The surreal nature of watching Metallica play the Pepsi Center on election night could only have been more pronounced if the band congratulated the winner of the presidential contest from the stage, dressed in American flag leotards or showered the crowd with red, white and blue plastic skulls.
Of course, the world’s biggest metal band did none of these things. They were there to rock.
But if was still odd seeing them in the same venue that hosted the Democratic National Convention less than three months ago — especially knowing that voter tallies from the election were rolling in as they played, and that much of the country could have cared less about live music on such a historic night. The less-than-capacity crowd at Pepsi Center probably testified more to the buzz surrounding this year’s presidential race than the strength of Metallica’s fan base, which has seemed especially robust in the wake of new album “Death Magnetic.”
The disc, which dropped in September and was certified platinum last week, has garnered the 27-year-old band some of its best reviews in memory. Even a cursory listen confirms that it bears more spiritual resemblance to 1980s classics such as “And Justice for All ” than the band’s meandering, divisive ’90s output.
After sets from openers Down and the Sword (during which a good chunk of the fans were tailgating, ordering beers or comparing identical black T-shirts while tailgating and drinking beer), Metallica took the stage in the middle of the venue to deafening roars. Watching them run down a darkened, heavily guarded aisle toward the stage reminded one of a 1970s arena rock spectacle, particularly as the frenetic laser light show took over the rectangular slab for opening song “This Was Just Your Life.”
Despite buried vocals and a similarly cymbal-heavy drum mix early on, the set evened out as it continued, the band mostly ignoring material from its mid- and late-’90s output for its bookend albums. Songs such as “One” sounded appropriately grand in their multi-part glory, Kirk Hammett’s standard-bearer solos commanding the stage each time they came up. Fans, unsurprisingly, reacted particularly strongly to classics like “Ride the Lightning” and “Seek and Destroy.”
Singer James Hetfield prowled the perimeter of the stage to take advantage of its multiple, cleverly placed vocal mics, allowing people to throw their devil horns at each of the members’ faces as they roamed freely (aren’t wireless pickups instruments great?). Giant backlit coffins titled up and down from the rafters, providing an imposing spectacle to match the crushing riffs and beats. Drummer Lars Ulrich sat in the center, bashing his orange kit and occasionally rising to point his drum sticks at fans, who responded with screams.
Despite a lame, half-assed mosh pit and the empty seats up top, people generally seemed to be freaking out over the mix of new and old material. “We’re back,” Hetfield growled at one point. “Did you miss us?” The fact that he could barely be heard over the screams of approval was probably answer enough.
Candace Horgan is a Denver freelance writer and photographer and frequent Reverb contributor.