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How Metallica Hard-Wires a Different Set List Every Night

Dates on the M72 tour, which run through September 2024, are organized around “no repeat weekends,” featuring two shows in each city with two different lists and two different sets of opening acts. (The band will play two weekends in Mexico City, where the tour wraps up.) The stage is doughnut shaped, with fans standing inside and out; the setup allows band members to face different parts of the crowd at different times, and it relies on four drum setups, creating multiple front rows.

“Mixing it up” with the set list itself is a surprisingly complex affair. Metallica productions go big, and the band’s elaborate program of pyrotechnics, lighting and interstitial audio-video, among other flourishes — the New Jersey show included a drop of dozens of giant black-and-yellow beach balls — has historically discouraged major changes to the list. Having four drum kits this time didn’t simplify things.

Eventually, the band developed what Ulrich called a “slot” system based on the band’s different “food groups” of songs, a reference to their feel and tempo. Slot 1 (of 16) on the M72 tour, for example, will always be an upper-mid-tempo fan favorite — Day 1 at MetLife, it was “Creeping Death” — that has a quickly recognizable opening riff: not too fast or complicated. But the songs in that slot will rotate. Slot 10 should always be a ballad, like “Nothing Else Matters.” The closer is always “Master of Puppets” or “Enter Sandman.”

Ulrich also keeps careful data about what song the band has played where, and tries to tailor the set list accordingly.

“At times it turns into a science” he said. “We’re in Montreal now, and I’ll have all the info for the last 20 years that we’ve played Montreal in front of me. And I can put a set list together where the deeper cuts will not be repeated.”

Certain songs, like “Sandman,” “Puppets” and “One,” are in constant rotation. Ulrich said the band calls them the “toe-tapping favorites” — an odd, and perhaps ironic, choice of words for songs better known for headbanging.

A lot of bands begin to mellow as they mature; by most accounts, that happened to Metallica over three decades ago, enough time for the band to have since come full circle. Like the band’s two most recent albums, “72 Seasons” continues Metallica’s return to the thrash-metal style that defined its early years, and the tour supporting it has thus far followed suit: light on covers and ballads, heavy on the heavy. New shredders like “72 Seasons” and “Lux Aeterna” slot tightly into lists packed with thrash classics like “Seek & Destroy” (1983), “Battery” (1986) and “Blackened” (1988).

Ulrich spoke in detail about the set list from that first night at MetLife and helped decipher some of the notes. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.


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