Their tunes came salted with 31 flavors of death: roasting in the electric chair, succumbing to the slow, blood-draining decay of chemical dependency, getting hunted down without mercy by nightmarish nasties, enduring the synapse-sizzling shock of war.
It was enough busy work for the Grim Reaper to demand overtime pay. Or at least a healthy raise, maybe some stock options.
And yet, counterintuitive as it may have initially seemed on its grizzled, battle-scarred face, blackened by a thousand bruises, this night was more about exultation than damnation.
Grins triumphed over grimaces.
“We’re gonna make each other feel good, alright?” Metallica frontman James Hetfield thundered unironically from the stage early on in the band’s sold-out show at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Saturday.
And then he did his best to turn personal pain into a communal, heavy metal bear hug, complete with snarling platitudes.
This was a pep talk with serrated teeth.
“What don’t kill ya, make ya more strong,” Hetfield howled knowingly a bit later on the aptly titled, six-minute chunk o’ hurt “Broken, Beaten & Scarred.”
“You rise, you fall, you’re down, then you rise again,” he continued, in what could have been a summation of Metallica’s up-and-down career arc over the last 21/2 decades, as they’ve gone from thrash metal pioneers to the biggest band in the genre to more radio-friendly, less crucial populists to the critically acclaimed, reinvigorated vets that they are today.
And so those lyrics pretty much encapsulate everything that this band has long been about: picking, in gruesome detail, at all of life’s scabs as a way of eventually vanquishing them for good.
To this end, these dudes know that of which they speak, having weathered their own bouts with substance abuse and bitter inner band turmoil that nearly capsized this battered battleship a few years back.
But in the end, it all only hardened them, as their latest disc, the gripping, growling “Death Magnetic,” attests to with long, dense jams that boil over with a youthful vigor and ambition.
It was the album that Metallica mined the most on Saturday.
Metallica’s greatest skill has always been their ability to leaven technical prowess with simple hooks, to enliven terse jams with a melodic savvy that few, if any, of their speed metal running mates ever possessed.
This is an aptitude that Metallica has re-embraced on their most recent material, after shortening and brightening much of their output in the ’90s, exemplified by new tunes like “Cianide” — a catchy, concussive sing-along live — the stirring, slow-simmering “The Day That Never Comes” and a heart-palpitating “All Nightmare Long,” where the clipped guitar lines were suggestive of the menacing repetition of automatic gunfire.
These same traits were alive in some of Metallica’s vintage material as well, cornerstones of the thrash genre like “Ride The Lighting,” “Master of Puppets” and “Whiplash,” crucial building block upon which this sound was erected and which the band galloped through with precision and poise.
Stalking a massive stage positioned in the center of the arena, with a lighting rig shaped like coffins, Metallica’s live presentation was as pointedly in your face as their songs.
Physically, they ape the primal energy inherent in their catalog, with Hetfield punching the air like he was whacking at a speed bag, mouth agape, his features twisted into an almost comical caricature of agony and ecstasy. Meanwhile, bassist Robert Trujillo stood with his legs splayed apart, hunched over his instrument, as if he was bracing himself against some brute gravitational pull — namely, his own forceful playing.
Live, Hetfield’s voice is much higher than it is on the band’s albums, and these days, it lacks the gruff gravitas it once had, which can take some getting used to.
But still, the band conjures up such a seismic rumble, it’s as if they’re cleaving atoms in half on stage, and so Hetfield’s thin-sounding vocals are fattened by an all-you-can-eat buffet of riffs.
Besides, it’d take more than a suspect larynx to derail this speeding bullet train.
These dudes may trade in death, but it’s mainly just a means for them to continue thumbing their noses at it.
“We die hard,” Hetfield sang on the aforementioned “Broken, Beaten & Scarred,” seemingly only acknowledging mortality to sneer at it once more.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.REVIEW
Where: Mandalay Bay Events Center