Monday, August 18, 2014

S&M (An Introduction to Metallica)

I had my first taste of Metallica at the age of 13. My ginger friend, Tim, sent me Enter Sandman over MSN and, well, I rather enjoyed it. Several other songs followed, including Master of Puppets and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and they were even better - I even wrote a (dreadful) parody version of the former song, changing the title to 'Master of Muppets'.

And yet, in spite of my fondness for those few tracks, I never bothered to buy a Metallica album. I'm not sure why - perhaps they were too expensive*, or perhaps my inner metalhead was content with the Iron Maiden CDs that I already owned. Whatever the reason, it took Metallica the best part of a decade to finally find a place on The Album Wall.

The album that finally broke my duck was S&M, a double-disc live document of Metallica's collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. It was given to me a couple of weeks ago by JR, another ginger friend of mine, who insisted that no collection was complete without it**.

If nothing else, I was positively intrigued by S&M's big gimmick. Metal titans plus symphony orchestra? Sign me up!

And yet the first spin was somewhat disappointing. S&M opens with a rendition of Ennio Morricone's The Ecstasy of Gold, which is great, but since it's all orchestra and no 'Tallica, I'm not sure I can really give the album too many points for it. The first track to actually feature Hetfield, Ulrich et al is a nine-minute instrumental named The Call of Ktulu, and this was where I started to worry - the track is undeniably impressive, and it thoroughly deserved the Grammy it won, but a lot of it feels like a big, dizzying mess. The epic rocking, the big movie strings, the way that they don't really allow each other any room to's all a bit much, and it gave me the early impression that this metal/classical combo was going to be more of a headache than a pleasure.

I expected track 3 to assuage some of these concerns; instead, it merely added to them. Master of Puppets, remember, was one of the songs that I was already familiar with, but the S&M version is ruined by a bad case of Robbie Williams Syndrome. You've all seen it happen: the band is playing a song that everybody knows, and so the singer shouts something like 'you know the words!' and stops singing for a few bars, allowing the fans to take lead vocals instead.

This is great fun when you're actually there, but since the lead singer is always infinitely more mic'd-up than his audience are, it doesn't translate very well to live recordings. What we end up with - on Master of Puppets, at least - could just as easily have been caused by a technical issue; the crowd aren't quite loud enough to be heard over the HEAVY METAL BAND and the JILLION-PIECE ORCHESTRA, so it just sounds like James Hetfield's microphone is cutting out, leaving embarrassing gaps in the song.

Not the strongest of starts for S&M, then, but here's the good news: it gets better. Much better, in fact; the songs become significantly more enjoyable post-Puppets, with Fuel the frantic highlight of the first disc.

However, the second disc is where everything really comes together. Where some of the stuff on disc 1 feels a little filler-y, disc 2 is just hit after hit after hit. Allow me to walk you through it:

  1. Nothing Else Matters, which I understand is Metallica's big lighters-in-the-air moment. Big, broody, and far slower-burning than most of the tracks on S&M, it's a great way to open the second half.
  2. Until it Sleeps, one of my favourite tracks from either disc. It just build and builds and builds and it's really dramatic and that's before you factor in the orchestra.
  3. For Whom the Bell Tolls, another of my old friends. The triplet guitar line that leads into the verse sounds even better than I remember, and even another bout of Robbie Williams Syndrome fails to extinguish the magic (possibly because the fans had found their collective voice by this point).
  4. -Human, one of the two songs composed specifically for this album (the other, No Leaf Clover, is another of disc 1's high points). The orchestra get a big moment in the spotlight here, and they certainly don't waste it.
  5. Wherever I May Roam, a nice stompy headbanger and a great example of why I much prefer disc 2. Compared to the lion's share of disc 1, it all sounds a little less manic and a bit more controlled, allowing for a far more epic, widescreen use of the symphony.
  6. Outlaw Torn, which is another contender for my favourite track of the album. It's 10 minutes long, too, so it's good value for money. 
And then, just when you think the album has crested, you get the big trio of blockbusters: Sad But True, One, and Enter Sandman. In spite of my issues with the first few tracks, that gig in San Francisco may actually have had the perfect setlist - it just gets better and better and better.

So yes, I do like S&M, and I agree with JR - everybody should hear this, metal fan or no, just for its sheer size and scope and audacity***. Oh, and if you're like me and you never got 'round to buying a Metallica CD, S&M doubles as a handy Greatest Hits package.

*That's certainly why I never much bothered with The Beatles.

**I returned this favour by purchasing a copy of Mansun's seminal Attack of the Grey Lantern and giving this to JR. He's promised to review it on his blog, Curios Mundane; I'll probably post a link to said review if and when it materialises.

***Why don't more bands do gigs with orchestras? Oh, that's right - because it would require a fuck-tonne of organisation and rehearsal. Not to mention the fact that somebody had to sit down and write full orchestral accompaniments to 17 Metallica songs, some of which are nearly ten minutes in length - I wonder how long that took?

No comments:

Post a Comment