It’s hard to believe, but it’s been five years since Metallica’s most recent studio album, 'Death Magnetic,' was released. And yet, half a decade later, the band is busier than ever. They performed for the first time ever in China, India, and even New York City’s legendary Apollo Theater earlier this month. Not too long ago, they collaborated on an album with rock’s premier poet, Lou Reed, and while the end result wasn’t exactly the greatest thing Metallica’s ever done (read my review of 'Lulu' here), it provided an outlet for a band at serious risk of getting bored to death after doing pretty much everything there is to do in the world of rock n’ roll. Using this mindset, it was probably inevitable that Metallica would eventually release a concert film.
While 'Metallica Through the Never' isn’t, technically speaking, Metallica’s first film – the fascinating documentary 'Some Kind of Monster' came out almost a decade ago – this one looks to be more akin to fellow rock titans Led Zeppelin’s 'The Song Remains the Same' and Pink Floyd’s 'The Wall.' The film will be released in IMAX theaters this Friday (the 27th anniversary of Cliff Burton’s death), followed by a wider release in normal theaters the following Friday, October 4th. The film is, of course, accompanied by a soundtrack, which also serves double-duty as an outstanding live album.
A lot of people give the band flak for what they deem a quarter-century of unforgivable offenses: the lack of bass guitar in 1988’s otherwise phenomenal '…And Justice for All,' selling out in 1991 with “the black album,” Lars Ulrich’s drum sound on 'St. Anger,' and so on. The members of the band even got criticized for cutting their hair in the mid-1990s! But many choose to ignore all the really cool things Metallica has done during this same time period. They’re finally being vindicated for going up against Napster at the turn of the millennium, but besides that, they’ve never once released a “greatest hits” album, or any “deluxe anniversary edition” reissues of older albums (I have to admit, however, that I would love digitally remastered versions of their 1980s-era catalog). They also don’t release live albums every other year (yes, I’m looking at you, Iron Maiden and Rush!). Instead, the band revolutionized the live album market with their website, www.livemetallica.com, where you can purchase and download pretty much every Metallica concert from the past decade.
Officially, however, 'Metallica Through the Never' is only their third live album, and their most traditional one. The first one, 1993’s 'Live Sh*t: Binge & Purge' was a behemoth of a box set, containing three CDs, plus two additional concerts on VHS tapes (and later DVDs when the box set was re-released), along with a book and other cool swag. That kaiju-sized set was followed six years later by 'S & M,' in which the band performed an entire concert with Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony. That album was a mixed bag at best (“The Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be” almost make it worth it though), and yet it’s been emulated by numerous bands since, from Kiss to the Scorpions. Of course, no matter what Metallica does, other bands tend to copy them.
At first glance, 'Metallica Through the Never' shares some similarities with 'Binge & Purge.' The new live album doesn’t come with all the extra goodies, although it does include a stencil, just like the box set did. It has cool packaging too: it’s not a miniature replica of a road case, but the CD case does fold out into one of the cross-shaped graves on the cover of 'Master of Puppets.' There’s a lot of overlap on the setlists too. However, 'Metallica Through the Never' contains full versions of “Master of Puppets” (back in the 1990s, the band mysteriously only played the first half of that song live) and “…And Justice for All,” which is possibly the most complex song the band’s ever written. Metallica does the song justice (no pun intended) here too. Say what you will about the band’s newer material, but it’s still a fact that few bands can touch Metallica live.
Frontman James Hetfield must be mellowing out though: there’s almost no cussing here. The setlist is a bit on the safe side too, but that’s to be expected since this album is also a film soundtrack. There are still a few really deep cuts performed, such as “Ride the Lightning,” “Hit the Lights” and “Orion” (which sounds as if it was played to an empty auditorium). It’s interesting to note that before the band tears into “Cyanide,” the sole song representing 'Death Magnetic' here, Hetfield mentions that they’re playing at least one song from every album. However, there is nothing from 'Load' or 'St. Anger' here.
There are some technical glitches on the album too, but I have a feeling that they are deliberate. The stuff that goes down during “Enter Sandman” was done before, on the 'Load' tour. It’ll be interesting to see it in the movie though. Other than that, 'Metallica Through the Never' sounds great. Greg Fidelman did his usual outstanding job. There’s a reason bands like Metallica and Slayer love to work with this guy.
At the end of the day, 'Metallica Through the Never' is a better complement to 'Binge & Purge' than 'S & M,' plus the band can cross “record a movie soundtrack” off their rapidly shrinking bucket list. This album more than stands on its own, and is essential listening for Metallica fans, as well as anyone who likes to hear live music performed by professional musicians in an arena-sized setting.