Why Metallica's S&M Was Even Better 20 Years Later

Reuniting with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Metallica delivered the concert of the decade this month. We were in San Francisco to witness The Four Horsemen on more fearless form than ever...

Why Metallica's S&M Was Even Better 20 Years Later
Sam Law
Brett Murray

It is 10am on a breezy, Northern Californian Friday morning. Two strangers from opposite sides of the planet are standing across the street from each other in San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown district. Shared, Pushead-inked colours, however, are pinned to their chests. The first cracks a grin and throws the horns. His counterpart reciprocates with a growl: “Fuckin’ ‘Tallica”.

The scene repeats endlessly across the Golden City this weekend.

There is electricity in the air and the silent swell of something incredibly special about to unfold. Tonight will mark the grand opening of the state-of-the-art Chase Centre arena – another forward stride in the Bay Area’s cultural and commercial ascension. More importantly, it will see a reprise of the partnership between the San Francisco Symphony and Metallica. Fans from every corner of the globe lucky (or wealthy) enough to obtain a ticket have descended on the hometown of their heroes for this once-in-a-lifetime (well, twice) event.

But what about this show – as one bemused passer-by openly wonders – has triggered such absurd levels of mania?

READ THIS: Every Metallica album ranked from worst to best

In effect, it all comes back to that 20-year-old gamble that paid off spectacularly. At the tail-end of the 1990s, Metallica had consolidated themselves as the biggest band in metal. Festival fields and gaping stadia were routinely crushed. Each record dropped to comfortable seven-figure sales. But with the controversial alt. direction taken by the Load and Reload records, and the band’s move away from the metal values with which they made their name, fans wondered if they might’ve lost their edge. They seemed to have grown bored, too; their gimmicky Cunning Stunts stage show and 1998’s Garage Inc. covers LP feeling like forced – albeit wildly enjoyable – attempts to recapture a missing joie de vivre.

When legendary composer Michael Kamen came knocking with a fresh challenge, though – the idea of combining the band’s hard-edged work with an orchestral accompaniment – they found themselves about to change the face of metal. Again.

Of course, symphonic rock was not a new idea. There was an irony in drummer Lars Ulrich’s comments at the time that, “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...” Three decades earlier in fact, all the way back in 1969, legendary Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord was inspired to write his Concerto For Group And Orchestra, performed and recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall, with a smattering of hits reinvented with orchestral passages. Cliff Burton, too, was a keen classical listener, often carrying Beethoven records among those of Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy. Kamen himself had even previously worked with Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Aerosmith.

There was an energy still untapped, though. Rock seemed fixated on the delicacy, refinement and high-brow status that could be unlocked by bringing an orchestra onboard. What they hadn’t fully grasped was the bombastic potential of that – to take sounds already huge and make them utterly massive. At the end of a two-year gestation Metallica, Kamen and the San Francisco symphony took the stage at the Berkeley Community Theatre in April 1999, to deliver an absolute masterpiece.

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There were flaws, of course – sections where the marriage of classical and metallic texture failed to gel – but they were outweighed by so many moments of sheer awe. Fresh shades of colour added to the creeping Call Of Ktulu. Master Of Puppets and Battery symphonically supercharged. More recent cuts like The Outlaw Torn were swept onto another plane of greatness. Shows in New York, Berlin and Las Vegas followed. The live album sold over four million copies. The collaboration became the stuff of metal legend.

“Same time next year...” Lars teased infamously, at the end of the show. It was a promise unfulfilled. Over the two decades in the interim, everyone from Nightwish and Within Temptation to Entombed and Bring Me The Horizon have engaged classical musicians to flesh out their metal sound, but Metallica themselves have been slow to full-bloodedly revisit the concept. When tapped for this gala showing, however, the time was right for the return of the kings.

Questions lingered. With Kamen having passed away in London in November 2003, could they recapture that old magic without its original orchestrator? Would the format work in this far bigger venue – and in the round? Could they deliver something more than a mere nostalgia trip, doing justice to their own last two decades of evolution?

From the second Ennio Morricone’s The Ecstasy Of Gold builds to its grand western crescendos, the endorphin overload casts all doubt to the wind. You might’ve listened to the LP a thousand times, but it can’t match the visceral force of the orchestra in the flesh. Ktulu sees the band emerge at a slow burn, but it’s as they launch into an almighty For Whom The Bell Tolls that the evening truly bursts into life. Every one of the all-seated audience are on their feet. Rings of video screens above the players bring to life the horrors of war. That larger, far more raucous crowd than at the original show threatens to drown out the performers.

“Don’t be afraid to sing along...” grins singer James Hetfield, daring us to blow the roof off.

More recent cuts are filtered in. The Day That Never Comes from 2008’s Death Magnetic gets a relatively minimalist, but stirringly effective treatment. 2016’s Moth Into Flame combusts with a little extra fire. And though Confusion and Halo On Fire honestly don’t match up, their reconstruction with this many moving parts is truly a sight to behold. When the hits hit, though, it’s utterly incredible. No Leaf Clover – arranged specifically for the original S&M – pulsates with power. The Memory Remains explodes with a deafening singalong. The Outlaw Torn raises goosebumps on top of goosebumps.

A 20-minute intermission provides the reset, though, after which the night truly comes into its own. A single five-song passage confirms that these are not the under pressure creatives with backs to the wall we saw at the turn of the millennium. Instead, these are figureheads with nothing left to prove, embracing every possibility this format throws up.

Introducing fans to the pseudo-metallic classical ‘primitivism’ of Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, the orchestra are allowed to show off their gouging abilities on their own terms. When Metallica join them, it’s to add their heft to another third-party composition: Alexander Mosolov’s quasi-industrial composition Iron Foundry. Then Lars, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo depart again, leaving James alone – looking frankly naked without his guitar – to sing The Unforgiven III with only orchestral accompaniment. All Within My Hands follows, performed acoustic with San Franciscan singer-songwriter Avi Vinocur on backing vocals, finding the real soulfulness in one of their most unapologetically abrasive pieces.

For many of the crowd, this level of experimentalism verges on being a bridge too far. Really, though, it represents a truer fulfillment of what S&M was originally meant to be. Even the staunchest metal conservatives, mind, are brought back onside by a simply stunning rendition of late bassist Cliff Burton’s bass-solo (Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth performed by the orchestra’s lead bassist Scott Pingel – his enormous instrument run through a distortion pedal for extra effect, and Lars eventually emerging to accompany on drums.

From there, it’s a hit-heavy run-in. Wherever I May Roam overflows with epic scale. The machine-gun intro to One is brought to life by the orchestra’s percussion section before the song itself leaves the players sweating into their suits. Master Of Puppets sends the audience into hoarse throated overdrive. Nothing Else Matters sees the video screens shut off, with punters’ cellphones instead illuminating the brand-new arena. Enter Sandman spins us deliriously into the night.

READ THIS: Hetfield on Hetfield: The Metallica legend in his own words

It’s an awesome performance, requiring real time to digest. It’ll surely take those upcoming cinema showings to really appreciate what we’ve seen. This is the first occasion on which they’ve ever performed a set featuring material from each of the 10 studio albums plus an S&M original. It’s all the stranger (and more interesting) for the band’s willingness to surrender the spotlight to some of the insanely talented performers around them. It’s epic, audaciously experimental, unapologetically intellectual at times. It’s a show with such scale and so wildly uncompromised that you can’t truly imagine it being delivered by anyone but Metallica. More than that, it’s an event to reaffirm fandom in the trailblazers that got so many of us into heavy music in the first place.

The current branding of the ‘Metallica Family’ can sometimes feel a little on-the-nose, but in this great city on this weekend it feels totally appropriate. Fellow fans stop each other to rave about the show throughout the rest of the weekend. The many locals not fortunate enough to have a ticket beg for a run-by-run breakdown as soon as they spot the event merch. In old Metallica haunt Tommy’s Joynt the following night, it’s a beery summit with attendees from countless nations. The consensus is unanimous – we’ve just attended the show of a lifetime.

Good day to be alive, Sir. Good day to be alive, indeed...

The two S&M shows were recorded for a feature-length concert movie, which will be screened at cinemas around the world on October 9 for one night only. Get your tickets here.

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