Rock and classical music make uneasy bedfellows. Whether it’s heavy metal bands performing with ‘real’ musicians, orchestras tackling the hits of the day or rubbish Britpop bands trying to be taken seriously, the results are usually uninspiring. While S&M avoids most of the common traps, it’s still a flawed effort.
S&M teams the world’s best metal band, Metallica, with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Under the direction of Michael Kamen (who witters on excitably in the CD’s sleeve notes), the band played a live set of some 20 songs, with the orchestra adding melodies and countermelodies to everything from Nothing Else Matters to Master Of Puppets.
Metallica, it seems, were well aware of the potential for disaster in such an undertaking, and the band’s recent interviews made it clear that they were unsure about the project. It’s noticeable on the CD, too – the version of Nothing Else Matters is alarmingly restrained, and you get the feeling that singer James Hetfield is wondering what the hell he’s doing. Other songs are more successful, however. Hero Of The Day and Bleeding Me are stunning, while new song No Leaf Clover is heartbreaking – a description not normally applied to the band’s music. We also liked the orchestra’s performance of Ennio Morricone’s The Ecstasy of Gold, Metallica’s intro tape brought to life.
The collaboration works well on the slower, more cinematic songs, and old tracks such as One or The Call Of The Ktulu definitely benefit from the additional orchestration. Fuel and Enter Sandman, however, are awful – the latter sounds like a truck smashing through a music shop, scattering instruments everywhere.
One of the best things about Metallica is the way in which the band takes the traditional blueprint of heavy rock and pares it down to bare essentials, creating a streamlined monster that’s undeniably powerful. By adding layers of melodies to songs such as Enter Sandman, the simplicity of the music – and its power – is buried. The mix doesn’t do the band any favours, either, frequently reducing them to supporting players while the orchestra fiddles in the foreground. The band frequently sounds neutered, while Kamen’s elaborate arrangements compete with rather than complement the band’s music.
For all its flaws, S&M is an interesting concept from a band who seem determined to challenge their audience with each new release – S&M, after all, follows on from the band’s recent album of punk and garage songs. It’s far from perfect, though, and the album would have benefited from better editing, reducing the number of songs from 20 to 10.
In the absence of a full-blown live album, S&M contains enough classic Metallica to keep the fans happy, while the more successful results of the collaboration are likely to surprise punters and critics alike. In a genre where most bands seem content to release the same album with different lyrics every few years, Metallica’s risk-taking represents a very welcome alternative.