The Metal Masters: Testament, Motorhead, Heaven & Hell, Judas Priest
Chicago, August 19, 2008
There is a debate going on in my head that I think was solved in Chicago on Tuesday night. After growing up around metal, disowning it in college and then coming back around to it in my late 30s, my concern was that the recent resurgence was a manifestation of some mid-life crisis. If you haven’t yet faced the truth of middle age, let me fill you in: it’s a drag. It’s especially brutal when you focus on the ramifications of age and you look for opportunities to avoid the reality of your years.
Heavy metal may be the best type of music for this. It’s the epitome of fantasy after all, whether it addresses sexual prowess, dungeons and dragons fantasy, or overt machismo. Since it’s the perfect soundtrack for make believe, could it be possible that I’m drawn to it again to help ignore the obvious? When one is facing the reality that life’s rollercoaster is now descending towards the inevitable end of the ride, what better genre to reach for than heavy metal?
Judging from the crowd at the Metal Masters package show at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, I was not alone in my escapism. While the common denominator was male (roughly 75%), the second largest segment would have to be age, which I placed at a median year of 35. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise as the median age of the performers—Testament, Motorhead, Heaven & Hell, and Judas Priest—could conservatively be placed at the combined age of 50.
My cousin and I, along with the rest of the audience, could easily measure our love of metal in double-digit years. Like the genre itself, this provides easy fodder for ridicule I suppose, but for us the scales of time end any worry of judgmental snickering ends the moment that the double bass drum hits and the first guitar string is struck.
You see, my internal debate ended the moment I realized that it wasn’t my own need to relive my youth; it was the need to be a part of a collective experience. It’s hard to explain that unity that you feel with metal, but it’s there and it’s worth experiencing if you can free yourself to the point of letting go.
Call it the years of stoically standing at a critical distance at any nameless rock club, holding court with fellow snobs drinking bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon and chain-smoking American Spirit cigarettes. There is none of that judgment at a metal show; regardless of what you look like or what’s advertised on your black t-shirt, you are family and, as such, you are treated with remarkable reverence.
In short: I missed losing myself to the riff, throwing up devil horns when lyrically required, and obediently yelling back at the lead singer whenever I was directed to “make some fucking noise!” There is nothing more liberating than giving in to your id, checking all pretenses at the gate and banging your head.
Metal. Fucking. Rules.
To call a package deal “The Metal Masters” requires a line-up of incredible lineage and this tour succeeds. In fact, the name is somewhat of a misnomer: some of the performers qualify as full-on originators of heavy metal itself.
The night started with the youngest of the bunch. Testament has “only” been around for a mere twenty-plus years and one of the band members is still under forty…for about three more weeks. With that kind of vitality, it is of no surprise that the band featured the quickest chops, laying waste to the just arriving 5:30pm crowd. The faithful that got there early were rewarded with perhaps the loudest and furiest set of the night. To illustrate this, the set list that I held in my hand shook from the force of drummer Paul Bostaph’s bass drum workout….and we were easily a good twenty rows back from the front of the stage. The band focused their aggression on a woefully short set of latter-day material, including a handful of choice cuts from the amazing The Formation Of Damnation. Any fan of metal is strongly encouraged to arrive early and catch Testament. The benefit of having such a short set, I suppose, is that they leave you wanting more and will have you looking for an upcoming tour schedule of smaller venues…Provided that it doesn’t interfere with guitarist Alex Skolnick‘s second gig as one of the six slingers in…no shit…the Trans-Siberian Orchestra this Christmas.
After a quick set change, the familiar face of Lemmy Kilmister made his way on stage. Sporting a cigarette and a worn-looking Rickenbacker bass, the iconic frontman announced to the crowd “We are Motorhead… And we play rock and roll!” With that, the power trio (which features ex-King Diamond Mickey Dee on drums and long-standing guitarist Phil Campbell) launched into one of Orgasmatron‘s best tracks, “Dr. Rock.” Motorhead provided the evening’s least memorable sets, if only for the fact that the band’s style and love of barking mid-range tones is better suited for clubs than ten-thousand plus amphitheatres. Another minor quip: the stage backdrop utilizes the coat of arms from the band’s upcoming album Motorizer, but the album isn’t available yet (missed opportunity at the merch table) and they played no songs from the new one. One would think that a band of this tenure would understand the need to build excitement for a new record, and more importantly, schedule the release date so that it would actually be available for purchase at some of the largest venues they’d be playing at.
But no, aside from the visual and Lemmy‘s encouragement to “buy three copies” when it comes out, there were no reference points given as to how the new album holds up.
Motorhead ended their twelve-song set with the crowd pleasing “Ace Of Spades” and the title track to Overkill. And in case we forgot, Lemmy reminded us with added conviction “We are Motorhead… And we play fucking rock and roll!” before propping up his Rick against his Marshall stack, producing a guttural hum of bass feedback as he left the stage.
Afterwards, a large, imposing man in a leather jacket approached my cousin and said “I don’t know if you have a ticket for those seats…but I do.” He held out his ticket for my cousin to verify, to which he advised the man that his ticket was for seats on the other side of the arena. The man realized his error and turned to leave us to our proper places, revealing a “Hells Angels” logo on the back of his jacket. I encouraged my cousin that he needed to repeat the story of how he stood up to a Hells Angels member and lived to tell about it.
Soon after that, a pair of teenage boys hopped into the seats next to us, eyeballing the Live Nation security members as they maneuvered towards the front. One of the boys seemed more adept at the mission than his friend who got momentarily caught under the gaze of the personnel member near our row. We attempted to assist him in his quest (“I’ve got to see Heaven & Hell, man!” he explained) and as the roadies were rolling out two huge gargoyles for the stage set, we noticed that they had made it unnoticed all the way to the front row.
As co-headliners, Heaven & Hell was offered a more substantial stage set up that the previous two bands. The aforementioned gargoyles were perched upon mock stone pillars that attached chains in front of the bass and guitar cabinet stacks. There were a few smaller pillars, which seemed to hold crystal balls and four pipes on the front of the stage that billowed smoke as the crew tested the equipment beforehand. The gargoyles also billowed smoke out of their nostrils, but one didn’t seem to have the same amount of volume as the other.
Aside from stage props not working to their fullest, my only issue with Heaven & Hell lies only in name alone. Why we must call them by any other name than Black Sabbath is beyond me, particularly when one considers that four separate album were created under that moniker. I smell a certain Osbourne afoot in this decision, as the recent best-of compilation and even more recent box-set offering of all of the band’s prior records are issued under the Sabbath name.
Nonetheless, it was very clear that a lot of the fans in attendance were enamored with the idea that one Ronnie James Dio was fronting a version of Black Sabbath that became the first introduction to the band for many a thirty-something metalhead.
There’s too much to find funny about RJD: his stature, the endless “catch and release” hand gestures of his stage presence, the fact that he’s a full five years older than my old man. But there is a large contingency of people who find inspiration in what he does. And judging by the determination of a pair of teenagers, motivated by only a desire to be closer to him, Dio has a few years left in the eyes of the faithful.
I became one of those faithful on Tuesday night. I’ve always had a soft spot for Dio-era Sabbath, but after watching him take command over a 10,000+ crowd it was hard not to appreciate RJD for what he was seemingly pre-ordained to do: be the frontman of a heavy metal band.
Two points to consider: at an age of 66, Dio amazingly possesses a high degree of his range. The other thing is that the downturn in his popularity over the past two decades may have added some newfound humility to his stage poise. He’s always been a cocky dude (why do you think his resume reads like a revolving door of metal?), but judging by the heartfelt banter in between songs and endless hand slaps to the first few rows, it looks as though RJD is acknowledging the end of the line is coming sooner than later. This most recent project has provided him with a final upswing in his career allowing him to exit on a metaphoric high note.
As far as the rest of the band, Vinnie Appice, Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi were in top form. While Iommi may indeed be the soul of Sabbath (and possibly the creator of metal itself), Butler is the spirit of the band and, shame on me for not noticing this sooner, one of the best bass players in rock music. Listen closer to the studio albums and you’ll hear it, but one stage, you can actually witness his hands continually working the frets, providing a bubbling low-end underneath Appice’s steady rhythms.
The crew worked double time to remove the Heaven & Hell set in preparation for the closers Judas Priest. I was blown away at the Priest reunion tour a few years ago and was excited at the possibilities of their most recent jaunt. Thankfully, the band kept the Nostradamus material secluded to the first two songs as Rob Halford made his usual dramatic entrance in a full-length metallic robe and Medieval staff under a backdrop of the seer himself.
At every pause, the crowd would chant “Priest! Priest!” causing Halford to stop to face the audience and place his hand over his heart with obvious gratitude. Rob may have lost some of the high-end from his once three-and-a-half octave range, but he still delivered the band’s sixteen-song set with enormous conviction. Any man that, at the age of 56 that can still unleash a convincing version of “Painkiller” is deserving of the adulation that he received.
Guitarist K.K. Downing and Glen Tipton still deliver biting and democratic guitar solos. On nearly every song, one guitarist seems to handle to the first solo while allowing the other to take the second one. It’s a glorious overkill that helps make Priest larger than life.
It’s that point that made my cousin and me a little contemplative over future package shows and the future of large-scale arena concerts in general. The guy I was sitting next to, a nice Tennessean who drove sixteen hours to get to the show, lamented that the Live Nation amphitheatre closer to his home had closed down because there wasn’t enough performers to sustain its girth. He went through a list of shows that he had seen there and resigned himself to the possibility that metal may no longer have the same draw that it did back in the day. I think he’s right, and as we looked upon the families of metal supporters, we pondered what bands that the two of us may want to take our own kids to in fifteen years.
In front of us, a man my age brought his wife and two teenage daughters…possibly twelve and fourteen respectively…who all watched with their mouths open as their husband/father lost himself in headbanging glory.
To the right of us another family. The silver in the Mother’s hair and lack of hair on Dad’s pointed to the possibility that they were in their late forties. Amazingly, the mom knew all of the words to the new Priest songs and even more amazingly was how their fourteen year old son sang the words to every obscure Priest track.
And behind us, a row of sixteen year old, longhaired boys who smoked Marlboros in between sets and nodded their heads in unison at every appropriate riff.
To not have this experience available is a crime and to not have this opportunity for future generations is incredibly daunting.
What makes it so disheartening is, again, the camaraderie that metal provides us. While we didn’t have our own family in tow (the Metal Masters tour is obviously no place for toddlers) we had over ten-thousand family members that hugged us when “their” song came on, high-fived us every time we walked past to go to the john, or flashed us a devil horn when one phrase or guitar part rang true.
As I watched a thirty-something couple in front of me drinking an eight-dollar beer, sharing a joint, and swaying in unison as Dio sang “Children Of The Sea,” the inevitability of it all came to the forefront. It immediately had me considering that perhaps Ronnie James Dio was indeed a poet to the downtrodden and that the words, like Nostradamus, had suddenly proved to be prophetic. Let them be your own inspiration to score a dimebag, grab your old lady or fellow metalhead and check out The Metal Masters before they put these dinosaurs to rest.
“We sailed across the air before we learned to fly
We thought that it could never end
We’d glide above the ground before we learned to run
Now it seems our world has come undone
Oh they say that it’s over
And it just has to be
Oh they say that it’s over
We’re lost children of the sea“