Muscle memory is wild, man. James Hetfield reminded his Rock On The Range audience on multiple occasions that Metallica have been thrashing away for 36 years. “Metallica is old for this!” he told us, in one of several brutish, blurted addresses Sunday night. (Before “Sad But True,” he also proclaimed, “Metallica gives you heavy!”) Yet there they were in front of 45,000 people at a very soggy Columbus soccer stadium, rocketing through the likes of “Whiplash” and “Creeping Death” at something close to the feverish clip from the studio recordings, replicating every fill and solo with painstaking exactitude and magnificent force. Meanwhile, many of us onlookers compulsively air-guitarred along with a precision that belied how long ago we last beheld tablature.
I couldn’t have been the only one whose enjoyment of “One” was amplified by miming Kirk Hammett’s lead guitar work as if clutching an imaginary fretboard. Back in seventh grade, an officially licensed tab book notating the entirety of …And Justice For All was a prized possession among my circle of friends, passed back and forth and studied like a sacred tome. It was a key component of the basement-bound guitar marathons that defined my early adolescence. In my mind, you weren’t shit if you couldn’t replicate both Hammett’s somber, melodious opening notes from “One” and his ballistic finger-tapping from the song’s grand finale. So you better believe my hands swung into place to mimic those solos and everything in between. Ditto “Master Of Puppets” (which immediately followed “One,” if you can even imagine such a remarkable sequence transpiring), and “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” and all the other classics that once served as middle school guitar tutorials.
Metallica were already a huge get for Rock On The Range back when this year’s lineup was first announced: “America’s Biggest Rock Festival” finally securing the world’s most famous metal band. In a sense, the event’s whole 11-year history had been leading up to booking this group, whose only real competition among active hard-rock legends is the Slash-Axl version of Guns N’ Roses. (The pre-reunion GNR headlined Rock On The Range in 2014.) But by Sunday night Metallica’s fest-closing set had become more than just a crowning triumph for this festival. It was a much-needed exclamation point on a Rock On The Range that had been bogged down first by news of Chris Cornell’s sudden death, which wiped Friday headliners Soundgarden off the docket entirely, and then by inclement weather that forced fans to evacuate Mapfre Stadium for several hours on Friday and left them soaked and muddy throughout much of the rest of the weekend.
It almost didn’t happen. Volbeat, the last act scheduled to perform before Metallica, were nearing the end of their set when another torrential storm swept through Mapfre, sending the assembled masses scrambling for shelter and causing one last safety delay. Ironically, it seemed like lightning might derail Metallica’s big Rock On The Range debut. But nobody dared leave the stadium because the promise of such visceral nostalgia was too compelling. When the rain finally passed, I assumed they’d scrap Volbeat’s last two songs and get to the good stuff (sorry, Volbeat), but no, the Danish metalheads came back and finished their set (sorry, everyone else). Finally, more than an hour after they were scheduled to begin, Metallica took the stage shortly after 10PM.
They began with two singles from last year’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct — “Hardwired” and “Atlas, Rise!” — and would cram three more tracks from the new album into their first eight songs. Even those new songs, which sometimes feel more like a facsimile of classic Metallica than an actual return to form, were a marvel and a thrill. It was also funny when Hetfield introduced “Moth Into Flame” by explaining, “This one’s known for mics not working.” My only complaint about that opening stretch was the part in “Now That We’re Dead” when roadies rolled out four gigantic drums and the band enacted a lengthy percussion interlude, like Spinal Tap gone Blue Man Group. Nobody needs a Metallica drum circle. Other than that, the Hardwired material served as evidence of just how on top of their game Metallica remain.
Besides those five new songs, everything else on the setlist was from Metallica’s first decade, the peerless five-album run from 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All to their self-titled 1991 mainstream breakthrough, AKA “The Black Album.” That’s right: No St. Anger, no Death Magnetic, no Garage Inc., no Lulu (duh), not even anything off Load or Reload (though frankly “Fuel” also would have qualified as “that which I desire,” so sue me). In other words, Metallica gave their fans exactly what we wanted. It was glorious. I can’t even explain how glorious it was.
I honestly wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did. Metallica were a formative influence on me, probably my favorite band in the world at one point, but I haven’t cared passionately about them for close to 20 years. Partially that’s because their later discography is clogged with disappointments, and partially it’s because as I grew older my taste shifted toward indie rock, rap, and pop. What little metal I do listen to these days usually amounts to a handful of critically acclaimed releases that cross over to an indie audience; I am probably the only person whose Rock On The Range must-see list solely comprised Metallica and Deafheaven.
(Speaking of Deafheaven, a quick interlude about their four-song set in the parking lot: It was good, not great. You’re better off seeing them indoors if possible because even at ear-shredding volumes, their waves of gorgeous noise just don’t connect the same as riff-driven music in a festival environment. I’m a staunch Deafheaven supporter, and even I preferred Sunday’s less heady offerings, like an Amon Amarth set replete with a simulated swordfight and a drummer who performed from the deck of a gigantic wooden warship. That said, Deafheaven’s Sunbather material was still a rush under actual sunlight, and the weird sexy-dance George Clarke busted out during instrumental breaks was endlessly amusing. I was also happy to see Clarke grew his hair out, both because it looked awesome whipping around when he headbanged and because otherwise I would have begun to wonder if anyone had ever seen Clarke and white nationalist prick Richard Spencer in the same place.)
Anyway, back to Metallica: They were so good. They were everything I hoped they’d be. This was my first time seeing them, and I can’t imagine loving it any more had I managed to catch a show at age 13 in the throes of my hero worship, before I came to appreciate how ridiculous Hetfield’s performative anger and ghoulish fantasyland lyrics can be. It’s tempting to believe the adrenaline rush was driven purely by wistfulness for a simpler time before Napster and Some Kind Of Monster and the pressures of adulthood. But it wasn’t only that. Metallica are an objectively, awesomely powerful live act. (Yes, even notorious weak link Lars Ulrich.) Tired tropes and gestures transcend irony in their hands. So much music happens so fast, and all of it coheres into actual songs. Even the more radio-friendly “Black Album” material benefits from ridiculous shredding; even the obscenely technical early tracks impact like anthems. They didn’t become Rock On The Range’s holy grail by accident.
Despite the delayed start, Metallica played their full 18-song set, keeping the musical and literal pyrotechnics going well beyond midnight. I kept thinking I’d leave early to beat the traffic (I am getting old) and preserve whatever sliver of a good night’s sleep I could still reasonably expect (parenting two kids under two is rough), but they kept roping me back in. “The Unforgiven” — hell yeah! “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” — oh man! “Fade To Black” — are you kidding me?! They closed the main set with a tremendous “Seek And Destroy” and encored with breakneck long-distance sprint “Blackened” followed by ultimate power ballad “Nothing Else Matters.” The whole stadium was rapt at attention. Nobody was leaving early, even the guy standing behind me who was planning to drive back to Indianapolis overnight. We all could have kept watching until dawn, but it had to end sometime. And when it finally did end — inevitably, with the corny but deservedly popular “Enter Sandman” carrying us off to never-never land — both Metallica and my air-guitar reflex were still going strong.