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Heavy metal returns to Camden with Megadeth’s intense headbangers

Megadeth, the thrash metal founding fathers performed as co-headliners to next-generation band Lamb of God.

Balazs Mohai / AP

Staking claim to the “Metal Tour of the Year” mantle comes with a bit of a caveat in 2021, when stages remained empty for much of the year as the country emerged cautiously from lockdown. But the four-band package that steamrolled into the BB&T Pavilion on Wednesday night under that title could make a valid case even under normal circumstances.

Megadeth, after all, are anointed as one of the Big Four, the Mount Rushmore of thrash metal founding fathers, while next-generation co-headliners Lamb of God have long been one of the most intense live bands on the scene. Add bonus points for genre-spanning with metalcore stalwarts Hatebreed and melodic death metal favorites Trivium, and the evening offered something to please headbangers of nearly any age or stylistic inclination.

However boastful the tour’s name, the primary emotion on display from all four bands was gratitude to be back in front of fist-pumping audiences. Originally scheduled for the summer and fall of 2020, the tour was postponed for a year. Megadeth hasn’t toured North America since 2017, with front man Dave Mustaine taking time off to battle throat cancer.

Mustaine in particular took time out between riffs to appreciate the crowd, uncharacteristically sentimental a day after his 60th birthday as he gushed, “I love you all so much.” Insisting on the necessity of live music, he extended an invitation to his Tennessee home in case venues were shuttered more permanently.

Despite the warmth exuded by the bands toward their long-absent fans, hope for the future seemed in short supply. Lamb of God performed in front of a backdrop depicting a bombed-out, apocalyptic cityscape as columns of smoke obscured the red-lit stage. In the same spirit, Hatebreed’s brief, pummeling opening set ended with a chant of “Destroy Everything.”

Trivium front man Matt Heafy contented himself with shaming the crowd (or what percentage of it had taken its seats by their set) into enthusiasm, insisting that, “We didn’t wait two years for metal shows just to sit down.” The tepid reception may have been due to the band’s over-polished sound, however, which pushed precision to the point of monotony. From the anthemic choruses to the robotic blast beats, every move felt calculated.

Megadeth was accompanied by violent animations of a bloody war (in line with Mustaine’s politics), while their skull-headed mascot Vic Rattlehead roamed the stage controlling his own hulking android avatar. The often-controversial singer held off on overt politics until the show’s closing moments, when he groused about the tyranny in “schools and the medical business” to the distressingly enthusiastic cheers of an overwhelmingly maskless audience.

The band’s 12-song set drew from only a third of its 15-album catalog, with the blistering opener “Hangar 18” the first of four tracks from 1990′s Rust in Peace. Three from their latest, Dystopia, sat easily alongside the classics, bolstering its status as a late-career highlight.

Whether due to the aftereffects of his health struggles or simply the wear of a month on the road following an extended hiatus, Mustaine’s voice, which always snarled more than soared, roughened into more of a growl. It grated especially in the upper ranges of “Symphony of Destruction,” but more often than not added additional grit to caustic likes of “Peace Sells.”

While the songs themselves were executed with vigor by the latest incarnation of the band, Megadeth’s set also unfolded at a lackadaisical pace, with significant pauses between numbers. It felt somewhat anticlimactic in light of the sustained ferocity of Lamb of God’s typically corrosive turn. As front man Randy Blythe pinwheeled his waist-length dreads in time with drummer Art Cruz’s jackhammer rhythms, the crowd at the front of the stage surged in a frenzy, unleashing nearly two years of pent-up aggression.

Hailing from Richmond, Va., Lamb of God has long felt a special kinship with Philadelphia, where they played formative shows early on. Blythe acknowledged the connection to his “spiritual home.” The fans roared approval as pillars of fire rose from the stage during “Walk With Me in Hell” or bouncing to the chainsaw groove of “Set To Fail.” Blythe only goaded them on, taunting, “This isn’t the Met Gala” when the energy level ebbed.