S & M
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If Load and Re-Load and an album full of Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Thin Lizzy covers (last year's Garage Inc.) didn't succeed in putting Metallica over as just another Rock Band, then this surely will. No matter how the group cares to spin it, S&M is a return to one of the most hackneyed ideas in rock and roll, the only difference being that -- while most bands would have gone the acoustic-guitars-and-stools route when teaming up with a symphony -- Metallica stays plugged in, for better or worse. And it rarely works: Metallica may not live up to its name anymore, but that doesn't mean there's room for tubas and harps and bassoons and violas on songs such as "One" and "Master of Puppets" either. Even though drummer Lars Ulrich, singer-guitarist James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Jason Newsted are severely outnumbered, they still trample over the strings and things in their path, going about business as usual.
Well, for the most part. The group does rein itself in occasionally -- such as its somewhat muted take on "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and its, uh, thoughtful version of "The Call of the Ktulu" -- but that only defeats the purpose. Recorded in Berkeley during a two-night stand in April with the San Francisco Symphony, S&M is ambitious if nothing else, an arrangement where the symphony has to keep up with the loud rock band instead of the other way around. More often than not, however, there isn't anything else, just the sound of two disparate groups of musicians doing their best to ignore each other. S&M is more or less a standard-issue Rocktallica -- as they've tried to refer to themselves since Load -- album accompanied by something that vaguely sounds like a symphony, at least when you can hear it over the amplifiers and Ulrich's double-bass drum setup.
The symphony is so inconsequential at times that S&M comes off more like a Metallica best-of culled from the last decade. Along with performing a pair of previously unreleased songs ("No Leaf Clover" and "Human"), Metallica revisits its back catalog with a very selective memory. Meaning: No songs from 1983's Kill 'Em All appear on either disc, and very few from 1984's Ride the Lightning, 1986's Master of Puppets, or 1988's ...And Justice For All. S&M is a two-disc set built more for the casual fan, revolving around familiar singles released in the radio-friendly era of the group's career rather than obscure album tracks from its earlier, thrashier outings. With that kind of track listing, S&M would be much more interesting if the San Francisco Symphony were taking on these songs by itself. As is, it's a middle-of-the-road approach to a middle-of-the-road idea.