Sunday, August 25, 2013

Eye of the Beholder

"Have you been waiting long? Only 31 years? That's too long." - James Hetfield on Metallica's first concert in Malaysia (to thousands of screaming fans still in their twenties).

Kids were moshing in the stands, undeterred by the concrete steps. Dudes threw their arms around one another to pose for photos, beaming, while behind them giant screens zeroed in on Kirk Hammett's fingers. One kid got up on the fence so that he could bang his head high above everyone else. Every lyric that came through the PA was sung back to the stage tenfold. Occasionally someone in the stadium seats would jump the fence and charge through the field in the direction of the stage, only to be subdued by security. Through it all, I wondered how I, the kid who owned 4 Metallica shirts in high school, became the guy who sat down while everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) around me was cheering and dancing. For Metallica's first concert in Malaysia, was I a justified cynic or scowling wet blanket?

Talk to any "real" hesher, and you'll hear that the first four Metallica albums are an unfuckwithable canon and (cough) nothing else matters - a sentiment that can be applied to almost any band with an extensive discography, and so cliched that it's easy to ridicule. What's curious to me is how many people above ground seem to think the vitriol from longtime fans is about haircuts or simple elitism. To me it suggests that most (non-metal) people can't tell "old" Metallica from MTV-staple Metallica. "Metal" is impossible to define for the layman; you either are or you aren't.

seriously, there's a fucking difference here.
While it's true that metalheads are notoriously capricious, Metallica have themselves to blame for ostracizing their own fans. Their music took a definite turn for the worse since the mid-90's, so much so that the country song on Load isn't even the worst thing they've ever done. In trying to balance credibility with mainstream appeal, Metallica pandered themselves out of relevance. In just my high school years, they went from being standard bearers for the thing I loved most (HEAVY. METAL.) to representing everything I hated ("heavy metal!").

Part of that was my age at the time - frankly, as a teenager, almost everyone went from best friend to mortal enemy overnight. But of more importance was the type of music fan I was turning into. Each twist and turn in my metal journey led me to heavier bands: Slayer, Sepultura, Entombed, Napalm Death. By the time my hair was touching my shoulders, nothing seemed as vibrant and interesting as the underground, with its esoteric thank you lists ("Dorsal Atlantica"? "Filthy Christians"?? "Chuffed and Weakened"?!?) and a culture that few in my high school seemed privy to. I made a simple co-relation: obscurer = heavier = better. By the time I had moved to NY for college, I attended CBGB's Sunday matinees religiously, captivated by the likes of Logical Nonsense and Catharsis. Metallica concerts weren't even on my radar.

Which is ironic, because Metallica was almost the first concert I ever attended. Not long after I discovered "Creeping Death" and the joys of headbanging with an undercut, the world tour for the "black album" brought them to Manila. But I didn't know how to ask my mother for the money to buy tickets to see - gasp! - a heavy metal band, and ended up not going. Not seeing Metallica in 1993 is probably the biggest missed opportunity of my life as a hesher, and one regret that the 8th grade me and mid-30's version both share.

Despite that, when rumours about them playing Singapore first started flying around, my interest only lasted until the prices were announced. For the privilege of seeing Metallica live for the first time, the band and their local promoters decided that fans should pay over $100. I said something I hadn't said in more than a decade:


That feeling lasted all the way to the announcement that Metallica would also be playing Malaysia for the first time, the highest tier (right in front of the stage) costing over $200. My inner Marxist and underground elitist joined forces in decrying the event, taking smug satisfaction in the idea of a boycot. This was a metal show for people who don't go to metal shows, I told myself, a way for privileged yuppies to feel part of something they otherwise had no business or interest engaging in.

But while I was still waffling on whether or not I would actually go, my buddy Ben bought a ticket for me. Suddenly I was a part of it. In truth, I felt like a hypocrite for publicly bemoaning the whole spectacle and then going the extent that even as I was standing outside of the venue, I tried to offload my ticket to someone who didn't have one. Why? Because "FUCK METALLICA", that's why.

I appeared to be the only one in KL who felt that way. The road leading to Stadium Merdeka had taken on a carnival atmosphere with vendors selling food, drinks, and bootlegged merchandise [I chuckled over the irony - thousands donning fake shirts to see the band that sued its own fans over perceived loss of revenue]. There was even a table selling "rock" wigs, just in case you felt like donning a mullet for the occasion. Behold: a Metallica-themed pasar malam, the trickle down economics of Damage, Inc.

I was most surprised by how many of my "DIY or DIE" Rumah Api friends I ran into. I guess if you're a certain age, Metallica has been hardwired into your musical consciousness, and no amount of political awareness or punk rock sloganeering will undo that. In fairness, I didn't see any of them actually go INSIDE the stadium; it's possible they listened to the whole concert from outside, in true squat punk fashion.

Not that my experience was any better. The cheapest tier, where I was, was about a kilometer from the actual stage. Squint and you could sort of make out which one of the little dots running back and forth was Hetfield, Hammett or Trujillo. Other than that, we needed the huge monitors to see what was happening on stage. I'm used to connecting with the music in a unique and personal way; instead, I basically got to watch television with thousands of strangers. [Those screens did somewhat justify the price...Metallica essentially had to ship those huge monitors and an entire stage throughout Asia on this leg of the tour].

Kicking off their set with "Hit The Lights" and "Master of Puppets" seemed like a calculated move to win over old heshers, as was the general lack of post-"black album" material. [As my buddy Metal Mike says, "Lars and James know where their bread is buttered."] When they played "Fuel" from Reload and "Cyanide" from Death Magnetic, I sat down and waited for something better.

But as the set went on my cynicism began to thaw. Chills ran up and down my spine for the duration of the "Blackened" intro; and when Hetfield's back and forth with the audience transformed into the count for "Creeping Death", my fists were in the air. Even with some canned audience baiting in place of its crushing bridge, "Battery" remained one of Metallica's finest moments. I caught myself singing along to "Sad But True" without knowing I was doing it. The middle school version of me thought the drumming on that song was the greatest of all time; even now I can only think of one other drum fill as iconic.

"Orion", dedicated to the late Cliff Burton, was where it all came together for me. For almost 10 minutes I was in 9th grade again, Master of Puppets on my Walkman transporting me out of study hall. "Wouldn't this make an awesome sci fi comic?" my teenage self asked, and I had to wistfully agree. For the first time since I heard the words "death" and "metal" put together, I was an unabashed Metallica fan. [As a teenager I used to listen to Metallica religiously, imagining how awesome it would be to see them live. Now here I was seeing them live, thinking back to how awesome it was to be a teenager. Being aware of the irony doesn't make me any more comfortable with it.]

But alas, I am at heart a "H8R", and throughout the set returned to my natural state. In the middle of Trujillo's bass solo I couldn't help but roll my eyes, even as I questioned my own reflexive eye-rolling. I can't see myself having the same level of condescension for similar arena-sized acts like Sabbath or Maiden; frankly, the idea of seeing Rush without an extended Neil Ellwood Peart drum solo is kind of a letdown. Maybe it's because Metallica's dirty laundry is so out in the open that I feel I know them...familiarity, contempt, and so forth.

With the bulk of their material veering towards the Lightning/Puppets/Justice years, I held out hope that I wouldn't have to sit through "Nothing Else Matters"; a wish that was either naive or flat out hateful, depending on if you were one of the chicks who seemed be there exclusively for that song. Inevitably, those girls got their wish, along with all three power ballads. This was an arena show after all.
lighters are for churches, not ballads.
Overall, the whole concert was a Swiss watch of efficiency that delivered on modest expectations. Hardly a note was out of place; and though you could tell he was following a script, Hetfield was a commanding frontman, maybe the best of his generation. I was impressed that he pronounced "Kuala Lumpur" correctly; even Kent Brockman couldn't do that.

As the final notes of closer "Seek and Destroy" rang out, I beat a hasty retreat, determined to get through the exit and to the train before the rest of the cattle. As I rushed out, the expectation that Metallica would play one last song hung thickly in the air. I thought of the 13 year old who missed them two decades ago and kicked himself ever since, how he would've wanted to stick around. But I'm not that kid anymore, and frankly as a 34 year old missing the last train home was a much bigger concern. I finally saw Metallica; unfortunately, it was 20 years after it would have meant something.