Symphony Of Destruction: The story behind Metallica’s S&M album

20 years ago, Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony orchestra gave us S&M. We look back at how it came to be…

Symphony Of Destruction: The story behind Metallica’s S&M album
Nick Ruskell

“Same time next year, man…”

Has it really been two decades since Lars Ulrich rather meekly croaked out these words as Metallica took their bow at the end of the second of two epic, two-hour shows at Berkeley Community Theatre in California with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra? Even if the use of classical players has become relatively commonplace in the time since – hello Within Temptation, Dimmu Borgir, Nightwish, hell, even Bring Me The Horizon and, of all bands, Entombed, have taken to the stage with orchestras since then – Metallica’s bold experiment set a bar that has not been equalled, much less breached.

To fully get a grip on quite how out of left-field the idea was, one must understand how different things were back then. In 1999, Metallica were comfortably one of the biggest bands in the world, a status they had enjoyed since The Black Album had broken the mainstream wide open for them, but while they sold out whatever enormodome they could find, questions of credibility and identity had begun to raise themselves. While in the ’80s, their stubborn refusal to play by anyone else’s rules extended to not bothering to make videos until they flipped the format on its head with the dark, lengthy clip for One (“What we were doing back then was so different to what was going on at radio and MTV in America we felt, sort of, ‘Why bother?’” scoffed Lars in a 2000 interview), the ’90s found them doing it with regularity. And doing ballads. And not thrashing anymore. And, worst of all, cutting their hair ahead of 1996’s Load album, a record that solidified in many older fans’ minds the band’s change from an angry young band of the people to rockstars with too much money not wanting to shake themselves out of the gilded enclave in which they had found themselves.

But this was stab-in-the-dark territory. Metal bands had flirted with this stuff before, but nobody as big, or on the scale to which Metallica were planning it. The band themselves knew that, even taking into account their classical collaborator Michael Kamen's pedigree with rock music - having worked with artists such as Queen, David Bowie and Pink Floyd, as well as scoring the soundtracks for Die Hard, Highlander and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, and contributing to their own Nothing Else Matters – it was going to be a tough one to get right. Particularly when, for some, the idea was just the latest load of pretentious guff that had included sacking off normal cover artist Pushead in favour of using modern art like Andres Serrano’s Blood And Semen III on the cover of Load (to which it had been rumoured, falsely, that Kirk Hammett had made a ‘contribution’). But at least the band were aware. “I would have showed you one of my fingers if you were to have suggested this back then,” chuckled James Hetfield when asked what the angry 18-year-old him would have made of all this. Lars Ulrich, meanwhile, insisted that, “It’s in keeping with the spirit of Metallica. For many years we’ve tried to push ourselves in different directions as a band, and this represents another challenge and a logical step for us.”

To both the band and the orchestra, however, this was blind territory. It was actually Michael Kamen who approached them with the suggestion of doing something like this, with the band admitting it wasn’t exactly on their to-do list before the opportunity came up. “I wouldn’t say that I was completely ignorant to classical music but I wouldn’t say it was knocking on the back door of my Deep Purple records,” admitted Lars. Jason Newsted, meanwhile, had thought about the possibilities of bringing something into the music, but “Not even more than a couple of cellos.” But for Michael Kamen, the project’s architect, the two worlds could quite easily work together without either having to change too much because, as he saw it, this was already in The Four Horsemen’s blood whether they realised or not. “I say let Metallica be Metallica, and let the symphony be the symphony,” he reasoned. “The two have more in common than not. Metallica’s music has often had elements of composers like Wagner and Brahms.”

This isn’t so hard to understand, not just from the way their songs were often arranged into musical labyrinths, but also because Cliff Burton was himself a keen classical listener, often carrying Beethoven records among Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy.

Listening to the S&M live album, it remains impressive just how well it all works together. With a couple of exceptions – most notably the machine-gun staccato section at the end of One – the orchestra weaves its way through the set as though the songs had been written with spaces for them in mind. The drama of For Whom The Bell Tolls and the mystery of The Thing That Should Not Be are heightened by their new sonic colour, while the frenzy of Battery and the complexities of Master Of Puppets are superbly projected – even with the four members being a step out of their usual comfort zone having to take into account dozens of others who need to be in sync with them. “I have to be counted in to things,” laughed James. “There are times live when we just let things hang and I’ll go, ‘I’ll do the riff… now’. But you can’t do that [in this scenario], so that’s a little difficult…”

In the album’s own small triumph, less classic songs from Metallica’s more recent past grew new, powerful legs here. Not least of all Hero Of The Day, the live version of which is far more definitive than the version on Load. The same could be said of ReLoad’s Devil’s Dance, or its predecessor’s The Outlaw Torn.

Creditably, Metallica also opted to include two brand new songs to the project: No Leaf Clover and -Human. While not written for the orchestra, presenting unheard material for the first time with the might of the San Francisco Symphony behind it – and, notably, never recorded in the studio – showed just how well the two entities flowed together. “We felt that there would be another level of excitement to the project if there was some material that was not just foreign to them, but also foreign to us,” noted Lars at the time.

It was a gamble that paid off, something that can be said for the whole project. The sound of metal and orchestra locked together came together better than anyone could have predicted, while the extra focus required – there were only two rehearsals with both parties in the days before the shows – mean that a hungry, almost nervous energy crackled once more from a band who had grown accustomed to flooring stadiums in their sleep. “There’s plenty of sceptics out there going, ‘Ooh, it’s not gonna work, and it has to be taken with a grain or two of salt because this is all about having fun and doing something new,” mused James ahead of the shows. “If it fails, all we can say is we tried. But if it’s great, it’ll be even sweeter.”

But it didn’t fail, and it was great. And now, two decades on – sadly without Michael Kamen, who died in 2003 – it’s happening again. And if Metallica approach it with the same level of daring and willingness to surprise as they did in 1999, it’s going to be just as spectacular.

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