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Having decided to travel to Warsaw, Poland, to be at the inaugural ‘Big 4’ event I was eagerly anticipating the release of this boxset, not least because as a vertically challenged individual I was able to see very little from my position 300 yards back at Bemowo Airport on that historic day in mid-2010.
This release, the deluxe boxset which includes CD and DVD recordings of all four bands, would enable me to watch the show in Sofia in sharp detail which I had no hope of when in a crowd of near 100,000 in Warsaw.
And it doesn’t disappoint. The item itself is nicely put together, although I would have been happy to pay £20 ($31) for the CDs and DVDs without the poster, guitar pick, photos, booklet etc for which I ended up paying £45 ($70). Sturdy, well made and a good piece of metal memorabilia.
But what about the performances? Well first up is Anthrax, the band which, arguably, held onto their spot in the Big 4 by the skin of their teeth throughout the mid-80s. Some would argue for Exodus, though on the strength of five great albums from 1985 to 1990 I would have chosen Kreator but then a European band would never make the Big 4!
Anthrax’s rough and ready debut, Fistful Of Metal lead on to two great albums – the ground breaking Spreading The Disease, and the hyperspeed/mosh orgy of Among The Living. These were the albums that Anthrax secured their place in the Big 4 with. Of course, they released two more well respected, if not particularly well received, albums after these. So this leads to a fundamental question – why, in a set of ten songs, do Anthrax choose to play two covers - Joe Jackson’s ‘Got The Time’ and Trust’s ‘Antisocial’? Plus a shortened cover of ‘Heaven and Hell’ by the band of the same name?
While Anthrax are fun to watch onstage and put in a good performance musically and physically (including Joey Belladonna’s strained vocals) to play two full covers in a ten song set is unforgiveable when tracks like ‘Among The Living’ and ‘Gung Ho’ were overlooked. Add to this the addition of ‘Only’, a song from an era of Anthrax that most grunge fans will enjoy and most thrash fans cringe at, and ‘Medusa’, one of the weakest, most commercial tracks from Spreading... and you have the makings of a poor set.
Anthrax’s enthusiasm cannot be questioned here, but their set list raises big questions for me as to whether they really understood the significance of this occasion.
Next up – Megadeth. Put simply, on this performance and that in Poland, Megadeth are THE band to see at the moment. Very, very well produced sound, maybe the best sound I have ever heard on a live recording. Incredible musicianship. Mustaine and Broderick are tight as fuck on guitar duty; Newly, and rightfully, reinstated Dave Ellefson is excellent on bass guitar with his tight picked rhythms nicely high in the mix. Shawn Drover’s drumming is flawless, and while you won’t hear Nick Menza’s powerhouse beats or Gar Samuelson’s (RIP) syncopated jazz-influenced flamboyancy, what you do get is a totally heavy bass-drum driven barrage.
The set is just what was needed after Anthrax’s weak start – opener ‘Holy Wars...’ giving way to ‘Hangar 18’, followed by ‘Peace Sells...’. After that comes nine more great songs, including a rousing rendition of ‘A Tout le Monde’. Absolutely fucking brilliant performance from a great band.
So how do you follow that? One word. Slayer.
Should Slayer have played after Megadeth? It’s arguable. On album performance over the last 27 years, yes. On their respective performances on the night, no, Megadeth ruled. But Slayer is Slayer. What you see is what you get. If, like me, Slayer is your favourite band ever and you have seen Slayer play on any number of occasions (last count maybe 15 times) then you know what you’re in for, and this was no different. Pure fucking heads down aggression from start to finish.
Slayer regularly mix their set up show by show and this one, sadly, contained nothing from Show No Mercy or Hell Awaits. However, ‘War Ensemble’, ‘Hate Worldwide’, ‘Chemical Warfare’ and the obligatory ‘Raining Blood’ will surely have given many of the newbie Metallica kids a headache.
As always, Hanneman and King are solid but raw and somewhat sloppy. The sound and mix are unforgiving on this recording for the guitar duo. Tom’s vocals are good but still show signs of inexorable decline. On a couple of occasions he misses lyrics having invited the crowd to sing them. James Hetfield can do this in an arena this size, Tom can’t, the response isn’t loud enough. If you’re watching the DVD it is apparent why there’s no vocals but if you’re listening to the CD then it sounds a little lame.
The stand out performance with Slayer is Dave Lombardo. He is superb, an absolute wall of unrelenting aggression played from the heart and with absolute conviction. For a 45 year old man this is utterly awesome.
So with Slayer bowing out with a brutal ‘Raining Blood’ the crowd eagerly awaits the main event – Metallica.
Ok, Metallica shows have been reviewed a million times, and by far more accomplished writers than me, so I am not going to give the typical critique, but I will give some observations.
Firstly the set. Really good mix of old and new. They kick off with the all-time classic ‘Creeping Death’ which is followed by ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’. After these come tracks from every Metallica album except Load and St Anger.
And Metallica kick ass. As usual. They put on a great show with great crowd interaction, great visuals, great songs, just... great. But for me there’s one thing which means I cannot listen to this show – Lars Ulrich.
From the very start with ‘Creeping Death’ Lars lets the side down. Ulrich hasn’t used a ride cymbal for over 20 years. He has a 5-piece drum kit. He simply cannot provide the percussion which a band of Metallica’s standard and stature needs. His drumming makes a mockery of it all. That may sound harsh, but as a drummer I know what is required and he cannot provide it.
His drumming on ‘Creeping Death’ is horrible. He can’t play tom rolls – he doesn’t have the toms. His playing is too fast, too frantic. Metallica sound so lightweight, even on their heavier tracks, that I have to switch off. I will stick to recordings I have from the early- and mid-80s. This is Metallica ‘lite’, and while I think they do put on a great show, they are in danger of becoming an exhibition band.
Listen to Megadeth and Shawn Drover, and Slayer and Dave Lombardo, then listen to Lars Ulrich. Sorry Lars but....
So, the Big 4 Sofia boxset – a superb memento of a great event. Megadeth win this one hands down. In fact hands anywhere. They rule this show and they ruled the tour. If you can get your hands on this limited edition version then do, it is well worth it.
If not then seek out the DVD only version – you can still annoy your neighbours, just turn your TV the fuck up.
(Originally reviewed for www.braingell.com)
Much has been said down the years about the scales that metal, and in particular thrash, rose to but there has been little in the name of collective footage to actually bring to life this fact for all to see. Until now. "The Big Four: Live From Sofia, Bulgaria" does exactly what it says on the tin and it does it so well I can hereby classify it as an essential purchase for anyone who a) likes any combination of Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth or Anthrax, b) is curious to see why these bands got so popular and c) like to have quality metal DVDs to stick on at a party. Clocking it at around 6 hours in total the Big Four play more bonafide classics in one performance than is likely to ever be caught on such a release and with a great 45 minute behind-the-scenes documentary capturing the thoughts of the band members on this celebratory occasion last summer it is not lacking in punches to entice the parting of you and your money.
Bill-openers for surely the first time in some years, Anthrax plough through the classics their early albums possess in number - "Caught In A Mosh", "I Am The Law", "Madhouse" and "Antisocial" among others - with decent, if fairly under-stated, gusto. If you would ask me Testament better deserve to have Anthrax's place in this hallowed club on both past and recent merits, a theory which holds water when looking at the current standards of the bands. Setting a precedence for which Megadeth and Slayer were soon to follow, the vocals of Joey Belladonna lack much of the prowess his 80's wailing held while the quality of Anthrax's 'recent' (8 years and counting now since a studio release) output is upheld by the appearance of just two songs post-1988 included in their 'best of' set (and one, "Got The Time" is a cover). To say Anthrax have been treading water for sometime would serve as a major understatement. However as an opening act their stage performance has been honed incalculably over the years to set the mood adequately for the bigger and better acts that were hot on their heels on a balmy summer’s evening in Bulgaria.
After years of public and no doubt private squabbles to see Dave Mustaine sharing a stage with his erstwhile Metallica colleagues must register as a very good day in the history of metal. Unfortunately the weather gods decided otherwise as Megadeth's set in Sofia was somewhat tempered the thunderstorm which blew almost from the moment they hit to the stage to leaving it an hour later. As the strongest candidate for best musician across the four bands Mustaine needs no introduction and his honour is held in the timeless quality of those five songs: "Holy Wars", "Hangar 18", "Sweating Bullets", "Symphony Of Destruction" and "Peace Sells". Utterly superb. With Dave Ellefson now back as a full-time member and rock solid accompaniment from Chris Broderick and Shawn Drover this is as strong a line-up seen in Megadeth for some years and is recognised in the quality reproduction of all 12 songs played. Whether due to sound problems or general decline with age Mustaine's vocals unfortunately feel weak at times across the set while the rain does it's best to dampen the spirited throngs before them but more is required to hold back a band like Megadeth, whose recent resurgence cannot have gone unnoticed by many.
Easily the act who stuck closest to their guns through the 90's wilderness years Slayer remain, and forever will do, a religion to many of their devoted fans; a religion however that is beginning to look as flaky as some of those absconded in these legends lyrical past. With Tom Araya's vocals lacking all the menace of their classic period and a back injury preventing headbanging or any serious movement from him, Jeff Hanneman apparently adhering to the American cheeseburger diet and his and Kerry King's soloing sounding amateur when in competition with Mustaine, Broderick and Hammett, Slayer have, to these jaded ears, lost so much of what defined their untouchable brilliance of the 80s as to be heavily reliant on the continued brilliance of Dave Lombardo behind the kit. No doubt first-time listeners will continue to be blown away by the destructive power of "Angel Of Death", "Reign In Blood" et al as I was 10 years ago but having seen it all live many a time from a leaner, fitter Slayer it's hard to subscribe to the devotion many others seem intent on showing. Without having had to stand all day however to catch the multiple classics that a Slayer show is rammed full of their current status is better served as home viewing for this particular set of veterans show why they were only the second biggest band to emerge from the thrash scene…
However there can only be one winner in this contest and whom that is can leave no doubt. Metallica are, with good reason if "The Big Four" is anything to go by, one of the biggest live draws in all of music today and such a set as played here explains why - even before considering the 'Big Four Jam' cover of Diamond Head's classic "Am I Evil?". Spreading their setlist right across their classic first five albums with a small handful from 2008's return to form "Death Magnetic" highlights emerge from all songs, notably in my personal favourite "One" with its accompanying firework and pryo explosions setting the tone for that grimmest of lyrical subjects. Utilising every inch of the stage to it's full potential messrs. Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett and Trujillo give their typical studious best through classic after classic until the Big Four big event happens: a multi-band jam of "Am I Evil?" that resonates through the ages – cult NWoBHM classic transported to a modern-day stadium anthem, with passion throughout. Needless to say the crowd reaction is enthralling and if any further confirmation was needed, a glorious celebration of the power, and history, of these four bands and with it, heavy metal. A celebratory peak of a great genre as it now reaches into its fourth decade of existence: a true story of gritty perseverance getting it’s just deserves.
Originally written for www.Rockfreaks.net