Elektra Records, 1999


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Listening to S & M, the pairing of heavy metal band Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony, I am reminded of a line from the movie Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Reading that, a diehard Metallica fan might immediately say, “Oh, he’d never like the album in a million years, since he was already biased against combining the two.” Wrong… I never said that. In fact, if you listen to some of Metallica’s work over the years, you could almost hear a full orchestra filling in some of the details in the music that, quite honestly, two guitars, bass and drums can’t cover on their own.

But this… this would be the equivalent of planning to masturbate to a picture of Marilyn Monroe, but all you could find was one of Phyllis Diller. Everything was there that needed to be, but the final result was disheartening.

Me? I actually absolve James Hetfield and crew from any of the blame this time around. They’re obviously more than adequate at what they do, and you still hear the cores of most of Metallica’s classic songs hidden behind layers of orchestrated nonsense. And, in the past they have worked snippets of symphonic sounds into their music—see “Nothing Else Matters” as a prime example of how this can work. (And, as noted in other works, the seed for such a concert was planted by none other than the late Cliff Burton, who had a healthy appreciation for classical music.)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

No… the blame goes to Michael Kamen. Admittedly, his pedigree was top notch; he had worked with such artists as Pink Floyd, Queen, Aerosmith, Bryan Adams and Guns N’ Roses (though I still maintain a stripped-down version of “November Rain” I first heard on a bootleg kicked the orchestrated version’s ass). It almost feels like Kamen saw this as his grandest opportunity to shine on a big stage—never mind all the success and acclaim he had earned to that point.

And—at least at the beginning—it seems like it’s going to be a good idea. “The Call Of Ktulu” is one such track that was begging for additional instrumentation (although the original version on Ride The Lightning is hardly a slouch). There’s a good reason why this particular song won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

Unfortunately, this is where S & M kinda loses its direction. There never seems to be a line of demarcation that allows each musical entity to shine on their own merits within a song. Granted, it wasn’t expected that the orchestra would simply sit on their hands while Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Jason Newsted and Lars Ulrich made the plaster crack in the ceiling with the intensity. However, more often than not, it seems like Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony are each going balls to the wall, trying to outdo the other with their intensity. “One,” for example, becomes an absolute sonic blur, which undoes any of the power the original song had.

The thing is, S & M wasn’t a bad idea; in fact, the concept has worked in the past. The Moody Blues did it with their Days Of Future Past album; Deep Purple integrated symphonies with some of their work over the years. So, a collaboration between Metallica and a symphony orchestra wasn’t such a crazy idea. If anything, hearing efforts like “Fuel,” “Wherever I May Roam” and “Enter Sandman” in all their bombasity undoes the progress heard in tracks like “Bleeding Me” or “Until It Sleeps.”

And that’s where I blame Kamen. He needed to dial his orchestrations down and should have written the parts so that both Metallica and orchestra could have better reconciled their performances. As it exists, it sometimes feels like two freight trains constantly colliding into each other—and while there are moments where the collaborations work, overall it’s sonically overpowering.

Metallica would take another stab at such a pairing 20 years later… but that’s a review for another day. (The one clip I’ve seen for “Anethesia – Pulling Teeth” fills me with hope that they got it right the second time around.) S & M was admittedly a lofty pursuit for Metallica, but in the end, proves to be a live gig with a lot of other additional noise that doesn’t necessarily have to be there.

Rating: C

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