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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)