“This is history tonight and you’re part of it,” Metallica frontman James Hetfield shouted to the crowd on April 23 at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California. “Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica as one — with you!”
Among the sun-baked dusty ground and devil horns raised high and proud, there were surely some black T-shirt-clad metal heads that would say Hetfield’s declarations on the genre of heavy metal, politics and insight throughout the evening were a major highlight. However, at the Big Four Metal Fest—or as I like to call it, the heavy metal Coachella—there were several chances to see history in the making on stage, not to mention being reminded of how fiercely political the innovators of thrash metal have always been.
The most exciting part of the show reigned towards the end of Metallicas’ set, when members from all four bands gathered to perform the classic Diamond Head song “Am I Evil?” Fans roared in response to seeing this happen for the first time on U.S. soil, as the group—past rivals, ex-bandmates and legends—embraced with huge smiles and enthusiasm.
“The camaraderie is real. There’s a segment of the metal community that would rather still have us feuding – it’s like, ‘It’s much more fun when Dave [Mustaine, who was kicked out of Metallica in 1983] and Lars hate each other, or when Kerry King talks shit about Metallica.’ Obviously, everybody was very competitive, but there’s nothing to be competitive about now,” explained Ulrich, according to RollingStone.com
It was clear that the tension between certain members has eased; and why shouldn’t it? The Big 4 have played festivals for the past year together across Europe, sold millions of albums, popularized the thrash style, three of the four will celebrate 30 year anniversaries this year, and all except New York’s Anthrax originated in SoCal. These guys were right in their element at thrash metal’s spiritual home.
But a moment that is even heavier than all of the bands shredding together was during Slayers’ set—and surprisingly, it didn’t take place in a mosh pit. For the band’s last two songs, “South of Heaven” and “Angel of Death,” Slayer co-founder/guitarist Jeff Hanneman came out for an unexpected appearance as the desert sun gave way to darkness: He hasn’t performed with Slayer for most of 2011 due to necrotic fasciitis, a bacterial condition that disfigured his right arm so badly it was uncertain if he’d even perform with Slayer again. After slicing off his sleeve, Hanneman defiantly displayed his arm as he played.
But to envision the gory details of the seven-hour concert, almost 50,000-metalhead strong crowd, and approximately 21 arrests (mostly for drunk and disorderly conduct, surprisingly) you need to start at the beginning.
Enter a heavy metal parking lot pre-show party. An entire field of heavy music enthusiasts in sleeveless black T-shirts saluting crosses, pentagrams, skulls, and band promotion ranging from CFH logos to Ozzfest tour shirts. Long hair and devil beards braided to perfection are the norm, mixed with beefy guys spraying sunscreen on tattooed shaven heads.
The smell of grilled brats sizzling mingling with a popular California cash crop, the sound of Coors tall boys being cracked open, the loud camaraderie of new and old friends just throwing it down, sharing provisions, and growing more and more amped about the music to come.
The only question I had in my mind upon entering the show was, how would the masters sound almost three decades later? Well, that and, I hope security doesn’t find my flask. After incidents like the murder of Dimebag Darrell, I would think security would be high; or at least to the point where they search everyone upon entry. Well, much to my surprise I wasn’t searched or even patted down; maybe they were profiling for the concertgoers that appeared a little more bad-ass. (I couldn’t of been too threatening after hopping out of my light blue Scion TC after the 4 1/2 hour drive from Phoenix, donning little cowgirl boots). Either way, it was win-win for me.
Anthrax kicked off the day at 4 PM as the crowd rushed the stage, ripping into their 1987 classic “Caught In A Mosh.” They continued through 10 songs ranging from early tunes to the newer “Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t,” which was a return to the band’s beloved mid-80s riffs. I gotta say, Joey Belladonna keeps it entertaining—dude jumps around like a damn aerobics instructor—but he always seems to hold his own.
Megadeth seemd to offer the most stylistically different performance out of the four bands, with wicked instrumentals that intertwined, went around all of Indio and came back again in perfect unison, along with frontman Dave Mustaine’s wailing vocals from behind his red mane, crunching through guitar solos on a gold Flying V. The grinning, sweating frontman then finished off the set with a double-neck guitar and “In My Darkest Hour” and “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due,” where he sorrowfully acknowledged recent global tragedies.
I know most attendees hailed Slayer and Megadeth, but for me, Slayer pleasantly surprised me (yes, you can be pleasantly surprised at a heavy metal show). With no bells and whistles other than basic lighting, the most intense moshing of the day was inspired by the powerful brutality of guitarist Kerry King and drummer Dave Lombardo, who confirmed once again just why he is the Godfather of Double Bass. Songs borne from current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan moved from double to triple time, while the growling Tom Araya kept grinning the entire set in reaction to the audience.
While dozens of mosh pit pockets had been spun into webs during Slayer’s set, a calming sense set over the crowd as Metallica prepared to go on stage. The career-spanning, defining set of 18 songs rocked for two and a half hours, and demonstrated just why Metallica remains one of the most powerful bands in the industry, whether you think they are heavy or not.
As the band set foot on stage to a clip from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, once the creepy Ennio Morricone soundtrack ended the band pounded into “Creeping Death” from 1984’s Ride the Lightning. Huge bursts of pyrotechnics blew up around the stage several times throughout Metallica’s set, accentuating heated versions of “Fuel,” “One,” and “Master of Puppets,” where Hetfield led the audience in an epic sing-along.
Guitarist Kirk Hammet’s continuous intricate, emotionally moving solos transitioned beautifully from song to song, particularly from “Nothing Else Matters” right into “Enter Sandman,” where a huge bonfire ensued and fans began lighting their shirts aflame and whipping them above their heads. Ulrich and Hetfield jammed in unison on the drums several times, and the set list forged through such hits as “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Fade to Black,” and “Ride The Lightning.”
At the end of the set, Hetfield gazed out into the crowd breathlessly and said, “We just wanna take the time to say ‘thank you’ to all of you metal fans out there who have supported all the bands — not only the Big 4, but the big however many out there. There’s a lot of great bands out there and we’d like to celebrate all of them. And especially the Big 4, getting out here and jamming, just saying ‘thank you’ to the world of metal fans for just giving us your support, giving us your heart and giving us your passion, man, ’cause that’s what it is for us.”
And that’s why the thrash and metal will always live on, because certain types of music never die. That’s why loyal fans get clobbered in the mosh pit, deal with large, sweaty, leather-clad beer-gulpers (well, I guess that’s more the women…it’s good to have a strong elbow throw), take joy in ridiculous tat sight-seeing, and endure the stereotype that society sets upon us.
For those on the East Coast who couldn’t make it to Indio, check out the Big Four in New York this September, with more dates pending.