Metallica defy the sceptics to win over the Glastonbury crowd

The metal outfit make festival history, while Lana Del Rey delivers characteristically narcotic torch songs and Arcade Fire bring spectacle and joy to a dazzling show

For the first time in roughly 30 years, Metallica are underdogs. As titans of a genre hitherto unexplored at Glastonbury, they are like the president of a country you've never heard of, their importance somewhat baffling. As such, they are the festival's riskiest booking since Jay-Z six years ago but, as frontman James Hetfield says: "I know it's all represented here so why not heavy rock, heavy metal? It's about time."

No genre should be off-limits and gambles are more admirable than playing safe. However you might have expected Metallica to open their set, it surely wasn't with a Julien Temple-directed short film of the band mowing down fox-hunters while dressed as bears, soundtracked by The Sweet.

To the uninitiated, the music can seem unintentionally comical: when Hetfield follows a long speech about world peace and brotherly love with the words "This one's called Cyanide," it's hard not to laugh. But they are impressively relentless and they work hard to impress a neutral constituency. It's difficult to think what more they could have done. That said, there's no excuse for Hetfield constantly addressing the festival as "Glasto".

Earlier in the evening, the Manic Street Preachers play the Other Stage. Fifteen years after they headlined the festival, they're still a potent draw, generous with the hits from what singer James Dean Bradfield terms "the behemoth phase", yet spiky enough to play a song called Die in the Summertime. A Design for Life is the only festival anthem illustrated by a line from Orwell.

During the afternoon, Lana Del Rey appears wearing a summer dress rather than, as her songs might suggest, a bloodstained prom gown but she has a dolorous, detached manner which is entirely in character. She sings like you'd imagine a Raymond Chandler femme fatale would talk, with a kind of erotic cynicism, her love songs poisoned by encroaching doom; she even smokes a cigarette like she's flirting with a gumshoe. The whole set is just as unwavering – a series of narcotic torch songs about death and emotional masochism – a little monotony being the price she pays for such a watertight aesthetic. As final song National Anthem climaxes, as if on cue, it starts raining.

In a female-dominated afternoon on the Pyramid Stage, Angel Haze is a rivetingly intense MC who delivers raw emotional candour with machine-gun urgency. She drops into the front rows and performs the last two songs while moving through the crowd like an electric current. Bookended by a version of Nina Simone's Feeling Good, Kelis's set is a mellower affair, updating old songs to suit her new, brass-powered neo-soul material: Milkshake and Acappella are repainted in shades of samba, afrobeat and disco. After Del Rey, an Aslan-like Robert Plant tightrope-walks between Led Zeppelin methadone (Black Dog, Whole Lotta Love) and his globetrotting solo material.

Friday is sliced in two by a brutal late afternoon thunderstorm which forces the temporary closure of every stage for safety reasons. The day started with an unannounced 11am appearance by the Kaiser Chiefs on the Other Stage. Frontman Ricky Wilson's ferocious determination to bounce back after the departure of songwriting drummer Nick Hodgson translates into a lean, hit-packed set and tireless, somewhat manic showmanship. West coast sister act Haim, all wearing white, boast somewhat prematurely of bringing the "California sunshine". Both bands have form at Glastonbury but it's a pleasure to see new artists making their debut, visibly amazed by the experience: Philadelphia's The War on Drugs, who blend AOR with space-rock; Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, whose wry, poignant songs unfold like Lorrie Moore stories soundtracked by Sonic Youth​; and blue-eyed soul man John Newman whose number one hit Love Me Again is one of the day's highlights.

Serendipitously, the job of getting the Pyramid Stage back on track after the shutdown falls to two artists who have a long history with the festival. Lily Allen, who's been coming here since infancy, strides out on to a stage decorated with giant baby bottles and plays LDN ("the sun is in the sky, oh why oh why/Would I want to be anywhere else?") with Glastonbury in place of London. The festival's in her bones and she knows exactly what to say, teasing people who call the festival "Glasto" and promising: "You're in for the time of your lives." Smile explodes into drum'n'bass, an exuberant Fuck You is dedicated to Sepp Blatter and Keane's Somewhere Only We Know provides a surprisingly lovely pause for breath.

Elbow are old hands, too. Arguably Britain's subtlest arena band, they aren't afraid to be quiet. Their slow-burning songs, enriched by string and brass, create powerful intimacy in a big field. They succeed because between songs Guy Garvey is anything but quiet, hoisting a full pint glass, orchestrating a reverse Mexican wave and showering the "remarkable bunch of human beings" in front of him with flattery. My Sad Captains' ode to boozy friendship ("what a perfect waste of time") is heartbreakingly apt, as is the closing One Day Like This, which, in this post-storm sunset, sounds more cathartic and defiant than ever.

Arcade Fire's last appearance here, in 2007, was blighted by bad weather and bad sound, but their Friday headlining set is another story. The dancefloor reinvention that felt strained when the Montreal band first started touring their latest album Reflektor now feels instinctive. The stage, bathed in red and blue light, is a blur of constant motion with the seven glammed-up band members joined by percussionists and, during We Exist, a troupe of dancers. Drummer Jeremy Gara gives even old songs such as Rebellion (Lies) a subtle disco pulse and there is a pleasingly bizarre DJ mash-up of 90s headliners (Pulp, Oasis, Prodigy) before the encore. Win Butler, with a slash of facepaint over his eyes, remains a somewhat earnest frontman but Regine Chassagne looks like the happiest person on site, whether darting between drums, keyboards and accordion, or dancing with coloured streamers during her synth-pop solo spot Sprawl II. She personifies the spirit of a spectacular show: busy, joyous, dazzling.

If there's competition between headliners, then Arcade Fire strike to the heart of the festival in a way that Metallica, for all their exertions, cannot.

Contributor

Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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