Metallica – S&M2 Review

music, Stewart Pink

If you’re old enough to remember the Sony walkman then you should be able to cast your mind back to 1999. As a 9 year old boy, I remember approaching the end of a long shopping trip in search of some school shoes at Lakeside shopping centre with Mum, Dad & my Sister. As a reward for us both behaving ourselves (as if I ever didn’t!) we took a detour to the Warner Bros store. If you’d ever been you might remember the huge screen (or at least it seemed big to a 9 year old) in the centre of the store that towered above the mountain of soft character toys from Warner Bros movies. Usually the toys were the main event but, on a November evening in 1999 I distinctly recall the first time I discovered the epic sound of Metallica. I stood in awe as the giant screen and sound system blasted Metallica’s No Leaf Clover live with the San Fransisco Symphony Orchestra and my senses were awakened for the first time to the effects of heavy metal orchestral rock. That was Metallica S&M, the brainchild of legendary film composer and then conductor of the San Fransisco Symphony, Michael Kamen – all the heavy metal prowess of Metallica reimagined with the classical finesse of the symphony. Now that 9 year old boy is 30, Warner Bros stores & cassettes are extinct and Michael Kamen is no longer with us. So after all this time could S&M2 live up to its predecessor? Is it worth the risk? 

S&M2 starts in exactly the same way as S&M and the love for the symphony is palpable from the very beginning. From the moment the crowd starts to sing along with the main, familiar theme to The Ecstasy Of Gold, the goosebumps hit. This time, along with same sense of uncontainable excitement there’s a sense of unspoken homage to Kamen in this beginning, a nod to their matchmaker from everyone in the room.

It would’ve been easy to assume that these two old friends could simply pick up where they left off but with lineups in both camps having changed since their last outing the modern reincarnation of The Call Of The Ktulu, at times, feels like a sort of baptism with some sections of the symphony unfamiliar with this unholy marriage suddenly thrashing at their instruments as they wrestle with the heavy metal band now in their arena. 

In any band the drummer ties everything together but in a symphony the conductor yields all the might of every instrument in the flick of his wrist. As the familiar pounding intro of For Whom The Bell Tolls begins the realisation of the inhuman synchronicity between San Francisco Symphony’s conductor Edwin Outwater and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich first becomes clear. The symphony’s musical director, Michael Tilson Thomas later refers to Ulrich as “Professor Lars”, a title nobody could dispute. 

When Metallica released Death Magnetic in 2008 it came as a huge relief to many who had previously thought St Anger spelt the end of the line. Notably two tracks from Death Magnetic make the modern set list for symphonic enhancement. The first of which and the first track to deviate from the original set list from S&M is The Day That Never Comes and from the moment it begins, in the same way it silenced the doubters back in 2008, this track will blow you away. 

If the melodic intro to The Day That Never Comes, with the entire symphony dancing around the guitars didn’t win you over or the epic crescendos and the sheer power of the horn section punching off the cobwebs in The Call Of The Ktulu didn’t do it for you then thousands of fans in awe of the experience singing along to The Memory Remains surely will. It’s everything we’ve come love about Metallica’s live albums enhanced by the phenomenal return of its “fifth member”. Hammett’s incredible guitar solo punctuates the start of a singalong that nobody wants to end, a 2 minute spontaneous outburst featuring an equally spontaneous variation on the theme from the string section. In the space of these 2 minutes we witness Michael Kamen’s vision come to life, a symphony at one with its audience and seemingly free from all confides. It’s clear in this moment that the symphony seems to have picked up some rockstar traits, playing a more fluid and less rigid style synonymous with classical music. Last time the fans sang with Metallica, in S&M2 the fans sing with the symphony. 

From there the album continues to impress and takes experimentation much further than the last time these giants of different musical genres collided. There’s an incredible and touching tribute to Metallica’s late bassist Cliff Burton and just as there was in S&M, we are treated to another original piece. Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry, a classical piece of futurism is given a new lease of life and reimagined by the symphony & Metallica. This is followed by the symphony’s own take on Unforgiven 3 accompanied only by Hetfield’s vocals – Metallica without guitars!  

At the beginning Metallica’s frontman, James Hetfiled thanks the symphony for taking the risk. A risk is no understatement. In 1990 S&M delivered on its mission to unite Metallica & Symphony but S&M2 might’ve been an unnecessary revisit if it didn’t push the boundaries of risk further. But, as Tilson Thomas so eloquently puts it, they have the chops, the guts and the spirit to pull it off. 

All in all S&M2 is another phenomenal musical event and while it certainly treads previously chartered territory, from there it continues to push itself into the unknown. While S&M often felt like Metallica invited the symphony, S&M2 is a reunion set entirely in the symphony’s arena and yet again, to quote Hetfield, we “witness history”. The S&M2 concert was recorded in September 2019. It was filmed in its entirety and shown in cinemas in October 2019, the first major cinema release of a concert, daring to pioneer a virtual gig experience. With the live album released in the midst of a gig-less 2020 it gives us all hope and a chance to remember the magic of live music and everything that a concert can be, shining a soothing light in a long dark tunnel for the live music industry. Gladly, the soothing light at the end of the tunnel is NOT a freight train coming your way – it’s S&M2. 

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