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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