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S&M CD Review

by Jason Comerford

S&M ****

Metallica, Michael Kamen

Elektra 62463-2

Disc One: 11 tracks - 66:59

Disc Two: 10 tracks - 66:13

One of the advantages of being a film score fan is getting to blow off some steam every once in a while with some good, old-fashioned, ripsnorting rock music. (Who wants to listen to Thomas Newman or Howard Shore at a party, anyway?) This is where Metallica comes in. The band's supercharged heavy-metal riffs have consistently set standards since their mid '80s debut and, love them or hate them, they've proven to be one of rock music's most durable acts.

Metallica's collaboration with Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for S&M has a fiendish logic to it. Kamen's orchestral style has its own flippant energy to it, and, while S&M is certainly not a showcase for Kamen, it's a good exercise. In this endeavor, the main purpose of Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is to supplement Metallica's distinctively aggressive, full-speed-ahead music. While Kamen and his orchestra get a handful of chances to shine, S&M belongs to Metallica. Two basic emotions drive Metallica's music: sadness and anger. Kamen's challenge is to add orchestral embellishments without overpowering the band. S&M is geared towards Metallica fans, but the aesthetic here is clearly aiming towards an expansion of Metallica's sound. S&M will not disappoint; it's a smartly arranged and, at times, tremendously exciting live concert recording.

Oddly enough, the album kicks off with "The Ecstasy of Gold" from Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This piece provides a good ramp into the next song, the instrumental "The Call of the Ktulu," which is enhanced with dynamic orchestral flourishes. The disc really gets cracking with a good take on "Master of Puppets" and finally hits full force with "Of Wolf and Man"--Kamen adds a series of ostinati and strings effects that give the song appropriately Gothic proportions.

It's intriguing to listen to S&M and follow how the orchestra supplements the band. This project brings together a pair of wildly different elements. One might wonder how this recording was miked, given the traditional close-miking of bands and the standard distant concert-hall miking of symphony orchestras. "The Thing That Should Not Be" brings this question to the forefront. Kamen clearly designs his orchestral effects to work in the higher registers, away from the band's lower-register guitar riffs and drumbeats, but at times Kamen's work gets drowned out anyway.

Rip-roaring takes of "Fuel" and "The Memory Remains" get the album back on track. A sturm-und-drang orchestral prelude then leads into "No Leaf Clover," which finally allows Kamen and the SFSO to come into their own. The new song is decent by Metallica standards, but from a purely musical perspective it's a corker, allowing the orchestra and band to weave in and out of each other's paths while creating a fascinating symbiosis. Kamen adds an appropriately lyric flourish to the power ballad "Hero of the Day," and the disc eases out with serviceable takes on "Devil's Dance" and "Bleeding Me."

Disc Two starts off slowly, with a functional version of "Nothing Else Matters." As with "Hero of the Day," Kamen's job is to add a classical embellishment in the higher sonic regions, but the shakiness of the song prevents him from accomplishing much. The second part of S&M slows the pace somewhat, allowing Kamen's work with the SFSO to come into the limelight. "Outlaw Tom" gives Kamen room to work in some elegiac string and brass writing between guitar riffs. "Sad but True" stumbles somewhat--Kamen's writing adds little. But "One" kicks off with some nicely elegiac flourishes of the song's instrumental riffs, and the whole project blasts off at the end, with everyone breathing fire for a double-barrel blast of crowd-pleasers ("Enter Sandman" and an exciting version of "Battery").

Ironically, what's most interesting about S&M is the list of omissions. Curiously absent are many of their spectacular songs from earlier releases (particularly the meaty songs from "...And Justice for All" and "Ride the Lightning"). Metallica, in recent years, has divorced itself from the stormy, politicized writing that earmarked earlier albums, opting to record albums of covers ("Garage Inc.") and generally cranking out more radio-friendly fare. The enthusiastic crowd response to barn-burners like "Master of Puppets" and "Battery" should be evidence enough, though--Metallica's collaboration with Michael Kamen, while energetic and entertaining, proves more than ever that they would be well advised to return to their roots.

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