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As cunning as a rabbit - 70%

gasmask_colostomy, February 12th, 2019

Metallica may have faltered repeatedly in the studio, yet they should never be written off as a live band, not with the arsenal of classic anthems they have to draw from. Seeing these guys live should be exciting at the very least, because apart from the great material from the first 10 years of their career, one expects more than just four men playing instruments for a couple of hours. You know, some showmanship, some props. Some cunning stunts. Hence the title of this video, though I suppose they were trying to be rude as well. The two hour live set captures Metallica at a time when Jason Newsted was firmly established in the group, everyone had short hair, they were putting the finishing touches to ReLoad, and most people with access to media probably knew who they were. As a result, it's a big arena show that we watch, and you can bet that most things were done how Metallica wanted.

As for me, I've had a fairly ambivalent relationship with the biggest of the Big 4 bands, feeling that their first incarnation recorded good music that displayed the annoying habits of a few members, while I have little interest in most of the output after the first decade. Given that this show from Fort Worth, Texas slightly favours the older material, eight tracks of 20 coming from Load, ReLoad, and Garage Inc. combined, my interest is maintained fairly well. However, I will say this: I wouldn't have wanted to watch a two hour Metallica concert before 1996. Why? The reason for the success of Cunning Stunts is due to the band's ability to shift between high intensity songs and more relaxed, intimate moments that give the audience a chance to rest and connect with the music in a different way. Even though I'm not a fan of 'Hero of the Day' or 'Nothing Else Matters' under most circumstances, when Newsted sits down and finger picks his way gingerly into the latter song after the then-unreleased energy burst of 'Fuel', I sit down with him and begin following the music with greater avidity than before.

To some extent, that ability to change things up and refresh the gig can also be applied to the performance tactics as well. While logistically tricky, the stage in the middle of the arena (built more or less in the shape of the band's ninja star logo) allows the three string-players to move about and adopt different postures, each going into the audience on more than one occasion. Naturally, watching that on video isn't as interesting as slapping James Hetfield's hand from the front row, but it's still better than watching nothing at all. Lars Ulrich gets up from his drum stool more than once in the performance, taking his shirt off after just the second song, though he seems to get less camera time than the others, mostly because his mouth is open all the time while he's playing. Hetfield changing tops three times is amusing too. The stunt in question - in case you were wondering - is that at the end of 'Enter Sandman' during the encore, a fake stage invasion takes place and supposedly all the electricity shorts and goes out, leaving the band to play the final two songs with less lighting and clothing than before. Ulrich is in his boxer shorts by this point.

Regarding my feelings as I watch through Cunning Stunts, I'm a bit torn between the things that I like and the things that Metallica clearly do well. In the first place, the quartet had certainly become very accomplished arena performers, Hetfield geeing up the audience with mindless call and response banter, plus several songs going into extended endings of cymbal and whammy bar abuse, particularly the end of the smoking rendition of 'Creeping Death'. On the other hand, Kirk Hammett's solos don't actually get much added to, which is a shame since I've always felt that his style limits Metallica from being explorative and taking risks. Basically, all these tricks are very effective, but I don't like them that much. Naturally, the best decision the band makes is in their choice of how to play the old material, allowing three Ride the Lightning songs to be played in full before cranking things up for a 14 minute medley of Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning stuff. Right near the end, we get the abridged version of 'Master of Puppets' and a closing 'Motorbreath', both of which make the right choice regarding impact over pure nostalgia. Kicking off the show with their cover of 'So What', on the other hand, is fairly baffling.

As a concert video, I feel that Cunning Stunts falls somewhere between excellent and boring, largely depending on how you feel about big shows in general. For those who love the showmanship and rise and fall of an attention-grabbing production, I can't think of much else you'd want this side of a Rammstein gig (yes, we get fire with Metallica, but not that much fire), while the song choices are largely suitable for the style of show. Those who disdain the well-worn performance techniques aren't going to find much visually to occupy their time unless Ulrich running around in little shorts is your kind of thing. I'm also in two minds about whether I got my full dose of Metallica at their maximum, since the highlight is probably the second song in the setlist, 'Creeping Death'. Cherrypicking the most exciting parts of one of the most recognizable songs in metal also makes 'Master of Puppets' stand out. Therefore, I have to declare Cunning Stunts only a minor success, given that I wanted either a better show or a more innovative performance. I can't compare it to the other Metallica live videos, not having watched them, but I'd say this is a modestly diverting representation of where they stood in 1997.