There are five bands that I personally consider to be the greatest pure, classic heavy metal bands of all time. 3 of those bands were on the bill when the aptly named “Metal Masters” tour made a stop at the Post Gazette Pavillion in Burgettstown, PA this past Saturday: Judas Priest, Black Sabbath (billing themselves as Heaven and Hell for legal reasons), and Motorhead.* But before that trio of titans, early arriving fans were treated to a thirty minute set from eighties thrashers Testament.
Testament may not be quite in the same league as the other three bands on this bill, but they’ve certainly earned themselves a respectable place in the history of metal. They gave a brief refresher course in that history with the first three songs of their set: “Over the Wall”, “The New Order”, and “Practice What You Preach”. The band then proved they’re still relevant and rocking with three tracks from their new album, The Formation of Damnation. The venue was only about a third full for Testament’s set, but near as I could tell everyone there greeted Testament’s set with enthusiasm, and every time vocalist Chuck Billy asked for the crowd to show their “metal hands” the air was filled with Devil’s horn salutes.
Here's Testament doing "The New Order" (or at least most of it):
A few more bodies had filtered into the arena by 7pm when Motorhead began their auditory assault. Bassist/vocalist Lemmy is a true living legend, 63 years old and still meaner, faster, and louder than anyone else. The band touched on all period’s of their 30 plus year career, opening with “Dr. Rock” from 1985’s Orgasmatron album. I was pleased to hear “Metropolis” and “Stay Clean”, two of my personal favorites from the band’s early days, but newer songs like “Killers” and “In the Name of Tragedy” were just as effective. And yes, the did “Ace of Spades”, but considering how many other great songs this band has it’s kind of sad that’s the only song most people know by them.
Here's Motorhead doing "Killed by Death":
It was finally getting dark when the stagehands began setting up a massive iron gate flanked by two stone gargoyles for Heaven and Hell’s set. Definitely cool, and a nice way to build the anticipation of the crowd, which by now was pretty close to capacity. Finally the lights guitarist Tony Iommi took the stage and played the last few notes, leading into “The Mob Rules”. The mix was a bit off at first, with Tony’s guitar and Geezer Butler’s bass buried and Ronnie James Dio’s vocals a bit too loud. But by the second song, “Children of the Sea”, the kinks were worked out. My only criticism of the band came during this second song, which I think Dio oversang just a bit. Other than that, Ronnie’s vocal performance was nothing short of amazing, especially for a guy who just turned 66.
The best thing about Heaven and Hell’s set to me was the interplay between the band members. Almost nothing was done in a rote “just like the album” manner, as all the band members really jammed out on the instrumental sections. Every once in a while a group of musicians gets together and there’s a certain magic that exists above and beyond musical talent. This group of musicians has that kind of vibe. If you’ve seen any of the recent Black Sabbath reunion shows where Iommi and Butler played with founding band members Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward, you can really see the difference in the energy level. The band played for an hour and fifteen minutes, with highlights for me being “Die Young”, “Sign of the Southern Cross”, “I”, and an epic extended version of “Heaven and Hell”. Just an amazing set.
Here's Heaven and Hell doing "Die Young":
I knew Heaven and Hell would be a tough act to follow, but I figured if anyone could do it, it would be Judas Priest. Priest opened with “Dawn of Creation/Prophecy” from their new concept album Nostradamus. I fully expected to hear at least a couple more tunes from that release, but nope. The rest of the set was pulled from past efforts, in particular the Painkiller and Screaming For Vengeance albums, from which the band pulled 3 songs a piece. I appreciated the fact that the set avoided a lot of obvious choices (no “Living After Midnight” this time around), and it was nice to hear rarities like “Eat Me Alive” and “Dissident Aggressor”.
Overall the band sounded extremely tight and polished, but something was missing. Maybe it was Halford’s stage presence, or lack thereof. In the past this guy was easily in the top 5 of front men. Tonight, however, he seemed rooted in place and frequently hunched over. I could swear I heard a news story about him having an Alzheimer’s like condition that made it difficult for him to remember lyrics, thus forcing him to rely more on a teleprompter. I couldn’t find anything to back up that memory, though, so I don’t know if that’s true or not. Regardless, Halford’s stage presence on this night was pretty weak, and it sapped a lot of energy from the show for me. Everything sounded good, but I just didn’t get any feeling of passion from the band. Priest live is still head and shoulders above most bands, but compared to past shows of theirs I’ve been to this was kind of lackluster.
Here's Priest doing "Breaking the Law":
*The other two bands are Iron Maiden, who did their own tour this summer, and Metallica (even though they've pretty much sucked since Load, I have hope their new album will be a return to form). And Slayer deserves at least an honorable mention.