MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ— I knew right away that the arrival of Metallica’s …And Justice for All in my suburban home in June of 1989 was a pivotal moment. I didn’t even wait for my birthday party guests to disperse before sneaking up to my room to listen to it, even though its tone was decidedly at odds with the celebratory atmosphere. It was the darkest thing I’d ever been exposed to, forcing me to contemplate unvarnished truths about power, corruption, ecological devastation, the unraveling of the psyche, and the unconscionable brutality of war. The album’s notoriously razor-thin production, replete with the borderline atonal buzzing and slicing of harshly distorted guitars recorded in seemingly airless rooms, evoked the anxiety and ugliness of its subject matter with calibrated cruelty. It was bleak, cynical, and direct. When my cousin Ellen, who was not quite 8 years old, came in to see what I was up to, I stopped the tape. She wasn’t ready for this music. I wasn’t sure I was either. But it was too late. I had crossed the Rubicon.
I’ve chased that feeling of exhilarated unease over the decades that followed, and though I’ve been fortunate to find heaps of great art of all shapes and sizes to challenge me and push me out of my comfort zone, none of it has ever quite matched the power of that moment. That may have as much to do with the ruthless biochemistry of early adolescence as anything else: Do we ever again feel anything as viscerally as we did at thirteen? Nevertheless, I’ve held Metallica to a high standard ever since, and whether through their artistic decline or my unreasonable expectations, they’ve rarely lived up to the hype.
It still confounds me that the guys who made something as pessimistic and raw as …And Justice for All became the biggest band in the world. Seeing their stadium show with 80,000 other fans in 2023 presented a similar cognitive dissonance to that night 34 years before when I heard “Blackened” for the first time with the taste of birthday cake in my mouth. The difference now, of course, was that Metallica wasn’t crashing the party, they were hosting it. And it was hard not to notice that the circular stage they stood on had no sharp corners. Whether they were pairing giant Metallica-branded beach balls with the ode to violence that is “Seek and Destroy,” or saving all the pyrotechnics for the jejune automotive anthem “Fuel,” true menace was in short supply.
But since my ideal Metallica experience doesn’t really exist anymore, attending this show wasn’t so much an attempt to relive a formative moment as it was a matter of visiting old friends and toasting their success. And considering the scale of that success, I was perhaps less preoccupied with the music than with the visual spectacle and its logistics. The huge donut of a stage, with strategically placed microphones and wah pedals allowing for maximum James/Kirk/Robert mobility. Lars making the rounds counter-clockwise throughout the night via drum kits emerging from, descending into, and rotating on the stage at four different locations. The cameras gliding around on suspended wires, capturing the band’s every move. The eight 100-foot-tall towers topped with massive cylindrical video screens that circled the stage, beaming the band to the nosebleed seats. I wished credits would have rolled at the end of the show so I could properly appreciate the small nation’s worth of people who made it happen. I would gladly watch a feature-length documentary detailing how it came together, from concept, to fabrication, to transportation, to load-in, to build. It was just staggering, especially for someone like me who’s accustomed to venues with capacities in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands.
On the drive up to the show, I joked with my friend Jon that I hoped Metallica would just play “Phantom Lord” over and over again. I was only half-joking; it obviously wasn’t going to happen, but I would have been so delighted if it did, partly because repeating a deep cut from their first album, Kill ’Em All, for two solid hours would be an extremely bold defiance of audience expectations, and mainly because its frankly silly comic book imagery would be a welcome piss-take amid the earnestness that is modern-day Metallica. It turns out that a rare performance of “Phantom Lord”—in an even rarer 7,000-seat theater gig—was captured for posterity just back in November at a tribute show for the late Jonny and Marsha Zazula, whose Megaforce Records issued Metallica’s first two albums (among other influential thrash classics). In the video, the band is loose and clearly having fun with it, and I had a huge grin on my face, watching these dudes whose story is inextricable from mine, now pushing 60 and opening a time capsule from their teens, reveling in its outsize, youthful energy.
I wish we got to see that brash Kill ’Em All Metallica (and the dour …And Justice for All Metallica) more often, but the mass market gets what the mass market wants. It’s not my favorite flavor, but after this latest stadium foray into mass market Metallica, I think I’m satisfied that it’s better than no Metallica at all.
Side note: It was interesting to see just how much the stage setup was optimized for Metallica, to the detriment of the opening bands. The difference was literally night and day, in that Metallica took the stage after dark with a premium light show, while the opening bands were hard to keep track of as they roamed the huge stage in flat daylight. Their widescreen video feeds didn’t make full use of the vertical screens, which had the effect of watching a movie on an iPhone without tipping it on its side. And setting aside my opinions about “Pantera” playing shows in the absence of their two most important members (RIP), they sounded terrible, through no apparent fault of their own. Whoever was running sound for them and Mammoth WVH lacked the skills and/or resources of Metallica’s sound person. The kick and snare drums, and to a lesser extent the vocals, completely dominated the mix, and it sounded shockingly bad.