Soundstorm review: Metallica rock Riyadh as raucous Travis Scott returns

American group mix hits with fireworks as rapper joins fellow American singer HER at Saudi festival

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Metallica came, saw and conquered during their debut set in Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

Headlining the opening day of the mammoth Soundstorm 2023 in Riyadh, the popular metal group brought the hits and firepower in an epic two-hour concert.

Any notion the band has a small following in the Gulf should now be dispelled as Metallica’s Saudi gig follows two packed shows in Abu Dhabi in 2011 and 2013.

Where previous shows were geared to showcase new material, Riyadh offered a near-perfect setlist satisfying both the faithful and casual listener.

And even if you were unaware of the group’s legacy, the sheer power and production values of the show – more on that later – were awe-inspiring.

Taking to the stage to the dramatic strings and chorale of Ennio Morricone's The Ecstasy of Gold, the group launched into a thunderous version of Creeping Death and For Whom the Bell Tolls from 1984 album Ride the Lightning.

Next up was the dark and marauding Where I May Roam, one of many hits from the blockbuster 1991 self-titled album, which understandably inspired some of the biggest reactions.

After the crowd were satisfied with the immensely heavy and groove-ridden The Memory Remains, Metallica played two tracks from their well-received new album 72 Seasons.

Lux Aeterna kicked in immediately with its thrash riffs and snares as lead singer James Hetfield growled and sneered at his melodic best.

Meanwhile, Too Far Gone? exuded a frenzied punk energy that disguises some of the lacerating lyrics about self-doubt and addiction.

With the new tracks done, the band returned to the past for a simply glorious rendition of Fade to Black as Hetfield seamlessly switched between an acoustic guitar mounted on his microphone stand before unleashing more gigantic riffs in chorus on his favourite white Gibson electric guitar.

Diehard fans were rewarded with a triumphant version of 1986's Orion, a near nine-minute instrumental with bassist Robert Trujillo doing a mighty job of channelling the precision playing of the late Cliff Burton, former bandmate and the co-writer of the track.

While Metallica often design purpose-built stages to match their tours' concepts – the latest M72 world tour has them performing in a circular stage with drummer Lars Ulrich playing up to four rotating drum kits – Soundstorm’s Big Beast stage packed its own share of drama.

Resembling a fully stretched eagle, the screens across the wingspan constantly shifted from thematic visuals to laser-sharp close-up footage of the band in action.

When the machine gun riffs of the tumultuous anti-war lament One arrived, the stage shot a blizzard of neon blue lasers.

After the group ended their performance with the killer combo of Master of Puppets and Enter Sandman, a five-minute firework show took place to mark another milestone for Saudi Arabia's concert scene and a veteran band still at their peak.

A brooding Travis Scott and rocking HER

Soundstorm's other big headliner on day one was Travis Scott, who made his return to Riyadh after two sold-out shows in March.

Scott's latest visit came on the back of his latest album Utopia.

While the festival stage set-up didn't reflect the full production design of the world tour – also a 360-degree stage with floating heads hovering above – the streamlined performance still hinted at the latest developments of one of hip-hop’s most impressive performers.

Where previous tours were visual with fire and fury, this one packed in a brooding and gothic quality.

Cold blue light constantly bathed the stage as a silhouetted Scott rapped and screeched his way through new songs Hyaena, Thank God and Fein, all while surrounded by smoke.

And while it all sounded mostly intelligible due to the screaming crowds, Scott’s punk-like energy and the sheer drama of his tracks still make him one of the most dramatic and controversial artists on stage.

The incredibly different sounds and fan bases of Metallica and Scott are also a showcase of Soundstorn’s increasingly eclectic outlook.

Ever since launching in 2019 as a dance music event, the festival has shrewdly expanded its offerings to include more RnB, Afrobeat and left-field indie-music choices.

This not only creates a better social experience, as metalheads in leather jackets engaged in friendly banter with hip-hop fans in hoodies, but also a chance to see artists who rarely perform in the region.

One of whom is HER, whose only Mena appearance was in Dubai in 2017.

To say the time in between has been a whirlwind for the artist is probably an understatement.

Where at the time she was a buzzing up-and-comer at the Sole DXB festival, she took the Down Beast stage with the confidence and panache of a multiple Grammy winner.

Backed by a large band, including backing singers, tracks like Hard Place and The Journey sounded more well-rounded and vital than the recording, while We Made It remained a gorgeous soulful self-empowerment anthem.

The performance momentarily went off the rails with an unconvincing foray into rock covers including inane and unnecessary covers of Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ’n’ Roll and Queen’s We Will Rock You.

Let’s hope next time she can, perhaps, dip into the Metallica songbook for more worthy alternatives.

Soundstorm is on in Riyadh until Sunday

Updated: December 15, 2023, 11:58 AM