Live: Metallica at the Forum
James Hetfield might be the frontman for one of rock’s most formidable entities, but when it comes to stage patter he's a bit of a corn dog. "I have an announcement to make," said the faux-hawked singer and rhythm guitarist Wednesday, commencing the first of his band's two night's at the Forum. "Metallica is alive and well and ready to kick some. . . . " Finishing his thought with a mild expletive, Hetfield sounded more like a bridegroom who'd grabbed the microphone at a wedding reception than like a knight of the Heavy Metal round table. But it didn't matter. At a Metallica concert, actions speak louder than words.
The California band, which razed and reconstructed the edifice of heavy metal in the 1980s only to grow sluggish and surly in the decade following, has returned this year with a strong new album, “Death Magnetic,” and a stated desire to recommit -- to its audience, its trademark "heavy" sound and itself.
This tour, and particularly the shows at L.A.'s iconic arena for hard rock, furthered the band's renewal in several ways. In two hours that relied on no filler beyond Hetfield's amiable admonitions, the four members of Metallica played at top volume with focused ease and strength, right on top of the crowd but in unbreakable communion with one another. The performance made a musical case for the band's new songs by juxtaposing them with favorites from throughout the group's nearly 30-year career, unleashing the powerful exchange of energies that defines Metallica's purpose and its appeal.
That transference took place among the band's four players as they locked into one another's grooves without even having to exchange glances. Then they turned the energy outward until it overtook the fans, who, at Hetfield's urging, lost all inhibitions and yowled at the top of their lungs. Mosh pits formed on the floor; some fans were held aloft in the old ritual of crowd-surfing.
This was no Mitch Miller-style family singalong but an outpouring of emotional intensity that Hetfield encouraged, even as the set's structure exerted careful control. "Hey, did you sing?" the vocalist demanded after "Broken, Beat and Scarred," one of the more ferocious tracks on "Death Magnetic." "That's why you're here. You're the fifth member of Metallica, you know that."
He wasn't kidding. In recordings, Metallica can become extremely insular. Complicated rhythmic and tonal shifts in long, symphonic songs like "Cyanide" or rapid-fire workouts like "The End of the Line" demand a discipline that runs counter to the idea of onstage fun. Add to that Hetfield's lyrics, which focus heavily on horror and death, and an overall aesthetic that rejects lyricism and prettiness in favor of power and precision, and you have a potential artistic downer.
In concert, though, the audience's constant raucous singing added a wild element to the otherwise stern proceedings and seemed to loosen up the musicians too.
Metallica arose at the intersection of punk and heavy metal, blending grass-roots mayhem and grand spectacle. In early songs played Wednesday, like "Master of Puppets," the punk side dominated, even when the arrangements took surprising twists. Later hits, including "Sad but True" and "The Unforgiven," tapped into not only metal's pompous sweep but pop's melodicism. Often both approaches would factor into one song.
The set at the Forum reflected the way the band has integrated those two sources. The extremely wide stage stood in the center of the arena floor, giving more people a chance to get close to the musicians; bassist Robert Trujillo even went into the crowd once or twice. It was also low enough to create the illusion that the band was on the same level, literally, as the crowd.
As each song went through its changes, the foursome paced around the stage, shifting from one area to another so that more people could have the chance to be just inches away from their hero. Trujillo and guitarist Kirk Hammett even jumped down at certain points and slapped hands with fans.
If these eye-level encounters recalled punk, Metallica's show also updated the spectacle of metal. It opened with a spectacular multicolored laser show that hit the stage from all directions, making it seem that the band was entangled in a cat's cradle. The lighting rigs, shaped like the coffin that adorns the cover of "Death Magnetic," moved up and down and rotated. The de rigueur pyrotechnics were classically minimalist: Simple orange flash pots shot up midway through the show, surrounding Hetfield, and later, two rows of flames in changing colors took over the middle of the stage.
At the evening's conclusion, giant black balloons emblazoned with the famous Metallica logo dropped from the ceiling.
Through all this, the musicians kept playing, their eyes on the prize of a flawless set. It was difficult to know if they achieved it; the mix was so loud that it was often nearly impossible to distinguish its individual elements.
Hammett produced several soulful and technically impressive solos -- he stood alone on the vast stage for two of them. Trujillo, who is touring with the band for the first time, fingerpicked at lightning speed. Hetfield, who also plays guitar, sometimes slipped into an unseemly bellow but still delivered the menace for which he's known. Lars Ulrich hit his drums (which were on a rotating riser, stage center) with brute force.
On that low, broad stage, Metallica's show recalled the public rites that routinely unite strangers. The actions of the players stalking the stage, switching places without missing a note, made it like a sporting event. Hetfield's calls for the crowd to sing recalled a preacher's cries to his congregation. At times, the thousands of chanting voices and pumping fists raised the uncomfortable specter of a nationalist rally. Metallica brilliantly borrowed from the essence of these rituals without bothering with any of their trappings, coming away with what seemed like a pure source of massive self-liberation.
"You come here to release some energy," said Hetfield at the end of the show. "Don't take it with you, leave it here." As anyone who's seen the Metallica documentary "Some Kind of Monster" knows, the singer has spent some time in therapy, and there he clearly learned some good advice on managing strong feelings. With that one declaration, Hetfield made up for his more moth-eaten stage banter.
A rock star knows how to use volume, prowess and a little magic to excite a crowd; a mature artist also realizes when enough dust has been kicked and it's time to return to earth.
Photos: James Hetfield of Metallica. Credit: Lawrene K. Ho / Los Angeles Times