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Album Review: Metallica – S&M2

Metallica renew collaborative union with Bay Area orchestra to thrilling effect on S&M2

On the afternoon of September 23, 1969, the members of Deep Purple joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall to rehearse keyboard maestro Jon Lord’s Concerto For Group And Orchestra, which was due to receive its world premiere the following evening. Midway through a somewhat tentative performance of the piece’s second movement, conductor Malcolm Arnold slammed down his baton, and addressed the room, his face red with anger. Ladies and gentlemen of the Royal Philharmonic, we’re here to play some music,” he thundered. These young gentlemen are fine musicians, and you’ve got to show them some respect. You, on the other hand, who are acknowledged as fine musicians, are playing like a bunch of c**ts.”

As a lifelong Deep Purple fan, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich doubtless had this classic anecdote in his mind ahead of his band’s brace of shows with the San Francisco Symphony in April 1999. Though the idea of the world’s biggest metal band collaborating with an orchestra actually originated with composer Michael Kamen, Lars, the member of Metallica most keenly aware of the quartet’s place in history, was all too aware that in undertaking this audacious union, the San Franciscan group would be elevated into a rarefied space occupied by only a handful of genuine rock legends. This, inarguably, was Metallica stepping out of their comfort zone, pushing themselves into unchartered territory. The gamble paid off magnificently: as heard on S&M, the double album documenting the April 21/22, 1999 performances at the Berkeley Community Theatre, Metallica had never sounded more powerful, more inspired, more alive.

In seeking to renew their creative alliance with the SFS in September 2019 as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the much-acclaimed S&M, Metallica were taking another gamble. But as Lars states in the liner notes to this two CD/DVD set, the group approached their shows at San Francisco’s Chase Center with an entirely different mindset: where previously they were awed and daunted in the presence of classically-trained musicians, this time around the quartet felt worthy” of sharing the stage with their more respectable’ peers. It shows, for S&M2 finds the boldest, most creatively-restless metal band of all time turning in what may be a lifetime-best performance. 

Like its illustrious predecessor, S&M2 opens with – what else? – Ennio Morricones masterful The Ecstasy Of Gold bleeding into The Call Of Ktulu, the epic instrumental from Ride The Lightning which served early notice that Metallica were not to be confined by genre boundaries. Both pieces are laden with pathos, the former because of the passing, on July 6, of the Italian maestro, the latter, of course, forever evoking memories of Cliff Burton, the Johann Sebastian Bach-worshipping bassist who was so influential in broadening James Hetfield and Lars’ compositional palate. But if there’s an initial sense of déjà vu, from here on in the playbook is shredded. There are new arrangements – Master Of Puppets in particular benefitting from a more complementary strings accompaniment when compared to the rather cluttered and overwhelmed version on S&M – a wholly revised setlist (with no space for staples such as Battery and Sad But True), and in a world first, an inspired take on Soviet futurist composer Alexander Mosolov’s avant-garde The Iron Foundry. This, truly, is Metallica as you’ve never heard them before. And it’s mesmerising, utterly compelling. Moth Into Flame and Halo On Fire gain a new sense of drama and dynamism, No Leaf Clover (premiered on the S&M recordings) is reborn, and familiar classics such as For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Memory Remains are simply transcendent. The filmed footage is spectacular, intimate without being intrusive, and the sheer joy written on every face in the hall – band, orchestra and ecstatic audience members alike – is a powerful reminder of just what a special occasion this is. 

Ulrich uses the word intense”, and he’s not wrong: it’s hard to conceive of any metal band on the planet delivering a more impactful masterclass in sturm und drang muscle flexing. No mere nostalgia trip, S&M2 stands as a tribute both to Metallica’s growing confidence as players and composers, and an absolute vindication of their decision to revisit one of their most inspired creative outings. Within our world, they remain utterly fearless and inarguably peerless.

VERDICT: 5/5

For Fans Of: Megadeth, Machine Head, Opeth

Metallica’s S&M2 is released Friday, August 28pre-order CD, vinyl and limited edition deluxe boxsets now.

READ THIS: Obey Your Maestro: Metallica, Cliff Burton, and metal’s classical heart

Posted on August 27th 2020, 10:31a.m.
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