Review : The Big 4 – Live From Sofia, Bulgaria

The Big 4: Live From Sofia, Bulgaria
Label: Universal
Release date: 2010Oct29 (EU)/2010Nov02 (US)
Rating: 4.5/5

On the eighties thrash metal scene, four bands stood heads taller than the rest of the pack: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. Today, more than twenty years later, they all finally played together at the 2010 Sonisphere festival, and it’s clear that many things have changed. Back in the heyday of thrash metal, any one of them could have headlined a festival like this, but today there’s a thick red line separating them. Metallica is undoubtedly one of the biggest bands in music, with the best-selling Metal record of all time. Slayer has maintained respectability in both commercial and critical markets, despite dubious departures from their archetypal attack in the early 00s, and launched their own tour—The Unholy Alliance. Megadeth still maintains a healthy following worldwide, stands second only to Metallica in terms of metal album sales, and like Slayer, founded their own Gigantour.. Anthrax has been relatively out of the spotlight, and though they have a forthcoming 2011 release, it has been eight years since We’ve Come for You All—but their underdog tag may be a blessing.

I remember, as a young teenager in the eighties, feeling that these bands were the heaviest I’d heard, but today Anthrax feels almost soft—sharing more common ground with Iron Maiden than other thrash metal bands. That doesn’t matter, though. Joey Belladonna may look older, but he shines with youthful passion as he leads the band into a setlist brimful of traditional tracks like “Caught In The Mosh”, “Got The Time”, “Antisocial” and “Metal Thrashing Mad”. Despite rocking like the best of them, it’s obvious why they’re the first of the Big 4 onto the stage. True, the band have not been in hiatus these last few years, but it’s clear they rely on past glories and risk sounding like a ghost from those days. However, they don’t. Charlie Benante is a major reason for making the band still sound current.  He’s a groovy drummer who injects both thunder and playfulness into the band’s music; take a peek at the way he kickstarts “Indians/Heaven & Hell” and the set highlight, “Only”. But the rest of the band also put in their share of work, with bassist Frank Bello and guitarist Scott Ian jumping around like school kids, and even the “new guy” Rob Caggiano really lets it rip at the end of the set.

The band seem genuinly to be honoured to be playing at the festival. Both Belladonna and Ian use every moment to express their deepest gratitude to the fans. They give it their best shot—running like crazy on the stage, honouring Ronnie James Dio with a version of Black Sabbath‘s “Heaven & Hell”, and trying to get the audience to sing along to their tunes. The Bulgarian crowd seems to like what they hear—when Belladonna screams Anthrax is back!” they respond in force.

Megadeth is an altogether different beast. Anthrax ran, jumped, cheered and flirted with the audience; Dave Mustaine simply grumbled “Here we go.” and led his band into the set. It was a good mix of old and new tracks, with technical brilliance between Mustaine and new guitarist Chris Broderick. Where the other three bands of the Big 4 have retained most of their original members, Megadeth has always been Mustaine’s vehicle; the only other core member being recently returned bassist Dave Ellefson.

As the band launches into their first song, “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due”, the clouds start to pour down. The crowd is unbothered, as they strip, cheer and roar right back at the darkened skies. Anthrax played in the blazing sun, which didn’t do their barely-noticeable lighting any favours. But with the rain comes darkness, and Megadeth are helped by the lightning to create an exciting visual show. The obvious highlight is the monumental “Symphony Of Destruction”, with the camera capturing a panoramic view of the stadium, the masses of metal fans and the darkened skies—it’s a brilliant way to film one of the true classic tracks of heavy metal.

Slayer begins with their massive wall of amplifiers hidden by thick, blood red smoke and the band strolling casually onto the stage. The peace doesn’t last for long, as the band launches into two of their best new tracks, “World Painted Blood” and “Jihad”. They are clearly a current band that does not need to rest on their laurels. Tom Araya proves himself as a great frontman, hailing the huge crowd in their native tongue, to which the crowd in turn responds with a huge roar of acceptance. Later in the show, after a great run through “Disciple” the crowd returns his gesture with their own, chanting “Slayer! Slayer! Slayer!” for several seconds, leaving a visibly touched Araya to introduce “Mandatory Suicide”.

I’ve always favoured Slayer of the Big 4 and I’m not changing my stance now; they are definitely a bigger and better band than the first two acts of the day. There’s neither comic air nor progressive pretentiousness in their music—only blood-red rage. Many metal musicians try to act tough and most fail miserably. But when Kerry King stares you dead in the eye while playing “Dead Skin Mask”, you just know he’d rip off your face in a heartbeat without missing a note. But the most important reason I prefer Slayer over the other three is their songwriting, which is just as potent today as it was twenty years ago. They not only composed some of metal’s most important classics in the eighties, but have managed to release excellent albums in recent years that fit right into the band’s catalogue.

The set is unadulterated business—Araya leading the charge; Hannemann & King supplying intense, chaotic guitar solos; and Lombardo the unfailing drummer extraordinaire. Their setlist is pure gold. Even though you’ve heard these songs before, you’ll love hearing them again. In the end, a sea of 50,000 fists are raised high as “Raining Blood” builds to its timeless climax.

Even as a disciple of Slayer, I have to confess that there is no larger heavy metal band than Metallica. The way the madding crowd welcomes them during Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstacy Of Gold” (the intro theme to The Good, The Bad & The Ugly), is incredible. And Metallica does not let anybody down, as they immediately launch into “Creeping Death”.

James Hetfield is one of the most inspiring frontmen in heavy metal today; during their first number, he’s already gotten the crowd under his command. With his devilish grin, the shout-outs to the “Metallica family” and the call-and-response games he plays with the audience, it’s clear to everyone why they are the last band on this amazing bill. However, he’s not the only reason for their success. Hetfield has—together with Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett—turned the band into a well-oiled metal machine, and with the “new” addition of Robert Trujillo on bass they’re an exciting live outfit. Of course, it also helps having the biggest lighting rig, a two-story stage, and huge video screens at their disposal.

There’s been a lot of talk about Metallica‘s “dark ages” which produced Load, Reload, and St. Anger. I’m not joining that choir today, especially since “Fuel” is the only tune that survives here from those mixed bags. They do feature three tunes from Death Magnetic, including “Cyanide”, which is strong enough to stand amongst their best-loved material. Likewise blasting through “That Was Just Your Life” and “All Nightmare Long”, they proved that their new songs have true potential to become future hits. But the songs that really make the performance are the older masterpieces. “One” is introduced by a massive fireworks display, and the crowd joins in the chant as Hetfield plays the timeless riff of the perfect epic heavy metal song. “One” is what first really made Metallica special for me, and it’s a joy to behold every time I hear it; like Deep Purple‘s “Child In Time” or Iron Maiden‘s “Hallowed Be Thy Name”.

Metallica plays longer than the other three bands, and have more time for solos. Trujillo is especially inventive and captivating, demonstrating why he’s one of the best bass players in heavy metal today. I also like that their solos are integral to their respective songs, and avoid boring wankery. I wouldn’t say the setlist stands out from their other great DVD releases the last few years, but at the end of this magnificent day of ceremonies, there is one last ace up their sleeve: as Metallica is about to fire up the encores, they invite the other three bands on stage to run through a fun version of Diamond Head‘s “Am I Evil?” —something you won’t see anywhere but here!

Filmed by a dozen cameras, there are plenty of both close-ups and panoramic shots. The crew harnesses the fire in Frank Bello’s eyes, Dave Mustaine’s smirking laughter, Dave Lombardo’s explosive drumming and Kirk Hammett’s incendiary solos; as well as inummerable shots of the fans in the moshpit, with a beer in both hands, ecstatic to hear their favorite tracks and rocking hard. There’s also a documentary that tells the story from the morning onward, reliving backstage tales and revealing the humour behind these ostensibly formidable figures. Get your hands on this DVD, or miss a crucial landmark in metal history.

FCC: OK (but beware of the between-song banter)
Try: 6, 8, 21, 25, 27, 28, 33, 34, 38, 41, 42, 45, 46, 47, 50

Tracklist:

Anthrax:

1. Caught In A Mosh
2. Got The Time
3. Madhouse
4. Be All, End All
5. Antisocial
6. Indians/Heaven & Hell
7. Medusa
8. Only
9. Metal Thrashing Mad
10. I Am The Law

Megadeth:

11. Holy Wars … The Punishment Due
12. Hangar 18
13. Wake Up Dead
14. Head Crusher
15. In My Darkest Hour
16. Skin O’ My Teeth
17. A Tout L Monde
18. Hook In Mouth
19. Trust
20. Sweating Bullets
21. Symphony Of Destruction
22. Peace Sells/Holy Wars Reprise

Slayer:

23. World Painted Blood
24. Jihad
25. War Ensemble
26. Hate Worldwide
27. Seasons In The Abyss
28. Angel Of Death
29. Beauty Through Order
30. Disciple
31. Mandatory Suicide
32. Chemical Warfare
33. South Of Heaven
34. Raining Blood

Metallica:

35. Creeping Death
36. For Whom The Bells Tolls
37. Fuel
38. Harvester Of Sorrow
39. Fade To Black
40. That Was Just Your Life
41. Cyanide
42. Sad But True
43. Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
44. All Nightmare Long
45. One
46. Master Of Puppets
47. Blackened
48. Nothing Else Matters
49. Enter Sandman
50. Am I Evil?
51. Hit The Lights
52. Seek & Destroy

Bonus material: Behind the scenes documentary; including interviews and Am I Evil rehearsal footage.

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