When Metallica announced they’d be celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark S&M album with two huge arena shows in San Francisco, we knew we had to be there.
We also knew we had absolutely no idea what to expect. So, last night, we rolled into the newly built Chase Center with 20,000 other Metallica famileh members ready to soak up rarities, left turns and a fuck-ton of strings. And here are some of the things we learned.
This isn't like any Metallica show you've ever seen
Shockingly deep cuts? Stunning reimaginings of old favourites? Rob Trujillo in a suit jacket? Fucking Metallica jamming out a futurist classical song?
It’s all here - and more on all of those later - but it doesn’t take long for one thing to become clear: no matter how many times you’ve seen Metallica and under what circumstances, this is a whole different animal, and you sense every one of the 20,000 people here know it.
The setlist is great
Split into two halves, tonight offers one of the most unique setlists of Metallica’s career. The first half plays it relatively safe, freshening up the most recent European tour setlist by dropping in The Call Of Ktulu, a stunning The Outlaw Torn and The Day That Never Comes.
The first two were on the original S&M and still sound banging with the San Francisco Orchestra under them; the latter is a welcome addition and works a treat with that extra, strings-n-all heft.
It's also fucking bananas
The second half, however, is where things really get interesting. Unforgiven III, (Anethesia) Pulling Teeth and All Within My Hands would make pretty surprising set additions on any day of the week. What the band do with them, however, is completely off the chain.
For Unforgiven III, James Hetfield bins off the guitar and his bandmates, standing with his hands behind his back, crooning his way through an emotionally raw version of the song that’s given sumptuous extra layers by the orchestral players around him.
Anethesia, meanwhile, is played almost entirely by a cellist, Lars Ulrich popping up near the end for the song’s climax. It’s a lovely reimagining that you assume much-missed bassist Cliff Burton - a classical fanatic and architect of that particular song - would have loved.
St Anger cut All Within My Hands is afforded the same countrified twang it was given for Metallica’s Helping Hands charity show last year, but the added symphonic layers make it sound truly world class.
The show has evolved
Whether it’s having the stage in the round or making the most of the spiral screens hanging over the stage by flushing them with gorgeous visuals, the tweaks made to the original S&M show format work a treat, managing that rarest of feats: making a big arena show feel intimate.
The orchestra is given its due
Having the stage placed in the round allows Metallica to afford the symphony more attention, with the musicians dotted around the band in one huge circle rather than being dunked behind them.
It makes the show feel like a true team effort - a point emphasised by the orchestra getting to nick the spotlight for a couple of playthroughs of some classical numbers just after the interval.
Had you heard of Scythian Suite, Op. 20, Second Movement or Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry? Us neither, but they both get an airing, the latter with an extended intro by SFO Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Metallica gives you culture, baby.
The band seem to love every second
While the Four Horsemen look a little tense and extra focused during the first couple of songs, Papa Het’s usual patter noticeably absent at first, they soon loosen up, stomping around the stage and trotting right into the front rows on more than one occasion. And yes, that includes Lars. When they dish out the thank yous to their accomplices for the evening, you can tell they mean every word.
The slower songs still work best
The imperious stomp of Wherever I May Roam, churning swagger of The Outlaw Torn and delicate nuances of Nothing Else Matters are all fine examples of why Metallica’s less frenetic songs suit these kinds of experiments best.
While the pure sonic chaos that a full orchestra can bring to Master Of Puppets is awe-inspiring, it’s the space between the cracks wherein which a string section can flourish most, and the choice of songs on show tonight suggests Metallica know it.
Metallica still know how to surprise us
If we’re being honest, when this show was announced, it’s unlikely the first things on most fans’ wishlists would have been deep St Anger and Death Magnetic cuts and classical covers. But then what would Metallica be if they didn’t continue to surprise, confound and bewilder us?
Ultimately, tonight is further testament to metal’s biggest band refusing to play by the rules, insisting they keep us guessing and themselves challenged at every available opportunity. You can’t help but be impressed by that. Nearly 40 years in, they still know how to pull the rug from under us.