Bob Buck caught the Metallica bug a quarter century ago, hooked by the blistering riffs of the Bay Area rockers’ savage debut album, “Kill ‘Em All.”
“I’ve lived and breathed Metallica all my life,” said Buck, 42, of La Pine, Ore., after attending his eighth Metallica show this month at Portland’s Rose Quarter arena. “In high school, that was it.”
In recent years, he got his wife hooked, too; 24-year-old Ashley Buck walked down the aisle to Metallica’s 1992 hit, “Nothing Else Matters.”
The couple is part of a diehard cult that has been well-tested over the last decade: By overwrought symphonic experiments; a legal assault on Napster, which caught many fans in its crosshairs; and, more recently, the sight of their once fierce idols getting in touch with their sensitive sides with the aid of a life coach, no less — in the 2004 documentary, “Some Kind of Monster.”
But the buzz this winter is that the Rolling Stones of metal are back on top of their game, with a solid new album, “Death Magnetic,” and a back-to-thrash-basics tour that has them trotting the globe through July 2009.
As on Metallica’s previous arena tour, the iconic outfit — singer-guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo — is, again, utilizing an in-the-round setup, with the stage is set up in the middle of the arena for great views of those towering blasts of flame that singe eyebrows during signature number, “One.”
The set is packed with thrash classics: Also “Master of Puppets,” “Ride the Lightning,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Seek & Destroy” at the Portland show. And, with the exception of several cuts from the new disc, the band has consciously omitted material that followed its commercial breakthrough, 1991’s self-titled “black album.”
Still angry about ‘St. Anger’
For many fans, that alone makes amends for “St. Anger,” the widely panned predecessor to “Death Magnetic.”
“I hate ‘St. Anger!’ I don’t even listen to it” Bob Buck said, laughing. “The new CD is the best they’ve put out in 10 years. You can hear a little bit of every album they’ve ever made, except ‘St. Anger.’”
Starting with the “Load” and “Re-Load” albums “they tried to modernize, and it lacked spontaneity,” said Jacob Overby, 39, of Salem, Ore. “They were just jumping on a bandwagon without realizing they were the trendsetters. They alienated their fan base.”
Fellow diehards Eric and Jennifer Schnabel of Puyallup, Wash., are split on the band’s ’90s output. She likes the symphonic arrangements of the live album, “S&M,” he, not so much. But the couple agreed they couldn’t wait a month to catch their favorite band performing in their own back yard, at Seattle’s KeyArena on Dec. 1. Instead, they took the three-hour train ride to Portland.
“The music on the new album is fantastic,” said Eric, 35, en route to his 10th Metallica show. “It’s not like the ‘Kill ‘em All’ album. That was really, really fast and raw. But it’s probably like (1986 classic) ‘Master of Puppets.’
“You can tell the difference between the bassists over the years. I don’t necessarily know that the new guy, (Robert) Trujillo, is as good as (departed bassist) Jason Newsted. But he’s got his own little style. The bass and the drum are different, but the music’s good.”
Doug Grosjacques, 30, of Portland a fan for 16 years — agrees. “I play the guitar, so I appreciate good guitar playing,” he said. “A lot of their songs had some really technical stuff in ‘em. And it’s better than everything that was out there at the time. It just makes you wanna get nuts and go crazy.”
“I like (‘Death Magnetic’) a lot better than ‘St. Anger’ and a lot of their newer stuff just ‘cause it is more back towards the classic stuff that everyone grew up with, like ‘Kill ’em All’ and ‘Ride the Lightning.’ All that old stuff is just so great.”
What, no mosh pit?
Fans have been equally impressed with the new show. “I was in awe of the whole thing,” Ashley Buck said, still basking in the glow of her first Metallica concert. “It was absolutely amazing. And I couldn’t believe the fans. I’ve never seen fans get into a band the way that these fans did.”
“I was surprised that there were so many young people here,” remarked husband, Bob. “And they were getting into it.”
Graying Gen-Xers — some sporting shaggy, Hetfield-style goatees did, indeed, rub elbows with baby-faced, 14-year-olds in Portland, suggesting that Metallica concerts have become a father-son bonding experience on par with going to see AC/DC or the Stones.
And the generation gap may have gone a long way toward explain the lack of moshing, a major disappointment as far as Ray Garcia was concerned.
“Their last concert (in Portland), they were kind of weak,” said Garcia, 43, of Milwaukie, Ore. “This time I think the crowd let them down instead of them letting the crowd down. The crowd, I think, was a little bit old.”
“There was no pit, dude!” he added, incredulously. “Weak!”
Tony and girlfriend, Kelsay, of Salem, Ore., were among the alienated fans who won’t yet be won back over. They were on hand to catch opening act, Down.
“Metallica sucks,” said Kelsay, suggesting she might become a fan again “if they kicked Lars out of the band.”
“And if James Hetfield would sing a little bit more like he used to,” added Tony. “It’s alright to be somewhat of a (melodic) singer. But if it’s clean the whole time, there’s no power to it. There’s no rasp, so to speak. It’s garbage.”