Elektra Records, 1999


REVIEW BY: Jon Southwood


Metallica's S&M opens with a piece from the soundtrack to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, a title that summarizes the rest of the album. Unfortunately for Metallica fans, there's a much higher proportion of bad and ugly (and not the good kind of ugly) here than of good.

Michael Kamen, best known as a film composer, was handed a daunting task: add an orchestra part to the music of Metallica. In the liner notes, Mr. Kamen claims to "live in both worlds," which would seem to make him the perfect choice. His arrangements, however, sound like he lives in the film- and pop-music worlds rather than the metal world that Metallica helped form.

For example, on almost every track, the orchestra sounds like either a bad pop keyboardist, or a lead guitarist who refuses to step back from the spotlight and mindlessly noodles through every second of a song. Metallica has never had a keyboardist, and they most certainly have never had a mindlessly-noodling lead guitarist...so why should they start now? This noodling ruins every track taken from Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, ...And Justice for All, and Metallica. Take "The Call of Ktulu"...the strings are noodling from the outset; the brass are only slightly more understated. At around 3:22, the strings are in the midst of their 'solo', and fire off a lick so lame that it makes Joe Stump sound like a genius of melodic invention. The only redemption in this track comes at 3:27 as the strings rip away at a climactic shred-line doubled in thirds. This is followed by Hammett's guitar solo, loosely based on his original solo from the studio recording. Not his best solo, but Kamen should really sit down and figure out why it sounds so much more 'right' than any of his string or brass noodling.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Another example of Kamen's complete lack of understanding of Metallica's world is the way he arranges the heavy metal 'power chord' for the orchestra. Kamen doesn't seem to understand that the power chord is more than just a collection of notes but actually a sound. Kamen sets these power chords as if the orchestra is just playing the same notes that are being played on the guitars. The orchestra isn't running through distortion, though, and it robs the power from the power chord. (For an example of orchestral power chords, check out Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.) The opening of "Master of Puppets" is supposed to be crushing and powerful, not so with string noodling and unpowerful brass chords that can't keep up. The only decent moment for the orchestra and Metallica playing together in this track comes during an inspired addition of strings to Hammett's guitar solo at around 6:07. It's dark, angry, and aggressive. Everything the orchestra is capable of, but falls short of everywhere else in the track. The opening of "No Leaf Clover" sounds more like "Pirates" by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer than anything Metallica would have ever written.

There are also a number of missed opportunities, some of which are so obvious even relative newcomers to Metallica's music have to scratch their heads in disbelief. Opening "For Whom the Bell Tolls" without bells? You've got to be kidding me. We already heard the orchestral chimes in the opening of "The Thing That Should Not Be," so we know the SF Symphony didn't forget to bring them.

Kamen could have even asked Metallica to stop playing in a few places. Imagine how much better "Master of Puppets" would have been if the band had dropped out for the slow section. Hammett and Hetfield could have come back in for the harmonized melody right before Hetfield's solo. Or not...even better would be to let the band sit out during the entire slower section, and crushing the audience with the return of the fast, aggressive, and heavy section that sets off Hammett's solo. Since Kamen seems unwilling to allow the orchestra to get ugly and aggressive (even they are perfectly capable of it), the least he could do is allow them to contribute and shine in the more subdued and sweeter sections. The only track where he comes close is "Nothing Else Matters." The softer sections of "Master of Puppets," "One," and "Battery" (the opening) are disappointing, at best.

There are moments of brilliance on this album, though. I've already mentioned the brief flashes during "Master of Puppets", and "The Call of Ktulu." "Nothing Else Matters" really is quite nicely done. And the opening of "The Thing That Should Not Be" is fairly dark and eerie, setting up the song quite well. The orchestra finally comes close to playing a real power chord in the introduction to "Outlaw Torn." The problem is, though, that all these moments are too few and too far between.

As someone who grew up playing Metallica songs in a garage band and then went on to become a classical composer, most of this album offends me, both as a Metallica fan and as a classical composer. Knowing what potential the orchestra has for matching the power of the heaviest of metal, I had such high hopes for this album.

Metallica's S&M? The code word for me is "eject."

Rating: D

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