”It comes to life!” reads the legend emblazoned across Kirk Hammett’s guitar, a rendering of the 1932 movie poster for Boris Karloff’s The Mummy. He’s not wrong. For 11 days every July, the quaint/modern streets of Quebec City are reanimated.
This year the sports bars, Irish theme pubs and chic brasseries of the walled old town, a place that ‘borrows’ history from 17th-century France, fill with the relieved parents of the pop kids dropped off at P!NK for the night. Even several hours’ drive out of town, the day-trippers going whale watching out of Baie-Sainte-Catherine are chattering about the previous night’s Gorillaz set.
Out on the Plains Of Abraham (as the large grass bowl on the outskirts of the Old Town is poetically known), 100,000 excitable French-Canadians stretch forever up the hill, a Woodstock of a crowd awaiting Metallica, the biggest draw of this year’s 10-day Festival d’Ete Quebec.
On Sunday night, Muse will prove themselves worthy successors to the hard-rock headliner throne with a tight and dynamic set of operatic tech-rock heavy hitters. But on Friday night, James Hetfield and co. pull in one of the biggest crowds in the festival’s 50-year history. Internal rifts between the various band members permitting, there’s clearly plenty of life in these old Cerberuses yet.
At 9.30pm, the Plains come alight. Red LED dots flash on the badges on thousands upon thousands of festival-goers’ chests, like a warning to the rib cage of damage to come, or a Coldplay gig in the Seventh Circle. Footage from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly plays out on the back-of-stage screen as The Mad, The Evil, The Suave And The Ponytailed take to the stage and crank up Hardwired and Atlas, Rise!, the opening one-two of last year’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct album.
Out on the wing beneath the monstrous screen image of himself, Hammett savages his Mummy guitar as if skinning it alive. Ulrich drums like the devil is at his back, Robert Trujillo delivers bass lines so filthy they seem to have rotted his bass, and so heavy he can barely lift it inches above the stage floor. James Hetfield rips power chords from his Flying V like you or I rip pages from a Tory manifesto. All four of them have rock faces identical to their sex faces, and they’re here to “celebrate life through music with the Metallica family of Quebec City”.
Which, in Metallica terms, means commemorating a whole heap of death while they’re at it. An entire killing spree of crows fills the screens as the deathly chunder of For Whom The Bell Tolls strikes up, accompanied by trench warfare visuals. Monochrome images of flesh and desecration augur the arrival of doom-western tune The Unforgiven, the tale of a whipping boy tormented to his death by unknown captors that sounds like Jon Bon Jovi, were he a little more, y’know, sacrificial.
“If you wanna live forever, then first you must die!” Hetfield yells with the counter-intuitive logic of the vaguely religious as they launch into newie Now That We’re Dead, a glam-bam groove that ends with all four band members playing gigantic Aztec witch doctor drums, like the world’s biggest Glastonbury drum circle. Which rather says to all those Afrobeat indie singers (singers with a token snare drum): “Come sing with the big boys.”
For all this talk about destruction, it’s a wonder that Metallica show no signs of encroaching demise. After decades at each other’s throats and managing about as much stylistic development as the Fast And Furious franchise that whole time, they’re as robust a concern as ever. Hardwired is their sixth US No.1 album in a row, and their live concoction of ponderous war metal, slaughterhouse thrash, country noir and oxyacetylene soloing is so road-tightened and lacking in self-indulgence that it’s as crowd-pleasing as any U2 Joshua Tree anniversary show.
Also, their steadfast adherence to an uncompromising formula has made them, and metal in general, ultra-resistant to becoming a nostalgia concern. The thrash roar of the new album’s Moth Into Flame – about “fame and how it can really fuck you up… we’ve lost some people recently because of that” – melts easily into 1988’s Harvester Of Sorrow, essentially the stomp of a Serial Killer Pride march.
Their core menace cuts through the ages, made all the more timeless and intangible by spates of Cure atmospherics on Welcome Home (Sanitarium) – an insanity anthem that ends like a flume of magma from the PA – and bursts of amphetamine thrash like Whiplash, the sound of a maniac chanting limericks in a blitzkrieg, for which Hetfield dons a leather jacket covered in punk band patches, like the guy with his own stool by the jukebox of any biker bar. The men of Metallica may wither, but their music growls eternal.
As the melodies grow cuddlier, the show grows more savage. Hetfield promises Quebec some “heavy songs”, blood-red lasers strafe the sky, an Apocalypse Now of bombs and helicopters fills the arena and firecrackers burst like gunfire across the front of the stage. It all introduces the epic One, and come Master Of Puppets (the proto-Sandman, if you will) and Seek & Destroy, someone’s turned the bass up to ‘extinction event’.
“Are you alive?” Hetfield yowls during a scalp-tightening encore of Fight Fire With Fire. “Show me!”
At this, the crowd comes to life, howling like a 100,000-strong pack of wolverines, much to Hetfield’s mischievous delight. It all ends with Hammett gracefully fingering the arpeggios of Nothing Else Matters as green lasers pierce the air, and the inevitable Enter Sandman, the angriest song ever written about going up sleepy mountain to beddy-bye cottage. Or, more likely, death. Because just as Quebec City was reborn in the hellforge of rock tonight, Metallica absolutely killed it.
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