Love or hate Metallica; you’ve got to admire the boys ‘give a fuck’ attitude. Rarely a year goes by where these four men of the metalocalypse don’t go whole-hog for some mad new venture. Be it making ‘thriller concert films,’ partnering up with Lou Reed, or playing freaking Antarctica; these heavy titans still have a young man’s passion for jumping into situations and asking questions later. While many of the experiments of the past 25 years could easily be filed under ‘Spinal Tap,’ their partnering with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for an ambitious live album in April of 1999 has gone down as a career highlight in a legacy unlike any other. Not that it was universally adored at the time, far from it.
Jumping back to the late 90s and Metallica were in a weird position culturally. Spending the first eight years of their existence helping pioneer thrash, the group became an unstoppable juggernaut with 1991’s self-titled effort, finding themselves kings of not just metal, but one of the biggest outfits on the planet. The following albums, 96’s ‘Load’ and 97’s ‘Reload’, saw the band dump the whiplash-inducing tempos of old or the crushing simplicity of ‘Black,’ instead flirting with country, southern rock, and groove metal. For those who already saw their previous release as a betrayal of the ferocity ‘Master of Puppets,’ the band embracing short hair, eye-liner, and art-goth videos was the final nail in the coffin.
Rather than play damage control to win back some of the more old school following, Metallica doggedly marched on, partnering with composer Michael Kamen to merge their often symphonic melodies with a full orchestra. While it baffled many on release, the album sees the band firing on all cylinders, mixing old and new material to excellent effect, and saw them receive a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental and has since gone five times platinum. It stands as the band's best live release, and their last album before Jason Newstead jumped ship, and the whole Napster fiasco occurred.
20 years on and Metallica are beloved icons, still an insanely popular live draw, and have righted their ship somewhat with the warmly greeted ‘Death Magnetic’ in 2008 and 2016’s ‘Hardwired...To Self-Destruct.’ Always proud of their hometown San Francisco, it was no surprise to see the band announce a second S&M event to mark the grand opening of the city’s Chase Centre last year. In true Tallica fashion, they didn’t do things by half, screening the whole show in cinemas internationally and now finally releasing the album/video in an array of shiny box sets.
Overall, 'S&M2' is a worthy successor to its predecessor, but not without its faults, so let's handle those first. From the outset, it’s clear the recording is sharper and punchier than its 20-year-old counterpart, but with a far less forgiving mix. While before the orchestra and band blended into one digestible wall of noise, at times, it sounds like instruments are competing for room this time around. Lars’ cymbal crushes erupt before being buried by a lead guitar line and 20 string instruments plus a glockenspiel somewhere else. By placing everyone prominently in the mix, no one is, hell, even the crowd are twice as loud this time.
Still, we’re not talking ‘...And Justice For All’ levels of fuckery here, just a case of needing to smooth the edges somewhat. Another small gripe is how things feel slightly less concise this second time around. Now, of course, this is also a bombastic double-album with titan level group battling it out with an 80-strong orchestra, but the inclusion of SFO’s intermission performance of ‘Scythian Suite’ as well the band jamming on the classical number ‘The Iron Foundry’ seem a bit overkill on an already rammed setlist.
Understandably, half the show matches the original’s tracks, the hits and fan faves needing to be aired, but few quite match the precision and impact. However, this being a Metallica live show that equates to still being pretty relentless and always highly professional. There’s a reason why the band lives on, with not many groups managing to match their passion and energy even now.
The four-piece sound like they’re having the times of lives, tearing through the likes of ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls,’ Robert Trujillo’s finger-picking attack better suiting Cliff Burton’s original lines than Newstead before him. Newer material such as ‘The Day That Never Comes’ and ‘Halo On Fire’ benefit greatly with S&M treatment, Hetfield letting his older croon soar. ‘The Unforgiven III’ in particular gets a lease of life with a stripped-down arrangement, letting the frontman's vocal shine like rarely before.
Naturally, the likes of ‘One,’ ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ all make an appearance, creating a first-rate finale and still sounding as good as ever. The album’s biggest surprise comes in the form of ‘All Within My Hands’ from the dreaded ‘St. Anger.’ Reworked acoustically for 2018’s ‘Helping Hands’ charity show, the song has been perfected further, mutating it from an unspeakable Nu-metal accident into something closer to a majestic Bond theme tune. It’s one of the better tracks they’ve released over the past 20 years. Truly the audio equivalent of that Bear Grylls meme. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
At this point in their career, Metallica isn’t in the business of trying to prove anything to anyone, nor grab legions of young fans. 'S&M2' sees the band happily rip through their back catalog, supercharged once more by a talented orchestra and some hardcore fans. It’s a reminder that, despite many hiccups along the way, their live prowess and influence stand unmatched in the genre. Long live The Four Horsemen.
Words: Sam Walker-Smart
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