There's something kind of kinky about a collaboration between Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
True, each ensemble plays what could be described as "long-hair music," but it's long-hair fare of radically different sorts. The San Francisco Symphony specializes in the sound of 18th- and 19th-century long-hairs -- Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and the like -- whereas Metallica emphasizes the late 20th century variety, catering to metal heads, mosh-pit mavens and the like. Frankly, there's not a lot of repertoire the two share.
But then, that's part of the self-consciously perverse charm of "S&M;" (Elektra 62463, arriving in stores today), which pairs the Symphony with Metallica (hence the title). A 20-song double album, recorded live this past April, it offers everything from familiar favorites like "Enter Sandman" and "One" to treasured oldies, all decked out in richly orchestrated splendor.
It's not quite "An Evening at Pops," but neither is it "Headbanging at Symphony Hall." Where most rock/symphonic albums either turn guitar music into muzak or treat the orchestra as an elaborate form of "string sweetening," the arrangements on "S&M;" pay equal respect to both camps, maintaining the fist-pumping intensity of Metallica's oeuvre while ensuring that the guitars, bass and drums never quite drown out the strings, brass and woodwinds.
Credit for much of the album's success lies with arranger/conductor Michael Kamen, the main man on the symphonic side of "S&M.;" A one-time rocker himself (he played keyboards, guitar and violin in the now long-forgotten New York Rock and Roll Ensemble), Kamen has made a career of scoring rock music for the symphony orchestra. On "S&M;," Kamen's job is to augment the ideas in Metallica's songs without actually taking parts away from the band. It's not an easy task; after all, these songs were fully formed when first recorded, and left little room for elaboration. Yet somehow, Kamen manages to rethink the music so that it seems both fresh and familiar, maintaining the melodic integrity of the originals while adding an extra dimension of instrumental color.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on "The Memory Remains," one of the darker selections from 1997's "Re-Load" album. At first, the orchestra's role seems entirely secondary, reinforcing the main riff with briskly sawing cellos and bluesy violin fills, and filling in for the wordless vocal Marianne Faithfull performed on the original. But as the song progresses, the orchestra's role grows larger, until by the final chorus, it reaches parity, holding its own against Kirk Hammett's guitar solo, and finally finishing the tune in a bright, Prokofiev-ian swirl of strings and celeste.
It helps, certainly, that there has always been a certain symphonic sweep to Metallica's music. The instrumental "The Call of the Ktulu" (first recorded on 1984's "Ride the Lightning") accepts orchestration so easily you'd almost think it was originally intended for symphonic treatment.
Even the martial intensity of "One" (from 1988's "...And Justice for All") makes a successful transition to symphony hall. Kamen's orchestration adds drama to the tension building first section, admirably fleshing out the lyric's narrative. Then, when drummer Lars Ulrich leads the rockers into the machine-gun 32nd notes of the "Darkness imprisoning me " bridge, Kamen's orchestration supports the action with Richard Strauss-style sturm und drang.
It's that sort of well-planned magic that turns this album from just a big-budget vanity project into the best reason yet to believe that classical music and rock can co-exist in the concert hall. "S&M;" will still seem like torture for a lot of symphony fans, but it's pure bliss for metal maniacs.
Label: Elektra 62463
Sun score: * * *1/2