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Album/Movie Review: S&M2 by Metallica

Metallica by Brett Murray

While the idea of Metallica performing a concert with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (SFSO) might seem ridiculous on paper, the results are anything but. To celebrate the new opening of the Chase Center in San Francisco last year Metallica once again teamed up with SFSO to put on a memorable performance that saw the band’s searing heavy metal merged seamlessly with the symphony. Seeing as this was the second time the band had done this type of collaboration, the resulting album/movie was appropriately titled S&M2.

Recorded and filmed over the course of two sold-out nights, the resulting performance ends up eclipsing the previous S&M record and it stands as one of the most exciting things Metallica has done in a long time.

The set opened up with a gorgeous rendition of “The Ecstasy of Gold,” a famous piece by the legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. Typically, a tape of the piece plays to start every single Metallica show, but this time around the symphony did their own stunning rendition, a perfect way to segue into the opening song, “The Call of Ktulu.” The legendary instrumental from the band’s early days works incredibly well in an orchestral arrangement, and the clarity of the band/symphony really stood out. You could easily pick out bassist Robert Trujllo’s distorted bass licks running all over the song, and the combination of strings along with electric guitars for the harmony sections worked really well.

This merging of classical and metal worked to perfection on the following song, the stomping “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” one of the band’s most iconic songs. What separates this performance from the one twenty years ago is the big improvements that have been made in recording technology. While some may long for the days of analog, the fact is that a concert like this one needed to be captured in the highest possible fidelity and mixed appropriately, not to mention filmed in high-quality as well.

With crisp, movie-like images and a wonderful mix, it’s hard to not get lost in the epic grandeur of the show. Towards the end of the first half of the show, the band pulled out an old favorite from the first S&M, “No Leaf Clover.” The song was originally conceived for the first S&M and is typically not performed live, so to hear it again with the full orchestral backing was certainly a treat. One can really pick out all the intricate harmonic layers of the song along with a strong vocal line from frontman James Hetfield.

One of the biggest surprises came in the form of Metallica and the SFSO teaming up for a rendition of the “Iron Foundry,” famous classical piece from Alexander Mosolov. The grinding dissonance of the piece fit in perfectly and Hetfield and Kirk Hammet brought it with some heavy guitar playing that fit right in with the string section.

The emotional highlight of the concert, and one of the most wonderous things to ever happen at a Metallica concert, came when principal bassist Scott Pingel stepped out on his own to perform a rendition of “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth).” The bass solo originally appeared on Metallica’s debut album Kill ‘Em All, and it was performed by the late Cliff Burton, who is revered as one of the greatest metal bassists of all time. The band had rarely ever performed the song, so to hear Pingel channel the spirit of Cliff Burton, all while rocking out on an electric double bass, was something else. 

Metallica chose the setlist carefully and while it does repeat quite a few old songs from the original album, the inclusion of newer songs is what sets this record apart from its predecessor. The previous album included far too many boring set pieces from the band’s much maligned Load/Reload albums, so hearing them rip through scorching renditions of “Moth into Flame” and “Halo on Fire” from their most-recent album was very enjoyable.

Of course, the main points in the show where the symphony feels most integrated with the band are during the older material, such as the epic ballad “One.” Many of Metallica’s older songs are multi-sectioned and thus work much better with the added orchestration, such as the gorgeous mid-song break in “Master of Puppets.” That is not to say the rest of the songs are bad by any means, however for the diehard metal fans, there is simply no comparison.

For better or for worse, Metallica is the biggest metal band in the world, so it would be very easy for them to play it safe with their legacy. To see them once again take on the challenge of performing with the SFSO demonstrates that they still have a lot left to prove.

As both a record and a concert film, S&M2 is a smashing success that brilliantly captures the magical two evenings at the Chase Center. The production itself is much higher quality than the original that any viewer/listener will be immensely satisfied.

Watch “For Whom the Bell Tolls” from S&M2:

SF Sonic review of the live show last year is here.

Photo by Brett Murray.