Metallica, Earls Court, London<br></br>Damon Albarn, Neighbourhood, London

Ring out the auld, ring-fence the nu
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The Independent Culture

'Black Sabbath invented heavy metal, but Metallica perfected it." So smarmed Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst on some sucky MTV love-in held in their honour. He had a point, though. Metallica are still living down the ill-will they accrued by their role as bad cops in the Napster debate - I consider sneaking a tape recorder into this show, purely as a matter of principle - but their place in rock history is assured. Metallica were a watershed: the end of the auld, and the start of the nu.

Compared to anyone who had gone before, Metallica were no-nonsense, stripping the pomp and circumstance of heavy metal's hubris years down to the heaviest, crunchiest riffs and the most bellicose bellowing. To this day, they're quite a purist experience, relatively speaking, dressed all in black on a simple split-level stage, without much in the way of fancy lighting apart from a couple of bursts of pyros.

They're not the most no-nonsense band though (they've got more nonsense than Motörhead, say), and they do retain several trappings of the old school: showstopping drum displays, squealing solos on the Flying V, and a power ballad which provokes unironic lighters in the air.

But walk around Earls Court, and the back-to-basics ethic pervades everything. Fancy a focaccia or falafel as advertised? Forget it, mate: it's chicken and chips or nothing. Inside the arena, the floor's so sticky from lager - much of it deliberately thrown, in a bizarre primitive pastime - that I can't move (no wonder metal fans do all their dancing with the upper halves of their bodies).

I'll freely admit that I'm a fish out of water here. I have no context for this, no schooling. You might as well show Macbeth to a horse. I couldn't tell you if there's a song Metallica never play which gets an airing tonight, or whether one of the songs is about that guy who died in the Eighties, or anything much about the significance of the set.

In which case, I'm forced to resort to semiology, reading the surface signs. The crowd, for example. Metal crowds in general, and Metallica crowds in particular, are a fascinating anthropological case study. Male Metallica fans fall into two distinct archetypes: spotty, geeky beanpoles who read too much Tolkien (ie, any Tolkien), or ageing Hell's Angels built like Brian Blessed.

The girls are... how can I put this delicately? Big naturals. Who are apparently attracted by the Tolkiens or the Blesseds.

And what, I wonder as I watch them punching the air and roaring "DIE! DIE! DIE!", or just shouting "Hoy!!!" like Vikings, draws these people to James Hetfield and co? Just like the Wizard of Oz does to the Cowardly Lion (whom Hetfield so uncannily resembles), Metallica provide feelings of potency to the impotent. This band provides these people with apocalyptic scenarios they will never face, outside of role-playing games or Duke Nuke 'Em, feelings of heroism ("seek and destroy!") of which they are incapable, vengeance ("I'm madly in anger with you!") for which they have no cause, vigilance ("sleep with one eye open!") they will never need in their double-glazed lives, perpetual readiness for an Armageddon which never arrives.

Not that there isn't something to admire, up there on the stage. This is metal played at punk velocity, and there must be a visceral thrill in playing this breakneck-fast. There are faster metal bands, but there comes a point where the blur becomes a stasis: indeed, Metallica actually rock harder when they're slightly slower, hitting a diplodocus plod which commands you to nod your neck.

The "show", such as there is one, is a little corny. When drummer Lars Ulrich has a mock-fight with bassist Robert Trujillo, it falls flat. But there are also moments of unplanned humour. When Hetfield announces "I've got three words to say... Kill 'Em All!", there's a Spinal Tap-esque debate with guitarist Kirk Hammett (look, I've held off from mentioning the Tap for so long, but something had to give) about how many words that actually is. The guitarist holds up three quizzical fingers, but Hetfield insists, "'Em is short for 'them'... right?!" Maybe you had to be there. Anyone who wishes they were and wants a copy, find me outside Camden Town tube, with my trestle table and a pair of running shoes.

Damon Albarn walks on the stage of Neighbourhood with a baseball hat, a fag and the minimum of fuss, sits on a school chair, wishes us a "Merry Chrissstmasss", and has a request to make. "I know it sounds a bit Sixties but..." He asks everyone to sit on the floor, for the benefit of those at the back (who are, as it turns out, more interested in drunkenly barking at one another than watching the show). "'Cos that way, everyone gets a chance to..." He tails off, as though he's suddenly realised the very non-Sixties conclusion towards which he was heading, namely "...see me". Damon is here, in one of those trendy west London bars where they serve you a double measure whether you ask for one or not, and hand you your change on a little black tray (an evil scourge imported from America), to showcase Democrazy, his recent album of demos recorded while Blur were on tour, and released on World Music label Honest John's (the songs combine Blur's growing lo-fi tendency with an African influence which presumably lingers from his Mali Music project). He's at pains to stress that these are "works in progress", and "not finished or anything." So why play them at all? "It's supposed to show how songs start." Ah, I see.

Accompanied at various points by two guitarists, a clarinettist and a guy playing an assortment of vintage-looking synths, Albarn bashes bongos, blows a melodica, and strums a guitar so tiny it looks like a child's toy.

The whole thing is almost disingenuously amateur, with gaping pauses between songs, and sudden booms when an instrument comes in way too high in the mix. One track is self-explanatorily titled "Half A Song", so named, he tells us, because he had to get in a cab from the hotel to the gig before he finished it. Come off it, Damon. What, we're supposed to believe that he writes songs sequentially, a bar at a time? Nobody does that! It is, in any case, rather lovely, an acoustic lament with the chorus, "Can't you see/ When the bad times come for you? They come for me...", and maybe you'll hear the finished version on the next Blur album. If not, then unless you own one of the 10,000 vinyl copies of Democrazy, you're out of luck. I suppose there's always Soulseek or Kazaa. But what would Metallica say?

s.price@independent.co.uk

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