Halfway through Saturday’s sold-out show at KeyBank Center, Metallica guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield took a few moments to address the assembled.
“Everyone is welcome, young and old, always and forever, in the Metallica family,” Hetfield said, after calling out a 12-year-old in the front row who was attending his first Metallica show. “And some of us who may look old on the outside are still young on the inside. We’re all part of the family.”
This might not sound like much of a manifesto or statement of philosophical belief, but an implied inclusivity has been a major factor in Metallica’s 35-year career. As Saturday’s KeyBank Center gig made plain, sometimes a simple feeling of unity and shared passion for a blazingly loud thrash band can feel an awful lot like a transcendent form of love.
Passing through Buffalo on the final leg of its mammoth WorldWired Tour, the band – Hetfield, drummer/cheerleader Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo – was firing on all cylinders from the moment it took the stage following a taped introduction of Enio Morricone’s dramatic scene-setter, “The Ecstasy of Gold.” The one-two punch of “Hardwired” and “Atlas, Rise!” from the 2016 magnum opus “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” proved that middle-age has done nothing to dim the band’s prog-thrash flame. If anything, Metallica is tighter, more focused and more effortlessly virtuosic than ever, its strident Sturm und Drang, up-tempo strut and neo-classical flourishes melding into an authoritative, life-affirming din.
That din was a touch cacophonous and muddy in the initial moments – this being an off-the-charts decibel-level gig in a hockey arena and all – but the mix was altered to suit the room rapidly, and then it was smooth sailing through a career-spanning two-plus hours of metallic majesty.
Even though the “Hardwired…” material is clearly up to snuff, the Metallica family clearly appreciated the healthy dose of seminal older material that was spread liberally throughout. A blistering “Seek & Destroy” found the quartet commanding the arena from its massive in-the-round stage, as the house lights came up to reveal roughly 18,000 fans on their feet, fists pumping and heads bobbing in time as they chanted along with the tune’s iconic chorus.
The band’s mastery of dynamic shifts was celebrated during a torrid and deeply moving take on the mid-tempo epic “The Unforgiven,” as Hetfield adeptly switched between acoustic and electric guitar as the song moved along its earth-grinding path. “Now That We’re Dead” featured a thrilling mid-section that found all four members joined in a percussion solo that moved from a unison march back into the song's indelible lock-step riff. The career-defining prog-metal opus “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was both primal and dizzyingly virtuosic as it moved through its paces like a steamroller flattening the earth, and the crowd reaction was visceral and ecstatic.
At the show’s mid-point, bassist Trujillo took the mic to offer a heartfelt shout-out of gratitude to Buffalo’s own prog-trash-death metal powerhouse Cannibal Corpse, followed by a take on Black Sabbath’s face-melting “Zero the Hero” performed in a duo arrangement with Hammett. This was a nice touch and provided a poignant bit of respite, before the band settled back in for the final stretch, a run of tunes that included completely crushing takes on classics “The Four Horsemen,” “Creeping Death,” “One,” “Sad But True,” the new “Moth To a Flame,” and the evening’s highlight, the grandiose masterwork “Master of Puppets.”
Coming as it did at the end of a week where the news was tragic and the tenor deeply divisive, Metallica’s epic show felt like a simple celebration of unity and a hard-earned respite. For a few hours, we could believe we were part of that family Hetfield spoke of. And it felt like a blessing.