Metallica may have been anointed the supreme beings of hard rock after their self-titled (or untitled, actually) 1991 album sold millions and inspired the masses to bang their collective heads, but that dominance has been questioned in recent years by even some of their more zealous fans. All the usual reasons were there: The guys changed their look, lost some of the edge to their songs, and mutually embraced the radio stations bent on promoting them. Not only that, but they did their best to take down Napster and all of its download-happy Metallica fans along with it. The band's response to the criticism--or any criticism, for that matter--has typically been of the one-finger variety. After all, Metallica is as Metallica does.
It wasn't hard to predict how those same fans would react to the band's latest album, last year's S&M, which took 20 of the group's old songs and added the symphonic work of Michael Kamen, the same composer who orchestrated "Nothing Else Matters" on the band's aforementioned eponymous album. Naughty subtext aside, S&M actually (and correctly) stands for Symphony & Metallica, and skeptics found it rather appropriate that the word "Symphony" precedes the band's name. In fact, the symphony's contribution, while not changing the structure of the songs, recast the heavy accents Metallica had always used to derive much of its power. The results, not surprisingly, were decidedly mixed.
Now, orchestration in popular music is nothing extraordinary, especially in the hard-rock genre. Bands have continually sought out symphonic accompaniment to add emotional depth to songs and to lift ballads and elegiac swells to new heights. Sometimes it's a thing of real beauty; other times it's a sentimental mess. Metallica seemed aware of this going into the project and thus approached S&M with a conviction to keep their songs basically the same, rooted in that heavy dissonance on which they built their reputation. They were determined that it wouldn't be "Metallica Light." And light, it isn't.
The album draws its selections equally from every original Metallica album except Kill 'Em All. The hits are here but with a balance of other lesser-known titles ("The Thing That Should Not Be", for one) thrown in as well. But S&M basically fails because most of the songs don't sound any better with the additional orchestration. On some of the slower songs, like "Call of the Ktulu," "Hero of the Day," and "Until It Sleeps," the strings do serve their purpose, accentuating the songs accordingly. But on old mainstays like "Master of Puppets," "One," or "Battery," the new accompaniment only competes with the progression and direction of the songs. The result is an impenetrable cacophony of sound and countermelodies that distracts the listener's limited attention. The songs feel overwrought, straining to accommodate too much at once. It's unfortunate, because throughout many of the solo interludes and more minimally spaced passages, the orchestration adds considerable life to the mix. But as soon as the torrential power chords are employed to create Metallica's trademark gallop, the accompaniment feels mislaid and ponderous. It often sounds as though two stereos in the same room are blaring Metallica and old Curtis Mayfield simultaneously.
It takes considerable verve and mettle to attempt to orchestrate Metallica. When not pushing for room, Kamen remains true to the Metallica tradition. But Metallica music is still best performed by Metallica, and when they're doing their thing, it's tough to imagine anyone sitting in and enriching the sound. After all, Metallica's songs are often compositional in structure to begin with, employing abrupt rhythmic changes, counterpoints, and mood reversals. Throwing in more "good stuff" doesn't necessarily make it any better. Of course, that said, some strange pairings do come off without a hitch. For example, there's an MP3 of Metallica frontman James Hetfield sitting in with Chris Isaak and his band on Napster. Oh wait, I guess there isn't. Never mind. Reggie Beehner