In June of 2010, the biggest bill in metal history blew fans away in Sofia, Bulgaria as Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer played to over 40,000 people. The same four bands played a few more shows around the world, leaving fans across the Atlantic wondering if their dream metal show would ever come stateside. When word came out that not only would the US get a Big 4 show, but that it would be a week after the Coachella festival on the same stage that has housed some of the largest acts in music history, it was as if metal has just gotten its very first Woodstock.
On Saturday, these pioneers of thrash and heavy metal performed in front of 50,000 and brought back the tradition of a heavy metal festival. Ozzfest, Sounds of the Underground, more recently Mayhem Fest, and various region-specific festivals have held the reigns for so long in the States, but The Big 4 showed that less is more. With only four bands playing an hour each (more for Metallica), the reality of “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” met the serenity of Coachella. All in all, the concert reminded music fans what it takes to not only sell millions of albums, but create music that is relevant 30 years later.
The show started with Anthrax, the most rebellious band of the bunch. Scott Ian and gang started the show off with a bang, well, with “Caught in a Mosh” and “Madhouse” to be exact. They chose their two biggest songs to get the heat-stricken crowd riled up and it definitely worked. The rumbling bass of Frank Bello laid the treads down for the tank-of-a-drummer Charlie Benante to deforest the polo fields. The sight of a four o’clock mosh pit screamed that the crowd was determined to beat the heat…to death.
Singer Joey Belladonna may not look very metal, but his insanely high voice is in an echelon only Mr. Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson represent. The rest of the band looks refreshed after starting this tour and recording a new album, and tore through a few tracks off of their upcoming release “Worship Music.” Anyone showing up to see Metallica that wasn’t familiar with Anthrax certainly gained a new appreciation for the fast and furious fivesome. Their no-frills attitude toward honest music gives them that AC/DC charm without all the funny accents.
For a specific type of metal fan, Megadeth has every combination a truly great band needs: brilliant guitar work, epic narrative, and the right balance of realistic and fantasy attitude. The dozen songs Dave Mustaine chose for Indio represented these themes well, with standards such as “Sweating Bullets,” “Peace Sells,” and the finale “Holy Wars.” A sped-up version of “Hangar 18” showed Mustaine at his sharpest, as his ability to sing with a half-smirk while shredding at the same time is mesmerizing. The touring rotation has changed a bit recently, but having original bassist David Ellefson really made a difference. The chemistry was obvious on all of the pieces from the seminal Peace Sells… album and fans of Megadeth caught a glimpse of what might be the strongest Megadeth lineup since that era.
Just like the pied piper, Mustaine leads you through the riffs. His solos dance from fret to fret like a speed date, but the ease with which they stretch is beyond impressive. Megadeth understands the power of the guitar more than the other bands on the bill, with multiple extended solos written into almost every song. Drumming has often taken a backseat to this predominately string band, and that’s the one aspect that could have propelled this set to an unforgettable one. Sadly, the wind did not help as it picked up during this set and ravaged the audio fidelity frequently.
Metalheads joke that nobody is a casual Slayer fan: it’s either die hard or not interested. Seeing the crowd go absolutely nuts at just the logo popping up 20 minutes before the band took the stage was a testament to that. Slayers moves people and their music gets the crowd moving. Their speed is most awe-inspiring when juxtaposed within a single song, often providing three variable head banging speeds per track. They shift musical gears without warning and have you reeling within seconds.Their three minute songs have more notes than some band’s entire albums and the band doesn’t look nearly as tired as they should be after each song. Tom Araya’s vocals still curdle your blood and are as potent today as they were in the early 80’s.
Guitarist Kerry King is the metal maestro on stage, conducting which breakneck speed the crowd should smash around to and at what precise insane tempo. Dave Lombardo was, by far, the best drummer of the night, as was perhaps the set list. Playing a bit of every album (including three from their most recent World Painted Blood), “Angel of Death” and “South of Heaven” closed their set. This was the highlight of the night, as guitarist Jeff Hanneman joined his band on stage and played his first show since February after being bit by a spider and contracting a flesh-eating disease. The combination of members reads like the most straight-forward trash on the bill, but the complexity of speed and rhythm puts Slayer in a class of their own.
No single band has done more for metal’s image than Metallica. Undoing years of bad reputation created by “scary” bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper, Metallica made parents realize that long hair and black t-shirts were okay. You could play a song from The Black Album in a Midwest shopping mall and nobody would bat an eye. They maybe aren’t the fastest or toughest of the Big 4, but there wouldn’t be a Big 4 without the success of Metallica. That being said, nobody puts on more of a show than the Bay Area metal masters and Indio was not spared their brand of brash thrash.
Although they are on their third bass player, the three original amigos on guitars and drums still hold strong. Kirk Hammett is a shredding spectre: effort and fluidity intertwine when he strums. James Hetfield is a singer that has grown into his voice over the years, but kudos to him for being self-aware. While he still relies on the crowd to sing half of “Master of Puppets” for him, he completes an entire set without cracking or squeaking. Lars Ulrich gives fans more than what they see out of most drummers: a personality. He often gets on his kit and pumps up the crowd before jumping into a double-bass unmatched by most drummers in metal. Rob Trujillo doesn’t feel like the new guy anymore and holds his own when the other members drop out and let him take the lead. His crabwalking, spiderpicking ways are now just as Metallica as Hetfield’s “ah” sound he puts on the end of every sentence.
The band had a simple stage set-up, which was a running theme for the entire festival. Some fireworks and fireballs erupted during “Fuel,” but overall it was a tame light show. The audio quality was the best of the night for the mighty Metallica and the howling wind didn’t destroy the experience. They didn’t need anything special to rock and it showed with each classic blaring into the crowd. Metallica represents the living embodiment of any kid that ever picked up a guitar: to play the best instruments at the highest volume on the biggest stages in the world. The Big 4 do that every show and they do it well. The joint jam session for “Am I Evil” is icing on the cake, as all four bands play one gigantic metal song for an over-he-top finale. The moment is more about the image than the sound, but it’s one that fans will never forget.
The Big 4 figured it all out: just stay perfect for decades. Playing the same speed, with the vocals as strong as ever, with the drummer as brutal as ever, and riffs chunkier than they ever used to be, is a surefire way to sustain a career and diehard fans. Sure, those fans have traded the Mickey’s for smoothies, but doctors were chugging beer with mechanics, lawyers passed joints to plumbers, and teenagers saw a glimpse of cool at 40. The festival was a musical rite of passage: a glorious celebration of the life-long impact these four bands have had on people and our society. On those levels and many more, the concert was a success and made an impact that will last for generations.
Check out all of Scott Dudelson’s Big 4 photos and more on his Examiner page.