Metallica: S&M Album Review
A review of Metallica's "S&M" album, recorded during their two April 1999 performances with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Bands that achieve great commercial success sometimes get the urge to try something new. After their “Razorblade Suitcase” album debuted at number one and went double platinum, Bush decided to try their luck at remixes. They remixed all their hit songs almost beyond recognition and released the painful remixes on an album called “Deconstructed”. Needless to say, the album was a flop and turned away many fans permanently, as is evidenced by the lackluster sales of the band’s new album, “The Science of Things.” But, bands can also achieve great success by taking their music in a new direction. Nobody knew what to expect when Nirvana, the epitome of a grunge band, decided to pick up acoustic guitars for their 1994 MTV Unplugged show. The result was one of the band’s most powerful performances ever, and one that immortalized Nirvana, and especially lead singer Kurt Cobain, as the most powerful force in music in the 1990’s.
In April of 1999, Metallica performed two shows with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. One would have a difficult time thinking of two more mismatched groups of musicians. When I bought “S&M”, the album recorded live at those two performances, I did not have high expectations. Think of a Metallica song. Any one will do. Now think of a piece of classical music. They don’t sound good together in your head, do they? There did not seem to be a lot of room for compromise between the musical styles of Metallica and the orchestra. So, I figured that either Metallica would play loudly enough that the pesky orchestra would barely be heard or that the orchestra would force Metallica into submission and the whole show would be boring.
I do not think that I have ever been so surprised by an album as I was by this one. Metallica and an orchestra actually sound good together. They even compliment each other! Michael Kamen, who also conducted the orchestra, did a masterful job composing a score that blends well with Metallica’s guitar parts and, at times, adds a new depth to Metallica’s sound that is not found on their studio albums. Metallica and the orchestra obviously put a great deal of time into practicing and synchronizing their parts in order to make their sound as clear and tight as it comes across on “S&M”.
The selection of songs on “S&M” is part of what makes it such a great album. It contains hit singles like “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters”, but does not shy away from including songs that never made it off the studio albums on which they were released. “Devil’s Dance” and the instrumental “The Call of the Ktulu” are two excellent songs on this album that were never released as singles. The album also contains two good previously unreleased tracks, “No Leaf Clover” and “-Human”. The album contains songs from six different studio albums. Taking songs all from 1997’s “ReLoad” all the way back to 1984’s “Ride the Lightning”, “S&M” does a good job sampling from Metallica’s entire career without overemphasizing any one album or period. There is not one clear-cut best song on the album, nor is there a song that seems out of place. My personal favorite is “Hero of the Day”, which I think may actually sound better on “S&M” than it did in its first incarnation on “Load”.
“S&M” is certainly a unique album. Combining the raw power of Metallica with the refined precision of a symphony orchestra was certainly a gamble, but it paid off. Metallica deserves much praise for making this album, and Michael Kamen deserves just as much for integrating Metallica and the orchestra so well. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra also deserves credit for their willingness to collaborate with a different group of musicians from that with which they usually work.