Metallica Play the Hits… with the Orchestra… Again

Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Back in 1999, the first time Metallica tracked a live album with Conductor Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony, the Bay Area thrash legends weren’t exactly breaking new ground; Deep Purple recorded Concerto for Group and Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic back in 1969. Still, the concept was fresh enough that it raised many a metallic eyebrow.

Since then, it feels like every Norwegian black metal and German power metal band have released some sort of orchestral collaboration. It can still produce some cool results, but it’s no longer novel. So one has to wonder, is there any point in Metallica going back and recording another live album with our San Francisco Symphony?

Yes and no. Much has changed within the Metallica camp in the 20 years between S&M and S&M2, the latter of which was tracked in October 2019 and released as a recording on Aug. 28. James Hetfield, for example, was 36 when he and his band recorded S&M, compared to 56. That’s a lot of growing, of human evolution, and vocally he seems much more capable of adjusting to the complex flow of an orchestra now than he did then.

In 1999, there was an excitement and tension in the juxtaposition between Metallica’s barely containable wildfire energy and the studied, deliberate restraint of the San Francisco Symphony. This time around, the two parties appear to be blending far more fluidly. Age and experience will do that. A heavier song, such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” offers a perfect example of musicians from two different worlds working in sync, rather than layering themselves one on top of the other. On this Ride the Lightning cut Hetfield is instinctively dynamic. It’s fascinating to hear a metal band apparently under the spell of a conductor just as much as the classical symphony.

The results, unsurprisingly, are sweeping, gloriously epic swathes of metallic power. It’s simultaneously authentic and cheesy in all the best ways, like a film score to a Hollywood mega-hit that hasn’t been made yet. But again, that was the case with the first performance two decades ago. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” basically has the same arrangement (to these ears, at least), and surely the subtle changes that arrive with age don’t necessitate another live album.

So what are the bigger differences? Well, Metallica have recorded three new studio albums since 1999 (four if you include the much-maligned Lulu with Lou Reed, though there’s nothing from that here). That’s a ton of new material that they had to draw from, and Hetfield recently admitted that the band’s biggest challenge was shortlisting the songs for inclusion. That’s a tough sell; while 2016’s Hardwired… to Self-Destruct was considered a comeback of sorts, none of the band’s albums have really set the world on fire since the self-titled album (or Black Album) from 1991.

There are three tracks from Hardwired… here — “Moth Into Flame,” “Halo on Fire” and “Confusion.” There’s also “All Within My Hands” from 2003’s St. Anger, and “The Day That Never Comes” and “The Unforgiven III” from 2008’s Death Magnetic. So six of the 20 tracks were originally recorded after the first S&M, and two of them are classical pieces.

Fair enough then, nearly half of the tracks were not on the first project. But whether their inclusion makes a whole new live album worth the effort remains up for debate. It was probably worth it for the members of Metallica — the inclusion of those six pieces lends a degree of legacy-fueled authenticity to the newer material. Meanwhile, the sound of the band and orchestra collectively tackling Prokofiev’s “Scythian Suite, Opus 20 II: The Enemy God And The Dance Of The Dark Spirits” and Alexander Mosolov’s “The Iron Foundry, Opus 19” is a joy, and perhaps what the first version was missing. To appreciate a true collaboration, both sides should be getting something of a “fish out of water” experience. Guitarist Kirk Hammett admitted in a SiriusXM radio interview that those pieces offered the greatest challenge, because he didn’t initially know what the band’s role was. That they faced that challenge head on and found their place within the classical pieces, just as the orchestra found their places within “Master of Puppets,” is highly commendable.

So ultimately, the question remains — is S&M2 a worthy addition to the Metallica catalog? And the answer is, just about. Completists can and will rejoice at the differences between the two orchestral eras of the band, just as many Stones devotees will undoubtedly swoon over the rarities on the recent deluxe reissue of Goat’s Head Soup.

But the uncomfortable fact is, the very best cuts on S&M2 are the same songs that were on the ’99 album: That Ennio Morricone “The Ecstasy of Gold” intro leading into a monstrous “The Call of Ktulu” at the start of the show? Same. The aforementioned excellent renditions of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Master of Puppets?” Present. “The Memory Remains,” “Nothing Else Matters,” “Wherever I May Roam,” “Enter Sandman,” “One” — here.

S&M was bassist Jason Newsted’s final album with Metallica, so here we get the orchestral debut of Robert Trujillo. The former Suicidal Tendencies man is arguably a better technical player than Newsted, so there’s a possibility that he tightened things up a bit in this classical setting, but that won’t be noticeable to anyone but the nerdiest of bass-heads.Ultimately, band-growth aside, if you’re buying S&M2 you’re getting it for the orchestral versions of the new songs. That’s a judgement call. But if you know that going in, you won’t be disappointed.

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