Music is communicated via two means: recorded media and live. We undoubtedly hear it more coming from the former, but the latter — the gig, the show, the concert — is the heart of heavy metal culture. Bands eat horribly and live poorly on the road for that moment they get each night, and fans learn lyrics so they aren’t the one caught looking dumb. Folks plan for months to meet up, to reminisce about old memories, and to make new ones in a glorious blaze of temporary deafness and riffs. You know. We know.
However, to say that some veteran bands become… complacent in their live settings is an understatement. Perhaps they’re afraid to cull The Hit from a setlist, or perhaps they’re just lazy. Either way, bands’ treatment of setlists range from the utterly predictable (mostly the same songs from tour to tour) to largely unpredictable (songs change hugly between tours or even night to night). The latter is better. Changing songs a lot, particularly for a band with a really deep catalog, might go a long way to keeping things feeling fresh. It certainly goes a long way to keeping fans entertained over repeat live viewings. (One thing about metalheads: they like repeat viewings.) No one wants to witness a band with an obvious going-through-the-motions vibe as they play a better known track, and certainly no one should show up having a really good idea about 80 percent of the songs they’re about to hear. If Fan A and Fan B only know the lyrics of That One Song and didn’t get to hear it, well, that’s their problem.
If you’ve ever been The Diehard Fan that got the thrill of a lifetime hearing that one deep cut that you never thought you’d hear, you realize how much fans deserve and value shifts in setlists.
Well, it’s high time some (most) bands made some changes. The bands you’ll see below range from the super duper rich to the extremely successful, and they could all use a check-up from the neck-up when it comes to their setlists. (That successful bands tend to be among the laziest in terms of setlist changes is a subject for another day.) The reasoning behind suggesting (demanding) these changes vary by band and song. Sometimes the song just sucks and its nightly inclusion is an utter mystery, but sometimes it’s a good song that has simply gone stale. There are many more than these, undoubtedly, and it’s at least understandable for metal bands of the more technically demanding varieties to not change every night. But between tours? That should be a given.
Bands, the ball is in your court.
Starting with a pick so cheap and obvious might seem incredibly cheap and obvious, particularly when considering the legacy of the black album at this point, but bear with me… “Enter Sandman” isn’t a bad song. It isn’t a great song, but it isn’t terrible. The black album also isn’t bad, and also isn’t great, but everyone in the goddamn rock world bought that album in the 90s, so everyone in the goddamn rock world knows most of the songs on it. If Metallica insists on playing three or four songs from it every night (which they should not), change it up, please. There are other worthy songs like “Of Wolf and Man” and “The God that Failed” and “Holier than Thou” that, I promise you, fans will know. They’ll sing along, they’ll pump their fists, and they won’t go home super pissed just because they didn’t hear a mega hit from 1991.
Just please, don’t play “Don’t Tread on Me,” ever.
“THIS TOWN ROCKS”
Listen, Saxon is great. They are just about the top of the second tier of the NWOBHM, and the fact that they’ve trudged on through decades of metal’s ebbs and flows is not only a testament of their dedication to the lifestyle, but a service to fans.
But holy crap, “This Town Rocks” is bad. The lyrics fall into the “touring band writes song about being touring band” category, and they’re even piss-poor for that already low bar. The music is as generic and lacking in impact as anything the band did during their run of classics in the late 70s and early 80s. And when it’s played live it is the height of pandering, cheaper than a Mick Foley cheap pop. It’s that early-in-the-setlist-better-make-sure-the-town-knows-we-know-where-we-are moment. Oh, but if Biff Byford spots someone with a “CITY knows how to rock!” sign or flag, he’ll for sure bring it on stage for that moment.
Sing it with me: “This song… knows how to suck.”
The self-depreciating and parodying tendencies of Devin Townsend are well known at this point, and for the most part it’s nice to have a Super Serious Artist that doesn’t always take himself super serious. But sometimes it goes a little overboard, and Devy’s (in)famous Ziltoid material is the most obvious example of this trait. Some of the material on the two Ziltoid albums — Ziltoid the Omniscient and Z2 – Dark Matters — is pretty good. A lot of it is pretty mediocre. All of it is massively silly. When spending a couple hours hearing loads of Devy’s gorgeous, megaton-heavy, emotionally-rich music, the insertion of a Ziltoid song or two seems like an unnecessary diversion, just to make sure things aren’t becoming too real. The Ziltoid material is among his weakest, and if he’s really hellbent on including something “fun,” there are other opportunities for that as well (“Bad Devil” and “Vampira” are both great and delightfully idiotic). Retire the coffee-obsessed alien, please.
The inclusion of a one-second “song” in the middle of a grind set would seem pretty innocent if you take out a few simple factors. First is that Barney Greenway is highly likely to still do his usual rambling-on before and after as if it’s a full length tune, so it still ends up being a waste of time. Also take into account how the band might play it multiple times as some sorta scripted joke, and the fact that it’s just incredibly dumb. (Yes it was influential on grind blah blah blah who cares.) It isn’t even successful at getting the crowd going, but merely a “oh hey that happened should we laugh?” moment. This one checks all of the boxes: it sucks, it’s a waste of time, and the band would be better off including a real song.
They always “play” it, but why?
“SYMPHONY OF DESTRUCTION”
You could have a field day trying to pick through the filler in Megadeth setlists; Dave Mustaine has basically refused to play what fans want for the better part of a quarter century. While “Trust” and all-time stinker “Reckoning Day” would also be very apt inclusions, “Symphony of Destruction” belongs for one key reason: it’s from an actually good record. There are plenty of more worthy tunes from Countdown to Extinction: “Architecture of Aggression” is among their heaviest songs, and better; the title track is among their most successfully emotionally-charged songs, and better; “Skin O’ My Teeth” and “High Speed Dirt” are both balls of energy, and better. And then there is album-closer “Ashes in Your Mouth,” one of the best songs of the band’s career. If any song from Countdown deserves to be played at every Megadeth show, it’s that one, not their barely-riffy, mid-paced Big Hit.
“THE MOB GOES WILD”
Before any Clutch diehards flip their lid over this one, hear me out. Both of these are undeniably great songs, so this is less about their quality as it is about what they represent. Clutch used to be one of the most unpredictable bands in hard rock in terms of setlists. Fans had zero idea what they’d hear on any given night, and it was magical. As the band became more popular, thanks in large part to these two relative hits, their setlists became more predictable, and these are the two biggest guarantees. Clutch is still an absolutely fiery live act, but that element of unpredictability being missing is something that I, a long time fan of the band that has seen them far more times than is healthy, truly misses. These two tracks are more scapegoats than anything else, but it’s still a little sad to see a band lose some of that spontaneity.
This is the big one, the mother of all replaceable songs. Yes, the verses have a semi-infectious romp to them and Rob Halford’s robot dances are fun. Yes, he is the Metal God. But come on, in Priest’s decades-long career, there are a ton of songs more fitting of a live setting than “Metal Gods.” I get that the guys aren’t spring chickens anymore, and they need some breather moments to keep them nimble for faster songs, but “Metal Gods” isn’t even that catchy of a song to begin with (the “hook” is a joke). For the love of the actual metal gods, replace it with “Raw Deal” or “Delivering the Goods” or “Out in the Cold” or “Bloodstone” or “Some Heads are Gonna Roll” or “Blood Red Skies” or “Dreamer Deceiver” or “Stained Class” or “Heading Out to the Highway” or “Metal Meltdown” or any number of other songs from this rich, rich legacy. At best, “Metal Gods” is a fun album track surrounded by better songs. At worst it’s one of the least deserving “classics” in metal. Reserving a permanent setlist spot for it is mind boggling.