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"The magic of all this and the beauty of this is that you don't know what the fuck is going to happen," Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said about his band's collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony. He was calling from Honolulu, before last week's pair of sold-out concerts, and he was feeling good about their six months of heavy preparation with conductor Michael Kamen. Though the band was not set to rehearse with the symphony until a few days before the shows, Ulrich claimed no nervousness, except about how working with a symphony might change the perception of the group.
"Say the word 'symphony' to somebody, and what do they think?" said Ulrich. "A lot of people think it's like the fucking Nutcracker, that it's really light. But a lot of symphony music is very dark, very dynamic, very moody." That's the line of thinking a lot of people copped to when the collaboration was first announced. Wagner and Beethoven could be as bleak and foreboding as any heavy metal overture, and Metallica were fine songwriters of great complexity -- their songs are composed.
Yeah, well, theme songs for the 11 o'clock news are composed too, but nobody's ringing up Motsrhead to "enhance" (Ulrich's word) their effect. Metallica's working with a symphony isn't so much a clever publicity stunt (according to naysayers) or "a truly special thing in our career" (according to Ulrich). Closer to the truth, it's a result of the anxiety attack that heavy metal and hard rock has about itself every few years. Few genres of music are more self-conscious about validating themselves as "art," desperate to prove that under that hypermasculine persona lies a serious musical mind. Eddie Van Halen named his son Wolfgang; record shelves are rife with albums containing the "symphonic music" of Pink Floyd, Queen, and Metallica itself; the hot metal guitarist of the day soberly describes his Bartok fetish for tech magazines.
Hard rock's cry for validation reached its low point in 1991 on two separate albums. First was Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I, which included the epics "November Rain" and "Don't Cry," two awful examples of symphonic slop whose "movements" moved precisely nowhere. And then there was Metallica's 1991 self-titled album and commercial breakthrough, which included the Kamen-arranged schmaltz of "Nothing Else Matters." Before that, Metallica was a good -- and often great -- metal band that was doing just fine with nothing more than simple aggression in its arsenal: 1986's thrashing Master of Puppets is a masterpiece in any genre, and the 1988 follow-up, ...And Justice for All, is mediocre only by comparison to it. Kamen -- who needs him?
Kamen himself, certainly, and probably Metallica's peace of mind, but not Metallica's music. For two hours at the Berkeley Community Center, then, Metallica's big validation experiment was a failure, both in concept and in execution. Of the set list's 20 songs, few genuinely benefited for having a full orchestra playing backup: the rousing "Call of Ktulu," which functioned as an overture, Metallica members strolling in to a wail of strings; "For Whom the Bell Tolls," blaring like the 1812 Overture it sounds like anyway; the tumultuous "One," saccharine at first, but ending with the symphony matching the band riff for staccato riff.
On most of the rest, though, Metallica simply overwhelmed the symphony, with the occasional rise of strings or blast of brass creeping through, as if somebody were playing Master of Puppets and an album of Sousa marches at the same time. And what did seep through from the symphony didn't mark any particular brilliance on Kamen's part; the opening strains of "Enter Sandman" owed more to the Peter Gunn theme and other high school marching band standards than any sophisticated arranging. That may be part of the reason why after the first set, where Metallica seemed to be making some attempt to actually work with the symphony, the band eventually gave up and simply played a good Metallica show: James Hetfield growling in his post-Skynyrd drawl, Ulrich pounding mercilessly, guitarist Kirk Hammett sliding around with speedy solos, and bassist Jason Newsted, as usual, playing each note like he's dropping a cinder block.
As Hetfield put it after "The Memory Remains," "We don't play any better or worse, do we?" Exactly.
For composer Michael Kamen, joining classical and rock music is old hat. In addition to scoring numerous films (including Lethal Weapon and Die Hard), he's arranged songs for the likes of Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, and Pink Floyd. Yet when he was asked to write a string chart for "Nothing Else Matters" from Metallica's 1991 "Black" album, he was admittedly surprised.
"Metallica with an orchestra? Even I thought it was a little far-fetched. But I did it, and liked it," he recalled. "Of course, you can't actually hear the orchestra on the record; it's just creeping in the back somewhere. But then I saw Metallica at the Grammys, and they told me that they actually liked it better with just voice and orchestra. And they said that had it been up to them, they would have released it that way. And I said, 'Well, maybe someday we'll do it again.' And here we are."
But eight years later, at Berkeley's Community Theater, Metallica was again destined not to have its way. Not that James Hetfield singing with an orchestra isn't a cool idea; but who would be the audience for something like that? If Metallica actually plays with an orchestra, on the other hand, it becomes a mega-event: the most popular metal band in the world performing with one of the world's most prestigious symphony orchestras.
So the guitars remained, but this time around it was going to be a true collaboration, a dialogue between musicians of different disciplines. "If you took Metallica away," asserted Kamen, in a car en route to the dress rehearsal, "you'd hear giant orchestral pieces which stand on their own."
At the actual show, a prim, 41-year-old violinist was babbling to a rock critic about how she'd never been to a rock concert in her life, and was given a free ticket so she could hear the symphony. "I hope I survive," she chirped.
Kamen and the orchestra opened with Ennio Morricone's overture to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as Metallica's members made their way onstage. The band and symphony then went into Metallica's "Call of Ktulu," which, in Kamen's arrangement, sounded a little like John Barry's music to the Bond films; understandable for a movie-music composer like Kamen. The symphony itself sounded strong, the instruments blended well, and it seemed as though a real collaboration was in the works.
But as soon as "Master of Puppets" began, the musical dialogue became a soliloquy. All you could hear was Metallica -- good Metallica, but nothing that benefited from having an orchestra behind it. Occasionally you could hear the faint strains of strings, and some short, quick horn blasts that had the odd effect of making the heavy metal giants sound frighteningly like Oingo Boingo. A few of the slower songs, like "Hero of the Day" and "Bleeding Me," worked better, but when Hetfield quipped, "Did you hear the one about the metal band that wanted to play with the symphony?" between songs, well, no, you didn't hear it at all.
After the intermission, though, everything came together. Metallica and the symphony opened with an affecting arrangement of "Nothing Else Matters" that was more along the lines of what Metallica had desired in the first place: Hetfield singing with acoustic guitar and lush orchestration behind him. From then on, it was one hit after another -- "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Wherever I May Roam," "The Outlaw Torn," "One," "Enter Sandman" -- performed with energy, excitement, and extraordinary cohesiveness. Incongruities in the first half now clicked. Bassist Jason Newsted wandered through the music stands, jamming next to the first violinist. Kamen, looking like the quintessential cartoon conductor with his unruly mane and flamboyant style, furiously kept time with the symphony while Metallica engaged the audience in some raucous call-and-response.
With more balanced arrangements, extremely tight playing by both Metallica and the symphony, songs laced with lyrics about one man's battle against the world, and flashing lights and projections as a backdrop, the show seemed almost Wagnerian in its epic proportions. As a complete sensory experience, it was close to Wagner's dream of Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art) -- and a lot of fun.
Kamen said that if 10 kids left these concerts with a newfound interest in the symphony, it would've been worth it. While several fans exclaimed that this was the best concert they'd ever been to, no one asked what was on the next Michael Tilson Thomas/symphony program. But there was at least one convert: that 41-year-old violinist had her hands in the air, clapping vigorously. "Metallica's great," she said. "They're really amazing musicians. I just wish I could've been up there, playing that music. It was awesome."
-- Stacey Kors
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