Metallica: the thrash-metal legends hit harder than ever

James Hetfield of Metallica - Marcus Brandt/DPA/Alamy Live News
James Hetfield of Metallica - Marcus Brandt/DPA/Alamy Live News

“You guys here in England have a thing called ‘home field advantage’, right?” enquired Lars Ulrich to some 80,000 people standing in front of him at Donington Park on Thursday night. “This right here may be Metallica’s home field.”

He’s got a point. As the San Francisco thrash metal legends closed the first night of Download Festival – the first of two headline sets they’ll perform over this weekend – their drummer and biggest cheerleader took to the mic to recall that Metallica first appeared here in 1986, at what was then Monsters of Rock, and have returned no fewer than nine times. It’s poetic, then, that as Download celebrates its 20th birthday, and this year Metallica mark 40 since their Kill ’Em All debut, it is they who are leading the festivities.

For all this occasion, the most striking thing here was how formidably direct Metallica’s attack was. Occasionally a band guilty of derailing momentum through drawn-out showboating, from the opening stabs of the classic, speeding Creeping Death, they were a band reconnecting with the raw, kick-in-the-teeth intensity of much younger versions of themselves.

Shaking things up, for this tour, the two gigs they’re doing at each stop promise no repeats from one night to the next, and thus massive a change from what has become the norm. It’s a move that’s entirely successful. Their biggest song, Enter Sandman, doesn’t make an entrance, freeing-up space for lesser-spotted tunes such as the technically taut Blackened and the instrumental brilliance of Orion. It also gives new songs from their new 72 Seasons album – the speedy Lux Æterna, the muscular Screaming Suicide – a chance to breathe properly. Again, entirely successful.

Having once more resurrected their fan-filled “Snakepit” from 1991’s Black Album tour, a good half the set was spent with the four of them, including Ulrich and his kit, smashing away at the near-nine minute Master Of Puppets from 25 metres out atop the semi-circular catwalk. Inside, fans were close enough to get covered in Ulrich’s spit and smell the cigars that frontman James Hetfield chomps through between songs like a thrash Groucho Marx.

Some things never change, though. And this is also good. Lars Ulrich remains so giddy at his own band that he can’t sit at his drums for five minutes without getting up to pump up the crowd. Meanwhile, Hetfield – bear-hunter, biker, even at 59 looks like he could deck you – is a frontman who absolutely defines metal’s masculinity in its most glorious ways.

Home-field advantage? Absolutely. But when they’re hitting as powerfully as this, Metallica have no need of such things.

Also playing Donnington on June 10;

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