Metallica/Kvelertak – Birmingham, Genting Arena – 30 October 2017 Print E-mail
Written by Rich Hobson and Sean Larkin   
Wednesday, 01 November 2017 04:40

Every band has, at some point in their career, had a bad night. Be it equipment issues, sound issues or a drummer too hungover to keep in time, the ‘off’ gig is something which catches bands and artists of all sizes, striking often at random. And, more often than not, it is more a test of the band at hand rather than a question of ability or quality – are they able to recover? Can they still put on a worthy performance? Will they prevail? Many a band have faced the same issues, the same questions, but when you’re the biggest metal band on the planet playing your first arena tour in almost a decade, it’s fair to say the stakes are considerably higher than your average nerve-ridden fuck-up at a battle of the bands.


Anticipation is exceptionally high long before the Metallica crew have even arrived in the Midlands; coming off the back of one of the best received albums in their career since ‘The Black Album’, Metallica have by all accounts been smashing it out of the park as far as live shows go, the current UK run promising a shifting setlist, surprising additions and a few cheeky covers thrown in for good measure. Makes sense then that the Genting Arena would be heaving by 7pm, the crowd already swollen in the belly of the beast ready to receive this tour’s only support act, Kvelertak.


Described variously as heavy metal, hardcore punk and black n roll, Kvelertak are a band that have been difficult to quantify within traditional genre parameters, taking heady gulps from every cup at the party and turning it into a massive riff-slinging, rip-roaring package. Darlings of the rock press, Kvelertak have enjoyed much hype across their three-album run. Their appointment as tour support is a typically canny decision by the folks running Metallica tours (and following in the footsteps of the likes of ‘The Blackening’-era Machine Head, The Sword and Mastodon – to name just a few from the past decade of UK shows), giving the band a chance to bring their brand of arena-worthy riffs to the kind of crowd they deserve.


What they don’t deserve however, is an abysmal sound setup. Metallica have long been known for their tendency to favour 360 degree stages which drop the band in the midst of the action, a bold move which means no matter where you are in the room chances are you can see something. Unfortunately, in the Genting’s case it quickly becomes apparent that while everybody can see Kvelertak gearing up on opener ‘Apenbaring’, the actual sound of the band is completely lost in translation almost everywhere but the immediate vicinity of the stage.


Aesthetically pleasing though Kvelertak are (and believe that this is a band who know exactly how to play up to a big crowd, their rock posturing powerfully appropriate as they stand literally amidst a sea of excited metal fans) it becomes apparent very early on that PA is most definitely not on the side of the band for their performance, the snarl of vocalist Erland Hjelvik completely lost behind the instruments. This creates a difficult duality for the band: on one hand, their instruments can be heard clear as day (albeit a little on the low end of the noise register), meaning fans get the full impact of the classic rock n roll inspiration that seems to seep from every pore of their output. On the other, Hjelvik’s notoriously juxtaposed blackened snarl is almost entirely buried, unintelligible to all but the keenest of ears, leaving the songs slightly anaemic for their lack of that extra harsh spice.


Nonetheless, Kvelertak don’t let it get in their way. Given ample time to warm the crowd up, the Norwegians set about inciting a party, their massive presence managing to outshine the actual sound of their performance as they race around the stage filling up every inch of available space. Even without the full impact of their performance the band are still able to put on one hell of a show, their greasy take on arena rock throwing up comparisons to everyone from Motorhead to The Who. Possessing the raw energy of the former and the bombast of the latter, it’s not hard to see why rock and metal camps alike have flocked to follow the band on their rock n roll odyssey, making you wonder just how effective they could have been (or indeed, have been on other dates) if everything was firing at full capacity. A band to keep an eye on, to be sure.


With sound issues dogging Kvelertak’s whole performance, more than a few worries can be heard voiced amongst the crowd. After all – people have waited almost a decade, paid almost £100 a head to be here tonight; surely nothing less than an absolute masterclass performance will do? Well, they’re not the biggest metal band in the world for nothing.


Metallica have been on fire as of late, the critical reception to everything Metallica this past 12 months almost serving as an apology for the bashing the band took on ‘Lulu’. The UK tour has thrown up some extremely eclectic setlists (did you ever envision a world where you’d see Metallica cover Oasis and Joy Division?), so the anticipation to see how Birmingham shapes up is enormous. Taking to the stage to Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold” (i.e. the Western song that you know that isn’t named after the movie), the song’s epic and cinematic build feels all too appropriate as each of the four iconic members of the band take to the stage.


Metallica aren’t fucking about with this tour, kicking things off with the opening track to their latest record ‘Hardwired’ (reviewed last year by yours truly). Although the band blast out of the traps at breakneck pace, immediately it becomes apparent that the same issues which dogged Kvelertak haven’t been rectified for the headliner. In stark contrast to the previous situation, Hetfield’s voice booms over the PA while the rest of the band struggle to really rise to the same level of amplification, robbing the thrash onslaught of a large amount of potency.


Follow up ‘Atlas, Rise!’ suffers from a similar lack of impact, the riffs not so much slung into the far corners of the room as flopping three or four rows into the audience. Undeterred, Metallica play on with sheer intensity, the band clearly giving it all even as the PA struggles to carry the onslaught they offer. Taking a momentary breather from their mile-a-minute pace, the band go from their latest record right the way back to the very beginning with a seismic rendition of ‘Seek and Destroy’. Is that the PA kicking in? Well I’ll be goddamned.


Finally hitting the levels we all know they are capable of (and should have been from the off, had the PA not decided to throw a wobbler), Metallica sound every bit as imperious and unstoppable as the biggest metal band in the world should. Though the song might harken back to their early days of clubs and garages, there’s no denying that ‘Seek and Destroy’ is a bona fide hit, an anthem-in-waiting that betrayed the band’s sheer power right from the very beginning. This is more like it!


Following with rarity ‘The Shortest Straw’, Metallica settle into a happy groove that sees thousands of horns fly into the air and heads crashing around like the biggest game of cosmic conkers you’ve ever seen. A military march playing counterpart to the rampaging introduction, this is Metallica at their most ostentatious in the riff department, the ceaseless onslaught feeling like a blitzkrieg on the senses as the band burn through an intense 6-and-a-half minute epic.


Not mentioned yet is Metallica’s stage set-up for the evening’s show. Once again utilising the 360 degree stage from past tours, the band surround themselves with floating screens which display song-appropriate imagery across each number. Nowhere in the set is this more distinctive and eye-popping than in ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’, where each cube-screen conjures the image of a person desperately trying to break out of their cube, a flurry of distorted limbs, faces and bodies crashing against each screen creating an uncomfortable but wholly impressive image.


It feels almost odd to say that there is nowhere Metallica sound more like themselves than on their new record (even though the aforementioned album review did just that, repeatedly), but it’s true. Metallica really hit a stride in the sessions for ‘Hardwired…’, the band managing to capture both the manic energy of their early thrash days and the imperious stomp of latter-day material. Unstoppable, the band launch into ‘Now That We’re Dead’, only to pull each member away from their respective instruments for an extended middle drum solo, each member hammering away at enormous glowing blocks in front of them.


Metallica are much more than just a massive metal band, quite right in their assertion that all that follow the band are indisputably a member of the extended Metallica family. This relationship has also elevated the individual personalities of the band to a state of reverence, the combination of Hammet, Hetfield, Trujillo and Ulrich the definitive article in metal personalities. Though line-ups have changed over the years the fact remains this incarnation of Metallica are one that most modern rock and metal fans will be excited about seeing, each member a master craftsman of stage and sound.


New numbers and old alike sound enormous in the hands of Metallica 2017, the likes of ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ producing some of the most impressive cacophonies in the entire rock and metal canon. When the band break into a geographically appropriate instrumental cover of ‘War Pigs’ the interplay between Kirk Hammet and Rob Trujillo is unstoppable, the band leading thousands in a sing-along with just a bit of string tickling. A cover of ‘Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)’ comes with screens playing footage of legendary bassist Cliff Burton playing, whilst Rob Trujilo provides a flesh and blood counterpart below on the stage.


Keeping to the geographically appropriate, the band drop a surprise rendition of ‘Am I Evil?’ by Stourbridge’s own King Diamond to inspire some truly Halloween appropriate atmospheres in the Genting. If ‘Am I Evil’ promises all the menace of a lit torch held over a gasoline soaked pyre, ‘Fuel’ is the igniting spark, the roar of “GIMMEFUELGIMMEFIREGIMMETHATWHICHIDESIRE!” punctuated with an all-too-appropriate gout of flame which could just as easily symbolise the set hitting peak energy levels.


Whilst normally the band might cool off with a run-through of a ballad, tonight in Birmingham there’s no letting up. ‘Moth Into Flame’ is dedicated to Amy Winehouse, but the song is no heartfelt, soul-searching ballad – instead we get prime roaring, swinging Metallica bombast, Hetfield projecting pure power into the audience. Sadly, this power isn’t enough to keep the gremlins from coming back out to play. Finally dropping a ballad (sort of, right?) into the set, the band start ‘One’, running through the song right to the critical point and then… nothing.


With the PA completely cut out and Lars’ kit only audible as an unamplified rumble, the band are forced to leave the stage for five painful minutes whilst the issues are sorted. If you have ever been unfortunate enough to catch ‘November Rain’ on terrestrial radio you’ll know only too well the pain that occurs when you’re awaiting a massive crescendo that never comes – and never will. Luckily, Metallica are able to get back onstage to finish the song, but by the time they do much of the electric buzz of the song has dissipated, the Gatling-gun fire of drum and guitar only serving to re-introduce the band, rather than utterly destroy the crowd as it should have.


The floor positively rumbling by this point, it becomes clear that Metallica’s sound issues are now fully sorted (and only an hour and a half late), offering up an absolutely monumental run-through of ‘Master of Puppets’. Inexplicably leaving the stage for an encore (didn’t we just do that guys?), the band return as the clock hits 11 to finish up on an almighty three-punch delivery. The Metallica discography doesn’t come much heavier than ‘Spit Out The Bone’, a roaring return to the stage punctuated by almost feverish roars from an adoring crowd. ‘Nothing Else Matters’ offers a late-in-the-game sway along from the crowd, illuminated by a sea of phone lights, before the band close on indisputably their most iconic hit – ‘Enter Sandman’.


There is a sense that bona fide metal anthems are in slightly short supply these days and when you hear the iconic thunderous blast that signifies the kick-in for ‘Enter Sandman’ you can’t help but agree. Because, great as many of these modern metal hits are, they just lack the pure universal ubiquity of a hit like ‘Enter Sandman’ or ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the songs so iconic that they are coded into the very DNA of rock and metal itself. Blasts of fireworks signal the end of the set and a hurried rush for the exits (it is coming up to 23.20, after all), Metallica drinking in a final roar of approval from the amassed fanatics.


Though Metallica’s Birmingham show will likely not go down as one of their best (even on this tour, perhaps even especially), there is no denying that the band aren’t able to pull one hell of a 180, turning into the skid and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. In terms of performance and pure stagecraft the band remain virtually unchallenged, very few bands able to match them in terms of pure energy and dedication. You don’t win over fans who are willing to travel around the world and see 140+ shows by doing the bare minimum, and Metallica are nothing if not a band who know how to apply 110 per cent effort to everything they put their minds to (and yes, that does include 'Lulu').


As the years wear on, sceptics may look at Metallica and begin to sharpen their spears to suggest they aren’t the band they once were (a suggestion which has actually dogged the band throughout their career since the '90s). But Metallica aren’t docile quarry, waiting to be taken down; they are a band absolutely dedicated to holding on to the crown of the world’s biggest metal band, pouring every inch of bombast and electricity that they can into every moment of the show whilst constantly seeking a connection with their audience. The metal scene will forever look for ‘the next Metallica’, but the truth is that no such band can exist; there is only one Metallica and they Metallica harder than anybody else ever possibly could.


PHOTO CREDIT: All photos © Sean Larkin/ Über Rock. View our full gallery of photographs HERE.


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