Anyone who reads my stuff regularly knows that I usually find it hard to look at heavy metal with anything other than amusement. That a style of music can be so obsessed with death and yet survive for so many decades is, at the very least, ironic (and probably even kind of funny). And I don’t think it’s a secret that t-shirts covered in skulls with band names in jagged fonts ran out of shock value sometime in 1984. It would be fine if it were a joke, but for every hip metal act that’s being ironic about it, there are always ten bands who think said hip acts are serious and adopt the pose with a completely straight face.
When I entered the BOk Center arena to see those titans of the genre Metallica play, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes just a little bit. The stage lights were mounted in coffins. Yes, coffins (intended, of course, to go along with the motif of the band’s latest album, Death Magnetic). Giant, brushed-steel, coffin-shaped apparatuses, no doubt forged in the pits of hell by Lucifer himself. (Actually—and I’m just guessing here—they were probably built by some union steelworker named Larry, who probably then went home to his wife and kids, where they no doubt spent the remainder of the evening in quiet meditation on the sublimity of man’s mortality. That would make sense.) When the madmen of Metallica took the stage, however, it was clear: they were in on the joke.
Of course, there’s no reason for them not to be. To have existed so long and remain so successful, they’d have to be. When the band formed in 1981, they picked what just might be the most generic name in history for a metal band, thus (consciously or otherwise) setting themselves up as the go-to group for all things, erm, metallic. Fortunately, they have the chops to back this up. Metallica is, in many ways, the quintessential veteran act, having weathered the onslaught of death metal, thrash metal, speed metal, alt-metal, nu metal, rap metal, and all other manner of trends—including grunge and alternative, once hailed as a metal killer (ha!)—and come out on top, with their thundering drums, thudding bass, and shredding guitars still pounding out anthems of awesomeness.
I shouldn’t need to tell any long-time Metallica fans that they put on an incredible show, that every single note, drumbeat and vocal growl was as technically proficient as it was menacing, that there was hardly an empty seat in the house (with a crowd that ran the gamut from long-haired metalheads to middle-aged audiophiles to baseball-cap-wearing frat boys), or that the crowd was on their feet, demanding encore after encore, and refusing to let them leave the stage. The real surprise of the night was that, despite piling on the skull imagery like it was 1983, Metallica came off as genuinely nice guys who were just there to play their music and have a good time.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but after being burned by the world of metal twice within a month (having subjected myself to both the adolescent whining of Papa Roach and the more-badass-than-thou posturing of Mudvayne), it was a pleasant surprise. When singer James Hetfield asked all the first-time Metallica concertgoers (guilty as charged) to raise their hands so he could welcome them, it felt good. It was like being part of a family—a family with a thing for skulls and coffins perhaps, but a family nonetheless.
Yes, the light-filled coffins eventually dropped from the ceiling and spun around. Yes, the show was accompanied by a flashy display of lasers. Yes, the very fires of hell eventually burst forth from the stage in time with the music. And yes, it was really, really cool (particularly when combined with awesome hits like “Enter Sandman” and great new stuff like “Cyanide”). But what I’ll really remember about the evening was when the band reentered the stage for their encore and Hetfield asked the crew to turn on the houselights so he could thank the crowd for coming. (“Are you all still with me?” he asked the crowd. “Raise your hand if you’re still here. Now raise your hand if you’re not here. Ha! Gets ‘em every time.”) The band played its final songs, rocking as hard as ever, but with every light turned on and every fan on their feet (while giant, black beachballs inscribed with the words “Metallica” and “Death Magnetic” fell from the ceiling).
It says something about a heavy metal song—a genre so frequently self-conscious in its own obsession with darkness—when it still holds up in the light. And I think it said even more that every member of the stage crew rushed guitarist Kirk Hammett to cover him in cream pies and silly string during the final song. As it turns out, it was his birthday—and instead of closing with yet another face-melting thrash anthem, Hetfield led the entire sold-out crowd in a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You”—complete with four-part harmony, of course.
When the crowd finally agreed to let Metallica stop playing, Hetfield remarked, “Y’know, it’s been sixteen years since we played Tulsa. We have to make sure to come back again—sooner rather than later.”
We can only hope.
About the author:
A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Luke Harrington currently resides in Tulsa and works in the aerospace industry–but, at any given moment, would probably rather be reviewing movies and music. In his spare time, he’s off playing blues piano, pretending to be Assistant Editor for MovieZeal.com, or reviewing the many musical events in Northeastern Oklahoma for Tulsa Today.
All photos by Kevin Pyle