Maybe the most audacious thing Metallica ever did — more than battle its own fans over downloading, more than willingly reveal their infighting on movie screens, more than allegedly scrub a new bassist’s playing from an album as an act of hazing — was to name itself Metallica. By placing the genre at the heart of its name, it set itself up (intentionally or not) to be the standard bearer for heavy metal.
It was probably foolhardy enough when the members were in their teens. Now that they’ve persevered long enough to become elder statesmen of the genre, it seems practically insane. But when James Hetfield took the microphone a little more than halfway through Friday’s concert at Gillette Stadium and gleefully barked, “Metallica gives you heavy, baby!” the band was basking in the bragging rights that it had long since earned.
Hetfield’s choice of adjective was critical. It’s not Metallica’s speed that ultimately defines the band, though it came out skimming like lightning across a lake with the compact and blazing “Hardwired.” And it’s not the sharpness of its attack, though “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” the shredding “Atlas, Rise!” and others rode the tip of a sharp edge. It’s the band’s whomp, always in effect no matter the velocity or keenness of its material. “Wherever I May Roam” was all pounding gloom, while the implacable eighth-note slash of “Now That We’re Dead” was full of menace without so much as breaking a sweat.
That was echoed in the performances themselves. Hetfield wasn’t gnashing his teeth through songs like “Fuel” the way he once did, but the songs were no less effective for it, while he, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo traveled casually but with purpose from one spot to another on the stage and the horseshoe-shaped catwalk extending out into the audience, leaving the speed to their fingers.
But the speed was there, as were the attack and the heaviness, and Metallica repeatedly proved its dominance over the genre it came to define. Breakneck and complex, “Master Of Puppets” seemed as though it would never let up until it downshifted to the thoughtfully melodic solo section, and the 30-year-old song still had power. So did the chaotic and deadly double-time gallop of “Fight Fire With Fire,” the heaving and dense “Sad But True,” and the thrashing “Motorbreath.” They all hit with the visceral impact that made Metallica Metallica. It still does.
With the moodiness and volume of metal but not the attack, openers Local H created an impressive thunder with just guitar and drums. Danish four-piece Volbeat followed, alternately shuffling, careening, and strutting as warmly encouraging frontman Michael Poulsen sang with the throaty yawp of Billie Joe Armstrong gone metal.
With Local H and Volbeat
At: Gillette Stadium, Friday
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com.