IIt was 9:30 p.m. and I was standing in the middle of a field, very cold, very wet and very tired. The 110,000 people around me were also very cold, very wet and very tired. Most of them were also very drunk. And one of them had spent an hour that day hitting me on the head with a sex doll. Yes, it was festival season. My first festival, no less: Download 2012. Despite the cold, despite the rain, despite the repeated assault of a life-size inflatable, I was moments away from seeing Metallica and my life change forever.
The metal masters were descending on Donington for the first time in eight years as part of a once-in-a-lifetime tour in which they played their groundbreaking self-titled album (AKA The Black Album) in its entirety. After the band spent much of the 1980s ruling the underbelly of extreme music, the 1991 play heralded their breakthrough. It rose to # 1 in eight countries, spawned the omnipotent hit Enter Sandman, and affirmed its creators as the greatest heavyweight act in history.
I’ve never heard The Black Album before. I’ve never listened to Metallica before. The closest I got was in 2004, when I listened to my mother’s CD of piano-pop composer Lucie Silvas covering Nothing Else Matters. When those four horsemen took the stage and released the declarative hymn Hit the Lights, my 15-year-old brain imploded.
Although I had been getting into hard rock, it was mostly effusions from Disturbed, Three Days Grace and the like. Metallica was exhilarating on a whole new level. Hear James Hetfield bark: “Let’s kick butt tonight!” over an ultra-fast thrash-metal riff he wiped the floor with David Draiman’s song from Disturbed: “Oh-wah-ah-ah-ah.” Kirk Hammett’s sharp and fast solos finally made me understand what people meant when they called a guitar part “melt the face.”
It’s hard to remember if the epiphany came then, or if it came when they jumped straight from Hit the Lights to Master of Puppets. His masterpiece is eight minutes long, but at the time I assumed they had gone through three different songs until I heard that iconic chorus return at the end. The impact was as powerful as the first time I heard it seven minutes before. They weren’t just intense, but catchy.
I was hooked, to the point where I can divide my life into the eras before and after Download 2012. Before, it sucked. I was born with clubfoot, which means that I had spent much of my childhood in and out of the hospital. I experienced abuse and went to a high school where the only people more immature and exhausting than my peers were the teachers. That upbringing left me with almost non-existent self-esteem and chronic anxiety. There was little that I didn’t worry about, from fearfully anticipating more abuse to convincing myself that any minor blemish on my body was a sign that I had cancer. Even when I was not physically in a dark place, my mind created one.
At Donington, he was immersed not only in Metallica’s precision and muscle, but also in an overwhelming sense of community. When Hetfield growled, “Master! Master! “It wasn’t just me who yelled it back: 110,000 more people did the exact same thing. There was a sense of belonging and, besides, a reassuring permanence: Metallica had been making people feel that way for over 30 years. .
I immediately became part of the heavy metal cult with Metallica at the forefront, and their escapist live shows, rebellion against the system, and community screams were a rare source of trust.
It would not be true to say that I discovered Metallica and my life changed instantly. Overcoming anxiety, trauma, and my low self-esteem took years, but I owe thanks to that powerful band for offering me the first true ray of inspiration.
Years later, happier years, heavy metal is still a giant part of my life. I’ve even built a career writing about it. And, when he gets it right, for Metallica, Gojira, Cult of Luna, or any of the others in my pantheon of favorites, I feel the same chill down my spine that I felt that night at Donington.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism