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Review: Samson's Metal Masters 4 Turns in a Fiery Night of Metal at NYC's Gramercy Theatre

"There are so many different fuckers up here jamming, it could be a clusterfuck," says a very sweaty Philip Anselmo, pointing at the audience in an accusatory fashion after he and a pantheon of metal giants finish playing a hyper-charged rendition of Pantera's "Mouth for War" at the Metal Masters 4 concert in New York City this past Friday night, September 7.

"But guess what?" He assumes a gravely, almost whispered tone to show his seriousness. "It ain't."

He looks to his left at Slayer guitarist Kerry King and then to his right at Anthrax bassist Frank Bello and assumes his alpha-male growl, as if we ever doubted him: "It's fun!"

For the rest of the night, and in the hours leading up to this performance, which was presented by Samson, Zoom, Hartke, Guitar Center and Revolver magazine, positivity seems to emanate from the stage toward the 500 or so lucky metalheads who were able to get into the sold-out show at NYC's Gramercy Theatre.

As with the three previous Metal Masters concerts, a number of luminary musicians who play with metal bands like Slayer, Anthrax and Exodus have joined together, alongside Down and Pantera's Anselmo and bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan, to show off their skills and maybe teach something in a clinic setting followed by a no-holds-barred jam of some of their greatest hits.

Although some of the musicians got together for an L.A.-based Metal Masters show in April, which boasted a special appearance by Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler, they seem almost like their own band — a metal dream — on Friday.

As artists like Anthrax's Scott Ian seamlessly switch off places with others, like Exodus' Gary Holt, on a stage bearing a sculpted wall of amps, Anselmo's proclamation rings true: A clusterfuck it ain't.

The fun times began when Slayer drummer-slash-Tasmanian-Devil Dave Lombardo played a dimly lit set with his echoey avant-garde punk trio, Philm. Considering part of the night is meant to show off each musician's instrumental prowess — the evening is presented by musical instrument companies Hartke, Samson and Zoom — Lombardo situated his kit with a sideways view so gawkers could parse every polyrhythmic paradiddle.

Mouthpiece Gerry Nestler growled and shouted as he wrung bluesy bends and rumbly distorto riffs from his guitar and bassist Pancho Tomaselli whoodled and wheedled up and down his four strings, the pair only taking a break to help the audience cheer on, "Dave! Dave! Dave!" (The pair should deserve their own chant, though, for being able to keep up with the man who does this on a regular basis.)

After that performance, the clinic portion of the evening began with a rousing lesson/lecture/standup routine/pep rally by a Motörhead-shirt-wearing Bello, who promised early on, "You guys are gonna get fucked up tonight. I'm not even kidding. Some of the songs that are gonna be played on this stage, you haven't heard in a long fucking time."

He'd hold true to that oath hours later, but for now he recants stories of Geezer Butler teaching him how to correctly play Black Sabbath's "Neon Knights" at the L.A. Metal Masters show, the impact deceased Metallica bassist (and Bello's friend) Cliff Burton had on him and how much he enjoys playing with Anselmo. And, of course, he rumbled out some impressive notage on his bass, even interpolating Burton's classic wah-wah-infused "Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)" solo.

The hulking Sheehan followed him and whipped out some jaw-dropping feats of fingertapping, but the most impressive part of his set occurred when Anselmo, Bello and Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante joined him for a rendition of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." Playing his bass, Sheehan nailed every note Eddie played on the original while Frankie Lee Roth and Philly Hagar handled the vocal duties. The performance was bizarre and exciting if not for the fact that only Benante was handling the role he's best known for.

The rough position of following this up went to Scott Ian, who had to deal with his set being interrupted by a fire alarm. ("Too much metal," he joked.) When order was restored, he led a sort of "Devil Went Down to Georgia"-type duel where he would play the rhythm-guitar parts to Anthrax classics and then give his instrument to a member of the audience to replicate. The concertgoers in question (perhaps to Ian's chagrin?) all did respectable jobs of matching his riffing on songs like "Madhouse," "Indians" and "Imitation of Life." But that's what you get for challenging a room likely full of musicians.

His bandmate Benante followed his set by playing some rattling drum solos, during which Lombardo came out to duel with him. They traversed a number of famous patterns, including Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" — playing an estimated 39 billion beats between them — until Benante says, "I think we're done. There's only so much double bass you can do … we've met our quota." And with that, the audience prepped for the main event, which Benante joked would consist of "Smiths and Journey tunes."

The concert portion of the evening begins with an ensemble of Kerry King, Scott Ian, Billy Sheehan and Charlie Benante playing Anthrax's "Room for One More," as Bello takes a rare turn at vocals, handling the part originally sung by John Bush. It's just a sampling of the permutations of musicians who mount the stage over the course of the next 11 songs. Next up, King, Holt and Anselmo — who has dressed for the occasion in a shirt whose back reads "Classic Not Classy" — comes out to sing "Mouth for War."

As a sea of camera phones make waves in the audience, he exclaims, "Getting all of us together like this, it's fuckin' awesome … Since we're in New York, I want to see that fuckin' old-school energy out there." And the audience obliges, moshing and running into each other like atoms in a nuclear fission experiment.

The evening progresses by playing one hit after another, culled from respective oeuvres of each band represented. Anselmo attempts songs he hasn't sung since Pantera's final tour ("5 Minutes Alone," "Goddamn Electric"), and the group the odd Slayer classic ("War Ensemble"), an Exodus cut ("Strike of the Beast") and a trio of songs by Scott Ian and Charlie Benante's hardcore-metal crossover group Stormtroopers of Death. "Cro-mags up next," Anselmo jokes, referring to the NYHC powerhouse group, between S.O.D. songs. Kidding aside, the way that band merged hardcore and metal meant a lot to the singer, who says, without them "I'd be out of a fuckin' job."

As with the previous installments of Metal Masters, the crowd goes ape to hear Anselmo sing Pantera classics like "Fucking Hostile" and "A New Level" again, but it's just as impressive to hear him take on the work of a singer like Tom Araya's more high-pitched screams on Slayer canon like "Angel of Death" and the indefatigable "Raining Blood." His husky growl fits right in. Meanwhile, Kerry King nimbly assails each note Dimebag plays in the Pantera classics.

Overall, it's a scene of peers being fans and vice-versa. Before playing one song, Anselmo tells the crowd, "I grew up with hippie parents, and they would listen to Hendrix, Janis Joplin, all that shit. And 'Stairway to Heaven' was the pinnacle. Well, this was my 'Stairway' when I was 15."

Then the group played "Chemical Warfare." Later, Anselmo says, "I'm just a music fan. Don't judge me any other way." The same could probably be said of everyone in the room, who cheer as the artists who performed tonight — three guitarists, two bassists, two drummers and one singer — plays Pantera's hasty hardcore-thrash crossover salvo "Fucking Hostile."

It's a communal experience, and compared to the four Metal Masters shows so far — including the second one where Anselmo made an unannounced surprise appearance — it's the best organized, having more of a concert feel. The musicians should take note, though: Part of the fun of it all is the shambolic spontaneity that comes from maybe not being so well rehearsed. If they refine their playing any more next time, it might turn into (gasp) a band. But that wouldn't be a bad thing either.

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