Metallica, O2 Arena, London

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The Independent Culture

A fixation with death, speed and volume is hard to sustain for 27 years. Metallica and the fans who bought 100 million of their albums have somehow managed it. This fan-club launch for Death Magnetic, 24 hours after the album hit No 1 in only three days' sales, suggest they intend another decade yet.

Lars Ulrich walks on without preamble to smack the drums with sticks like delicate, deadly hammers. Metallica are playing "That Was Just Your Life", the song that sets out Death Magnetic's morbid concerns. But as guitar lines shoot by with greased speed, singer-guitarist James Hetfield tells a gentler story. This unwieldy man, who looks too large for his own skin, is grinning. Since a spell in rehab, demons out of the closet if not dispelled, this music makes him happy and healthy. He peers out like a fond uncle at fans who feel the same. Despite all the suicides that Hetfield regularly writes about – and the few fans who have committed the act – this is cleansing music for the many more who have been saved by such songs.

The new "Broken, Beat and Scarred", told from the point of view of someone whose brain feels like it's in Iraq, remains remorselessly black in tone. Sluggishness in the rhythm section stuns the crowd, wasting the early thrill. "Cyanide", though, reverses its lyrical dose with a riff Hetfield reacts to as if head-banging back in the garage with Ulrich in 1981. "Frantic", from 2004's little-liked St Anger, is a wall of words and notes.

The band who alienated fans by standing up to the first wave of file-sharing still scold them. "Enjoy the moment!" Hetfield demands, exasperated by the mobile phones that people now prefer to watch their favourite band through, when the source of a first-hand memory is but a few feet away. He is soon recalling Metallica's berserker spirit from less sober days, as he steps on to the speakers, and the high, lightning guitar solos that gave thrash metal its name leap free. Without them, this relentless music would feel like an opaque sort of jazz, played in slow-motion. Its dynamics operate within a constant roar of mechanical thunder.

They work, too, with the fans who have kept them going for more than a quarter-century. This time and place is very different from their early days of underground speed-metal gigs, and sweat-drenched crowd-surfers. But Metallica play 1983's "Kill 'Em All", from 100 million albums ago, to reward those who've stayed the course. By the closing "Search and Destroy", even the mosh-pit is back – another reduced reminder of old times.

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