Photos by Craig Hlavaty, except where indicated. A crowd slideshow is here.
Reflecting on Saturday’s Masters of Metal tour at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, I think I fall into that rare category of Casual Metal Fan. This means that while I enjoy metal and will fly the devil-horns at any opportunity, I like a lot of other stuff too, so metal represents maybe a 10-percent sliver of my overall listening habits. I also do not own any King Diamond albums (yet) and do not spend hours scouring eBay for Venom memorabilia – though, thanks to my friend Chicken, I do own a bad-ass vintage Venom T-shirt.
Photo by Chris Gray
Perhaps this idea is best illustrated by Testament. The Bay Area thrash-metal five-piece is celebrating its 25th anniversary with its first album since 2001, The Formation of Damnation, winner of Best Album at Euro metal monthly Metal Hammer’s Golden Gods Awards earlier this year. I knew Testament by name only, that they were one of those bands Serious Metal Fans knew like the back of their tattooed hands and the rest of us, well, didn’t.
Photo by Chris Gray
Thus, to me, Testament sounded a lot like resident Cartoon Network death-metal overlords Dethklok – guttural, growling vocals, rampaging twin guitars and a rhythm section that treated the crowd’s collective eardrums like a construction site. Special kudos to drummer Paul Bostaph, who swung like Buddy Rich on the triplet-heavy fast stuff – and it was mostly fast stuff – and singer Chuck Billy, who pulled off some wicked air-guitar moves with the microphone stand when not barking into it like a Marine drill sergeant.
Next up was the one and only Motorhead, whose non-metalhead name recognition is a little higher – as my mom told me Sunday afternoon, “Even I’ve heard of them.” After he finished his cigarette, founder/bassist/singer Lemmy Kilmister took care to explain what the trio was doing up there. “We are Motorhead” – “Yes, we know!” chimed in someone behind me – “and we play rock and roll.”
Explanation completely unnecessary, though a translator would have perhaps been nice. I decided to play a little game and write down what I thought Lemmy might have been saying up there; besides, I’m not really sure how many people listen to Motorhead for the lyrics (though I’m sure there are some). The opener sounded like “Not at Home,” followed by something “Clean” (essentially in the same blues-thrash vein). Later I wrote down “Shades Away,” and then Lemmy helped out (sort of) by introducing one number as “a song from our third LP before last.” Um… thanks?
So anyway, if the words were mostly incidental, the trio’s music was killer as ever - in fact, I think Lemmy said one song was called “Killers.” It was grinding, swaying, swinging, dead sexy. The trio downshifted (a bit) when it hit on “Metropolis,” which Lemmy dedicated to “the older people in the crowd – the ones my age.” (For someone past 60, with the lifestyle he’s led, Lemmy seemed to be handling the withering sunlight very well.) And anyone who figures Motorhead may have lost a step over the years didn’t count on “Tragedy” from new album Motorizer – all the Motorhead you can handle, and a Bonhamesque solo from the barely-visible Mikkey D.
Lemmy, warts and all...
Then things really took off. Though it seemed like it should have been louder, “Going to Brazil” was totally in the red, an obvious descendent of “Long Tall Sally” or about a dozen other Little Richard songs. One of the Valient Thorr gnomes, perhaps Thorr himself (the red-bearded one – a little help, commenters?) came out to lend some vocal weight to “Killed by Death.”
7:03 p.m. sharp brought “Ace of Spades,” the perfect fusion of metal and punk – one of the few songs that can truly claim to have created its own genre – and executed perfectly. “Overkill,” of course, closed us out; the only words I felt necessary to write down in my notebook were “kick ass.” Not the most clinical critical assessment, perhaps, but an accurate depiction nonetheless.
The heat was letting up, somewhat, though not by were the Press delegation was sitting – as roadies set up Heaven and Hell’s jaw-dropping stage set of wrought-iron fences, gas lamps and smoke-spewing gargoyles, two Rhodes Scholars nearby came to blows over whether or not Metallica sucked. (See pictures here.) Appropriately enough, Heaven and Hell emerged after both lights and skies darkened with a banging version of 1981’s “Mob Rules.” Maybe there’s something to this clairvoyance business after all.
Heaven and Hell – aka the version of Black Sabbath fronted by Ronnie James Dio – is a little bit deeper metal than surface-scratching fans like myself are used to, and I for one appreciated the lesson (as well as Dio’s announcing most song titles before the quartet launched into them). “Children of the Sea” was a slow pounder that probably gave a bunch of people in the crowd whiplash, while “I,” from 1992’sDehumanizer
, was unrelenting, bluesy and very diesel – it brought to mind a mechanized division or two of Russian tanks plowing through Georgia. Who says metal isn’t current?
Other standouts included the pulverizing, operatic “Sign of the Southern Cross,” which featured Vinny Appice going apeshit on his drum kit, which must have had at least 50 pieces in it. So, for that matter, did “Die Young” and Dehumanizer’s massive “Time Machine.” The dirge-like “Falling off the Edge of the World” – with a Halloween-like turn from guitarist Tony Iommi, who looked like the world’s most sinister cleric with crosses on every other fret – and, especially, closer “Heaven and Hell” brought forth the armies of the undead in force.
Hard to imagine though it was, Judas Priest’s stage plot – a two-tiered Broadway-like set keyed off the metal institution’s newNostradamus
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album – managed to outdo Heaven and Hell’s. And this was before singer Rob Halford emerged in a metallic silver hooded robe and wizard staff for opener “Nostradamus.” After some Deep Purple grind, Halford emerged looking like ex-pro wrestler King Kong Bundy (with more tattoos, shades and a thick goatee, that is) for the classic Priest overdrive of “Eat Me Alive.”
Priest reached cruising speed on “Between the Hammer and the Anvil,” and though the Birmingham-born veterans didn’t do casual fans any favors with the setlist – pointing out the obvious, perhaps, but if you’ve heard one or two Priest songs, you’ve got a pretty good idea of the others - the diehards must have been happy to hear songs like “Devil’s Child” and “Hellbent for Leather,” while us dilettantes contented ourselves with their screaming (for vengeance) renditions of metal mainstays “Breaking the Law,” “Electric Eye” and an absolutely insane “Painkiller,” which closed the main set as Halford deliberately stalked the main stage like a cross between Merlin and the biggest, baddest gay biker to ever walk the planet.
After that, it wouldn’t seem like the five-piece – none of whom can lack for much on Lemmy in age – would have much left for the encore, right? Ha. “Hellbent” was just a warm-up for a fierce “Green Manalishi” that was one of the entire night’s best songs, though Halford’s call-and-response act with the crowd went on a little longer than necessary. At 10:45 p.m., after yet another Halford costume change, guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing hit the familiar introduction to “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” and treated the crowd (not sold out, but not far off… the lawn looked about half-full) to ten final minutes of absolute metal mayhem, whatever their level of familiarity with the genre.
As a Casual Metal Fan, I was definitely in the minority Saturday night, though not as much as I would have been if I were a woman. All the same, I had a few laughs, a few beers, saw a pretty hilarious fight (one last time, you gotta see these pictures), rocked out like a fiend to “Overkill” and “Breaking the Law,” and came away a little less of a metal neophyte than before. Anybody know when King Diamond is coming to town? – Chris Gray