MUSIC: The Holy Metallica Love-Mosh and the Shining Eyes of Headbangers

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words and photos by Christopher Johnson at SummerSonic in Japan and CityBreak in Seoul —

Head-bangers are a misunderstood lot. Many people look down at us as a sort of Satanic cult of stoners, greasers, outcastes, criminals, wife-beaters and ax-murderers. We are violent barbaric uncouth heathens banished from the tribe, unable to ever get a proper job.

In Japan, South Korea and across Asia, head-bangers are the sweetest people. They’re honest. They know what’s true, and what’s BS. They’re fun and friendly, with shining eyes.

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Many are women.

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Many are perhaps in their fifties or even sixties. The music sounds angry, but these people aren’t angry. They’re ecstatically happy, actually, when they’re moshing.

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Go to the mosh-pit between the soundboard and the stage at Metallica, and you’ll see guys slamming into each other, and it looks plenty violent and scary. But there’s a lot of passion and compassion in there. When a guy goes down, they pick him up. They aren’t out to hurt each other. They’re out to feel each other, and heal each other through the power of music. It’s beautiful.

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This is why they worship Metallica. Metallica are normally known as a thrash band or gods of heavy metal, but their music is ultimately a form of blues, meant to heal the soul and make you feel good. James Hetfield talks about this often on stage: Do you feel good? We’re going to make you feel better. Kirk Hammett talks here about his love of almost every genre of music, from jazz to funk and country, whatever “moves me emotionally”. (the http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2k8bvmQM7Bc)

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Yes, we are moved emotionally, and we do feel better during and after a Metallica show.

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Going into the stadium, people are already thrilled to be inching closer to the stage. They cheer during the soundcheck, as they hear the crunching sound of a Metallica guitar and the pop of the drum puncturing the air. People go berserk early in the show, as drummer Lars Ulrich walks on stage.

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From concert openers Hit the Lights and Master of Puppets, the buzz continues all the way out of the stadium and onto the train home. 

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Metallica fans are still buzzing the next day, as a cover band from Japan stokes a mosh pit.

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If there was a Battle of the Bands for the entire Planet Earth, Metallica would win. They blow away everyone: Aerosmith, Van Halen, U2, ACDC, Guns and Roses, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, even Rage Against the Machine. Yes, it’s blasphemy, but they even blow away Black Sabbath.

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To put Metallica into perspective, imagine Black Sabbath with Ozzie and Tony Iommi, bringing Jimmy Page into the band as an extra guitarist. Put Nirvana’s Dave Grohl on drums to throw punches and slay the audience with physicality. Then play it with the muscle and poignancy of Henry Rollins. And then do that for 32 years, some 2000 shows, 2-hours at a time.

Think about it, when James Hetfield, 50, and Lars Ulrich, 49, founded the band in 1981, the Police and The Clash were bringing punk and ska into the mainstream. Led Zeppelin, The Who and other hard rock bands were grappling with death. People were talking about how “rock is dead,” and how video was going to kill radio. U2 was just getting started. You bought music on cassette tapes, not CDs.

“I wanted it to be freedom from school and work, from the typical music we were hearing,” Hetfield told NPR in 2004 about why they formed Metallica. He recalled how he felt alienated from his family and what he called the “cocoon” of his Christian Science atmosphere. When he was 13, his Dad left a farewell note, and his Mom died when he was 16. “Music was somewhat of an escape for me that turned into a really great gift. We were just passionate and loved music. It was a soundtrack for our lives, it spoke for us.”

He worked to support himself, and became a musician to avoid a future of blue-collar struggle. “We had college on the road, street college,” he recalled. “I had a lot of anger and rage problems that would just overcome me. Whatever was near, I would break. It was this adolescence that stuck with me. There was something about smashing stuff that felt right, that felt good. There’s plenty of other ways to get that anger out. I didn’t know those techniques then. I couldn’t talk about it. I was fearful of it. I thought nobody could relate to it. We were immature in a way, but writing about it.”

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Metallica, when they broke into consciousness in the 80s, seemed perhaps another heavy metal cliche. They turned out to be much more than that. They were the heaviest punk band, and the punkest metal band. They also became great songwriters, penning epic thrashes and earnest ballads too.

I first heard about Metallica and thrash metal when I was planting trees in a mosquito-infested mountains way up north near the Arctic. We lived in tents and mud, working 14 hour days screefing the unscarified earth with maddocks, a machete-like tool. One time, after a month of isolation deep in the woods, we went into a town to buy food. The local guys, drug dealers and ex-cons, wanted to kick our asses, because that’s what you do for fun up north. But when they saw us, maddocks in hand, wearing mud-smeared Metallica shirts, they backed off.

Three decades later, when I saw them at SummerSonic in Japan in record high temperatures, Metallica sounded fresh and tight, like enthusiastic young guys stoked about playing music together. It was one of the best live shows, ever.

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Beavis and Butthead were right. Metallica RULE.

Even if you don’t really like heavy metal, or know their songs, you can’t help but admiring their sheer power and skill.

It’s like watching NFL action up close, or NBA players in the zone. When James and Kirk are shredding, it’s like watching Kobe and LeBron skying for rebounds and alley-oop dunks. You are in awe of the speed, the intensity, the precision, the freak ability to play like that. Metallica are phenomenal athletes. They are playing hard and fast for much of two hours. They are sprinting a marathon, applying full-court pressure the entire game. Other bands do that for one song and work up a sweat. When Muse play hard and heavy, it’s electrifying, but it’s often just for a brief part of a song. Metallica has this energy going for two hours!

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They do slow down sometimes, with pleasing effect, in some of their iconic ballads such as Nothing Else Matters. It’s not just because ballads sell records. They need to slow down sometimes, because you in the audience will die of a heart-attack if they don’t. James also takes ample time to chat with the audience, giving us a chance to breathe and recover from the slaying. “How many are seeing Metallica for the first time? Well, welcome to the Metallica family!”

Fans love that open, tender side of Metallica, and of heavy metal in general. The music and lyrics — the epic struggles with pain — are about them. “They’ve got something built up in their head that they need for their life,” Hetfield told NPR, talking about the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster. “There’s the giant mighty Metallica, indestructible on stage. Then there’s this broken, lost, confused, fighting, struggling Metallica.”

Fans also love the fact that Metallica has stayed together, thanks to a mediator who got the members talking again, after years of resentment threatened to crush their friendships and creativity.

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Hetfield and the others have a shine about them on stage. Anybody expecting a hateful troll bash at a Metallica shows comes away with a love vibe. 

“We’re hear to express some joy for life,” Hetfield told NPR. “It’s almost like a drug, getting that feeling of being loved. There’s something intoxicating being on the stage. You can change people’s attitudes. You can make them smile up there, and it’s so cool.”

Hetfield recalls peering into the crowd, seeing two guys and a woman, arm in arm, rocking back and forth to Nothing Else Matters. “I felt sorry for myself,” he recalled. “I never had that. I never would have done that. There’s no jealousy, no competition, whatever stuff in between them. Look at them. I was living vicariously through them.”

Caught up in the love fest of being in the single, hand-waving organism, you as a fan don’t even care what song it is, or what time it is. It’s pure euphoria to be hearing and watching music played on this level — the highest level.

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Hetfield describes his own music as “relentless”. It’s not only for your ears. You feel it with all your body and being. You can’t sit back listening to it. You have to move with the music, in your self-defense.

Obey your master.

You can’t think. You have to act on your inner animal level. You have to be completely aware of what’s going on around you, in your self-defense.

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The music is kicking you from in front. A guy is about to kick you from behind, or slam you from the side. You can die if you fall down and get trampled in the crowd; people have died in Metallica crowds. Everybody knows this, and respects each other for being prepared to die for Metallica.

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On Saturday at Summer Sonic, it was one of the hottest days ever in Japan, 40 C in the shade in some areas, and probably around 45 C on the field at Chiba Marine Stadium, which was covered in mats.

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They had to hose down crowds between shows, and bands such as Bullet for My Valentine were throwing water bottles to the crowd.

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As a fan, you had to make serious life-and-death decisions: do I mosh at Bullet for My Valentine during the mid-afternoon show? Or do I hang back a bit, and live to see Metallica at 7 pm?

In the moment, risking one’s life for Metallica doesn’t seem like the wrong choice. Thanks to Big Mick Hughes, who has been live mixing the band since 1984, the sound quality is amazing. It’s loud and huge, but I don’t need earplugs, because it’s so pleasing to the ear. With a long grey beard, Hughes is a primordial shaman casting a spell upon our Paleolithic cave-dwellers, Hughes (aka “Full Roar”), from Birmingham, England (the cradle of metal), and he’s made Metallica’s “chunky metal” sound at more than 1500 shows since 1984.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Mick)

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOdzgteeNcA)

These guys really know what they’re doing. With a bass and two guitars filling the bottom end, you can clearly hear Lars attacking the drums and cymbals, thanks to Big Mick adding the high mid “click” to the bass drum. The band is so tight, and the mix is so good, it often seems like you are hearing just one instrument: a monstrous, sharp blade cutting through to your soul. Big Mick has also mixed sound for Ozzy Osbourne and the Led Zeppelin reunion concert. He’s so good, his name should be on the bill; I’d see any band perform, just to hear his mix.

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“People have to feel Metallica to enjoy Metallica,” says Hughes. “There has to be that certain anguish about it.”

After Metallica, everything else sounds almost artificial; like, who are they trying to fool. I found it hard to really get into the bands I saw the next day inside the Makuhari convention center and the Chiba Marine stadium. Peace, a young up-and-coming British act, shows potential, and Hot Chelle Rae got a good crowd response, as did others. I love Smashing Pumpkins and always will, but even they seemed like a little indie garage band when they played the same Marine Stage a day after Metallica. Muse were great too, and we were airborne most of the show, only 50 meters from the stage. But it wasn’t as powerful and mind-shattering as Metallica. Nothing is.

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