Going to stadium/arena metal shows has always been a pain in the ass for me. The sound always sucked, there is always some drunk, sweaty obese guy rubbing himself on you and playing with your hair (happened), having to navigate through throngs of meatheads, or the deeply aggravating misogynistic “show your tits” people barking about. It’s huge anxiety-ridden undertaking for me always reminding how many people actually live in the world. Going to see “The Big Four” - the four metal bands that shaped and pioneered the thrash scene in the ‘80s - for me, was not only a nostalgic fascination, but also an exercise in curiosity to see who still “had it.” Attending junior high school in Suburban Minnesota, the only things really important to me were fast food, Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth—and equally, learning each of the band’s first five records consecutively on guitar in my mother’s basement. Each of the aforementioned bands are responsible for my passion for music and is where my devouring obsession of the far reaches of the genre began.
At 4pm, the show began with NYC locals Anthrax in Yankee attire playing to a seemingly empty stadium of core thrash metal fans. I have to admit, I was a late bloomer to their discography including their peak album Among The Living (1987) which is their only record that I truly regard. Their brief 40 minute set included some disappointing new material along with classic cuts (“Caught In A Mosh,” “I Am The Law,”) and surprisingly “Metal Thrashing Mad” from their 1983 debut Fistful Of Metal. Anthrax showed signs of minimal atrophy, especially frontman Joey Belladonna whose wailing vocals were seemingly intact. The original guitarist, shredder Dan Spitz who was recently replaced by a beanie wearing gentleman, was sadly missed.
After an excruciating 45-min break of sexually frustrated Slipknot songs playing out through the PAs during the set change, (it would have been a nice touch to have someone with taste curate an appropriate mix of ‘80s thrash classics between bands, no? Some Exodus perhaps?) Megadeth finally took the stage for an all-too-brief set. “I shouldn’t be playing right now,” guitarist/frontman Dave Mustaine said to the crowd because of a much needed neck surgery, “but, I’m doing this for you.” Soldiering on, Megadeth’s set consisted mostly of their lackluster mass-market material (“Sweating Bullets,” “Trust,”) leaving little room for pre-Rust In Peace (1990) obscurities. It was with their political anthem “Peace Sells,” where everything came together, which proved to be their tightest cut of the night amassing a legion of audience fist pumping action. Mustaine, who has recently laid to rest his public feud with Metallica to share the stage for The Big Four shows, is perhaps the most interesting personality out of the bunch, but as a New York Times journalist astutely pointed out, “there was a sense of distance in his performance… he didn’t get all the way in.” An answer might be, according to Mustaine, a recent born again Christian, he said “his trust in God” prevented a near-paralysis while onstage during his performance that night.
With the sun setting, the gaps in the stadium seats and general admission floor filling out, and the evil in the air thickening, speed metal titans Slayer took the blackened stage. What commenced was an absolutely perfect set including the thunderous “War Ensemble,” Reign In Blood-era classics (“Angel Of Death,” “Postmortem”) and a few surprising early deep cuts (“Black Magic,” “Chemical Warfare,”) in the mix. Singer/bassist Tom Araya with stone-faced intensity was practically dazed the entire set as if starring out to an empty arena, thrash drummer virtuoso Dave Lombardo was mesmerizing and flawlessly unrelenting, guitarist Kerry King (I prefer his’80s-era Zubaz look over the recent tribal-warrior garb), traded solos with current Exodus guitarist Gary Holt who has temporarily replaced original guitarist/songwriter Jeff Hannenman due to his recent flesh-eating bacteria infection(!). Their presence was stoic, no frills, executing a relentless onslaught of classic material with brief, humble breaks between songs allowing the brutalism to speak for itself. A few contemporary tracks were snuck in, but in the live setting any Slayer is good Slayer. Without question, Slayer proved to be the most integral band on the bill and their performance was well worth the steep admission price alone.
After another long set change and some mohawked corporate monkey from Sirius XM made a jerk out of himself onstage, I began to feel fatigued and anxious to see the main event for the following billed two-hour set. Lights out, an intro video and dramatic entrance music ignited the 50,000+ in attendance for the arrival of the metal giants. In a post-St. Anger world (their 2003 album chronicled in the revealing documentary Some Kind Of Monster), I was definitely skeptical and kept my expectations for Metallica’s performance in check, especially after Slayer totally obliterated everything. Metallica exploded full-force onstage with pair of tunes from my personal favorite record Ride The Lightning (1985) (“Creeping Death,” “For Whom The Bell Tolls,”) and instantly I was hurdled into nostalgic metal bliss. Their set was interspersed by a few disappointing numbers including their truly godawful ‘90s grungy hit “Fuel,” (which like no other song can ferociously jiggle a bunch of Ed Hardy bridge-and-tunneler knuckleheads) and recent clunky cuts from their 2008 album Death Magnetic, which all periodically cut into my head-banging time.
Somewhere around the mid-way point with pyrotechnics and fireworks littering the sky, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s persistent unneeded use of a glitzy wah-wah pedal, and bassist Robert Trujillo’s insistent crab-walking around the stage, my nostalgia quickly faded and I begun to turn against the gods. Between songs, singer/frontman James Hetfield paused to engage the crowd in AA meeting dynamics, (“Metallica is with you! Are you with Metallica?”) and most insulting of all belittling the opening acts. “Did you enjoy our friends Anthrax?” Hetfield asked of the cheering, nearly sold-out crowd, “yeah, this show was really big for them.” (and something to the effect of) “And how about the brutal Slayer? Well, we’re here to make it heavier babaaay.” The arrogance onstage was so thick you could cut it with a crimson axe. However, the setlist was practically impeccable for the 30 year-old band which included back-to-back vintage classics such as the brilliant instrumental “Orion,” and epics “Master Of Puppets,” and “Blackened,” which reeled me back in from time to time. But, buried deep in the gloss of the showmanship on display was the foundation of undeniable masterpieces of heavy metal songwriting, but I couldn’t help but feel that the self-congratulatory juggernaut that is now Metallica was distancing especially among all of the surrounding adulation.
The evening came to a close with an encore which included member’s from all four bands saluting Motörhead’s “Overkill,” and two Metallica crushers (“Seek And Destroy,” “Battery,”). Heading back to the Bronx 4 train I reflected on Slayer’s unforgettable set. Slayer still “has it,” and executed a set that truly resonated. The concert should have felt like a celebration of thrash music, not who was bigger and better and sold more albums. Slayer definitely understood this and did nothing but deliver their music unaltered with respect for their own material.