1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
Metallica is about the most hardcore music that most of the populace can stand to listen to (hence the scores of uncomfortable looking middle-class men at Metallica shows while Lamb of God is opening). Metallica is heavy to be sure, but it need some help if it’s going to be truly scary. Cue Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
As many a black metal band can tell you, symphonic contributions in a minor key can go beyond making music creepy; it can make it sinister. Terror wasn’t Kamen’s goal when he approached Metallica, but he understood the potential for adding a symphonic element to the group, which already took a fairly epic approach to music (“Master of Puppets,” the band’s most popular opus, is more than nine minutes of thrash). Metallica was hard-up to say no; original bassist Cliff Burton had been enthralled by the idea of incorporating classical instrumentation into metal, plus Kamen directed the orchestra in the band’s hometown of San Francisco.
If anyone deserves credit for the success of “S&M,” it’s Kamen. Undoubtedly, he had already begun drawing up plans for accompaniment of the band’s classics before proposing the idea, but nonetheless he had to write classical compositions complementing 20 songs from a thrash band. No small task. Metallica contributed some to the planning, but Kamen took on the lion’s share of the work.
The final result features a majority of songs that work perfectly with the formula, and just a few that didn’t pan out so well. Kamen brought the strings to the front for the most part. The brass makes appearances, but the strings provide the most noticeable match for the band’s music.
Some of Metallica’s classics were obvious converts; “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” for instance. Others were more up in the air. “Master of Puppets” was handled masterfully, and ended up being a perfect mix of Metallica’s heaviness and the orchestra’s aural panache. Less effective was the performance “Sad but True,” which proved too heavy for a noteworthy cover.
As the concert was in 1999, the playlist leans towards the band’s most recent albums, the less acclaimed “Load” and “Reload.” In some instances, such as the unavoidably lame “The Devil’s Dance,” the orchestra can’t save Metallica from itself. On the other hand, the accompaniment turns “The Outlaw Torn” into an epic ten-minute piece, the emotion in vocalist James Hetfield’s voice highlighted by rising strings.
“The Outlaw Torn” is almost the best on the album, but it can’t beat “No Leaf Clover,” an original recorded for the first time for “S&M.” The song is a haunting tune that allows the orchestra to shift from soft, eerie strings to a pounding, brass-driven follow-up to the chorus. The impact of the song hits hardest when the listener finds out that it was written by Burton before his death, making the lyrics far creepier.
Metallica always makes for a good live show, with a combination of theatrics, special effects and volume. “S&M” was just an opportunity for a new method of epic performance, although maybe this time there was a touch more artistic merit.
INTERESTING FACT: Michael Kamen wasn't new to working with rock bands. "S&M" was probably his second biggest contribution...behind Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour came back for their respective solo projects as well.