain number of tickets down there to prevent anyone from ending up stranded behind one of those big video towers; still it was a little odd seeing all that empty floor space at the highest-attended concert in the history of the venue.
The first thing we heard when the lights went down was AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”. It had been an emotional week; I had a lump in my throat immediately, trying to fathom the fullness of what this song might mean to the guys in Metallica. Next, as is tradition: Ennio Morricone’s immortal “The Ecstasy Of Gold”, arguably the greatest piece of music ever written for a film, complete with video from THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY. Out of this, “Creeping Death”, an opener that’s hard to beat, and off we went.
When you’ve been a band as long as Metallica has (over 40 years!), you end up writing way too many songs. Plus, all of your members are 60 years old or damn near it, and they can’t necessarily play all those complicated fast songs they wrote when they were in their 20s. Nevertheless, this M72 Tour is a generous move by the band, each stop being a two-nighter with no repeats. These setlists may not be as varied as we old dudes might wish, but they still unveil a fresh rarity every now and then, and of course there’s that new album, 72 SEASONS, to contend with. They almost HAD to do it this way. Consequently, while Metallica concerts have traditionally ended with the same handful of classics, there’s a little more mystery to the proceedings on this tour, as long as you haven’t done any research in advance, which I had not.
They followed with “Harvester Of Sorrow”, the …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL track that’s so overplayed I was totally thinking it was on the black album, whoops. For whatever reason, it’s one of only three songs off that record they’ve even played this year. Friday was more of a MASTER OF PUPPETS evening; “Leper Messiah” was next up, always a treat, and six songs later, a personal holy grail: “Orion”, probably my favorite Metallica song and one I’d never experienced live before. (If I ever see this band again, all I want is “Trapped Under Ice”…I’m sure they can still pull it off…) “Orion” seemed like the centerpiece of the show and deservedly so; the way I swooned during that middle slow part, I can still feel it.
Frontman James Hetfield was full of love and gratitude all night as well, which might’ve been shocking to me had I not seen the band in Milwaukee in 2018 (https://milwaukeerecord.com/music/metallica-follows-simple-winning-formula-in-fiserv-forum-debut/). So I’d already been indoctrinated into the modern, self-effacing Metallica show, for whom the audience is the lead instrument. I was in the minority, for instance, in being unable to sing along to any of their songs from this century; true Metallica fans don’t give a shit if anyone thinks the band is still relevant or if the new songs sound like knock-offs of old songs. There’s only one Metallica, and even during their alt-rock LOAD/RELOAD phase, there was no mistaking them for anyone else, and it’s part of the whole experience now, singing along to every word. As the night wore on I had to admit that songs like “Lux Æterna” and “Shadows Follow” from the new album fit in with the older songs pretty damn well, as did “The Day That Never Comes”, off 2008’s somewhat under-appreciated DEATH MAGNETIC album.
It’s easy to forget that although aging headbangers only care about the first four albums, Metallica have become a stronger and stronger commercial force the less “relevant” they’ve become. The puzzling thing, speaking of LOAD/RELOAD, is the way they neglect these two albums which for plenty of people represented the apex of their pop-culture clout. Even more puzzling was the fact that I…kinda WANTED to hear songs from that era. “The Memory Remains” isn’t necessarily a favorite but it brought back fond memories of me flipping the station whenever it would come on because I’m sorry but Marianne Faithfull’s guest vocals on the studio version still sound silly. And towards the end they did “Fuel”, the most enduring song of the era and still a barnburner.
However, across the two nights in L.A., nothing from LOAD whatsoever?? Nothing at the show I saw in 2018, either. I suppose there’s a critical mass of fans who still hate those albums’ guts, but come on, “Bleeding Me” was a great song! (I suppose it’s understandable that they haven’t dusted off “Ain’t My Bitch” since 1998, heh.) I’m forgetting, though, how many utterly essential songs Metallica has to save room for, songs that, if not played at some point over a two-night stand, there might be rioting. Also, these shows are not off-the-cuff affairs; aside from certain elements of guitar solos I suppose, the only “improv” came in the form of banter, and one two-minute instrumental duet between guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo, which they entitled “Rose Avenue”. Between various special effects and the band members’ relocation to different areas of the stage (yes there were multiple drumkits that would appear at different spots during “atmospheric interludes” between segments of the set), this spectacle has to be precisely planned and rehearsed, and the setlists follow the exact same formula for each two-night stand, with just three or four changeable slots per night, and no encores, FYI.
So, don’t get your hopes up TOO high for that bustout of “The Thing That Should Not Be” (last played in 2019) if you plan on seeing Metallica on this very lengthy tour, but anything’s possible. I suspect we’ll see various gems pop up as the band gets cooking in the coming months. And if you have certain classics you absolutely must see them play, check setlist.fm if you can (UNDERSTANDABLY) only afford one night. Because on Friday we did not get “One”. We did not get “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. And we did not get “Enter Sandman”! Those are night-two songs; our night ended with the unholy pairing of “Seek And Destroy” and “Master Of Puppets”, goofy ol’ Lars Ulrich up there paddling away like the eternal puppydog he is, and I’m grateful to the camerafolk for giving us plenty of Lars closeups because for all the shit he’s taken over the years, I feel so happy for him too. These guys have made it through more critical pummeling and fan desertion than any other band this side of Weezer (not to mention the eternal indignity of SOME KIND OF MONSTER) and they might be more popular today than ever before in their history. And they’re STILL taking their lumps, make no mistake, but that’s how it goes, playin’ in a band.