Metallica Carries the Torch for Stadium Rock at NRG

Metallica Carries the Torch for Stadium Rock at NRG
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

Metallica, Avenged Sevenfold, Volbeat
NRG Stadium
June 11, 2017

As people streamed into NRG Stadium from all sides on Sunday evening, it was hard not to wonder if we’d ever see such a sight again: a pack of tried-and-true guitar-slingers convincingly filling up the biggest venue in town. Guns ’N Roses did it last year. U2 did it last month. On Sunday, it was Metallica — perhaps the last (and biggest) torchbearers for stadium rock.

It’s been years, maybe even decades, since Metallica made the transition from world’s most popular heavy metal band to simply the most popular rock and roll band left standing. They’re doing more than standing, in fact. Unlike GN'R or U2, Metallica actually arrived at NRG with new music in tow. Last year’s Hardwired…To Self Destruct album has been certified platinum, owing in large part to its bundling with ticket sales on their current mega-tour. Love the band or hate ‘em (and their fans), anyone who appreciates a first-rate rock and roll spectacle has to root for Metallica at least a little, if only to inspire others to strive for such sheer scale. When Metallica finally calls it quits someday, will there be any rock bands left to take up the mantle?

Avenged Sevenfold
Avenged Sevenfold
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

A couple of groups who would clearly love to sell out stadiums of their own someday served as the tour’s openers on Sunday. Beneath huge blackout curtains blocking out the summer sun from the stadium roof, Danish thumpers Volbeat kicked off the day’s music at 6 p.m., just as people were beginning to file in. California’s Avenged Sevenfold, maybe the biggest, glossiest metal band to emerge in America the past 15 years, followed them. Both received a nice response from the rapidly swelling horde of black T-shirts, but neither appears primed to return to NRG without Metallica anytime soon

If you’ve never seen a rock concert inside of an enclosed football stadium before, understand that the sound is not exactly ideal. Avenged Sevenfold’s tasty vocal harmonies, led by lead singer M. Shadows, were largely lost in the mix as the band’s kick drums threatened to implode the place. That didn’t stop the crowd on the floor (field?) from screaming along to “Bat Country” and other favorites as best they could.

Metallica Carries the Torch for Stadium Rock at NRG
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

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Naturally, the sound system sounded louder and sharper when Metallica finally hit the stage. They teased fans early, opening with a couple of fast and driving tunes from their new record. “Hardwired” and “Atlas, Rise!” are fine and all, but when the bell began tolling next, it started to feel like a real Metallica concert. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was followed up with another Ride the Lightning staple, “Creeping Death.”

The stadium floor was a roiling sea of banging heads and pumping fists as the band and audience communed in worship of the riff. Propelled by drummer Lars Ulrich, the songs felt slightly rushed and on edge — a little frantic. The bandmates stayed locked in with one another, though, inspiring a series of mini-mosh pits all over the stadium with their thrashing.

There was more new music to come. Metallica employed a few tricks to keep people interested. “Moth Into Flame” featured an inventive pyro effect that saw a six-foot column of flame oscillate from one end of the massive stage to the other. “Now That We’re Dead” found all four band members picking up sticks to bang together on massive, taiko-style drums. There was no denying that it was pretty cool. Who knew Hetfield had skills on the skins?

Metallica Carries the Torch for Stadium Rock at NRG
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

No tricks were needed, of course, to get people involved in Metallica’s long suite of road-tested classics. “One.” “Master of Puppets.” “Seek and Destroy.” All of them had fans in a frenzy, just as they always have. “Hit the Lights,” the first song Metallica ever recorded, made it into the set as well. They might be the worldwide, multi-platinum silverbacks of heavy metal, but it’s hard to argue that Metallica has forgotten where they started in 2017.

As for where they ended up — could there be any doubt? Even your sister knows “Enter Sandman.” The lights and video did their best to make it feel as though NRG Stadium was in the middle of a music video for the capper. When the last head was banged, Metallica took their bows before their gigantic, adoring crowd, and disappeared back into the locker room or wherever.

Will we see them again? Hard to bet against. Record companies must sell records; stadiums must sell tickets. Metallica has a proven track record for excelling at both, and they didn’t look or sound at all tired of it on Sunday. Whether stadium rock can continue as a viable enterprise once Metallica hangs up the leather for good remains an open question, but the Metallica machine shows no signs of slowing down. Their fans in Houston and around the world won’t let them.

Metallica Carries the Torch for Stadium Rock at NRG
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

Personal Bias: …And Justice For All sounded just fine with no bass.

The Crowd: Large and feeling pretty tough.

Overheard in the Crowd: “Die! Die! Die! Die!”

Random Notebook Dump: Only Metallica could get away with plopping a massive, brightly lit merchandise stand down in the middle of the stadium floor.

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