Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The concept of rock band + orchestra wasn’t a new one when Metallica recorded S&M (1999) with The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, but I’ve rarely heard the two entities combine as effortlessly as they do here. The orchestra was conducted by the late Michael Kamen, whose name I previously knew from his work with Pink Floyd in the late-‘70s & early-‘80s, and the title of the 2-disc set is a clever abbreviation for “Symphony & Metallica.” In the liner notes, Kamen states that he created “melodies & counter-melodies that wove themselves around the tunes” and added “orchestral color & texture to songs that were already complete.” He also describes the pairing as “a Wagnerian orgasm.” It’s hard to argue with any of that. Recorded over 2 nights in April 1999, this powerful live recording finds guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and soon-to-be-departing bassist Jason Newsted merging with the huge orchestra to perform 20 songs from throughout their career (including 2 new ones), as well as an orchestra-only performance of Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy Of Gold” from the soundtrack of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. This leads into the classic Metallica instrumental, “The Call Of Ktulu,” and together they form a dramatic start to the concert. Hetfield’s distinctive vocals don’t appear until 12 minutes into the show with “Master Of Puppets.” The audience takes over for certain lines and the orchestra adds some new textures to this already great song. I love the way the audience & orchestra combine to handle the backing vocal section on “The Memory Remains,” originally sung by Marianne Faithful.
“Until It Sleeps” may be more powerful & emotional than the original Load version, with sympathetic orchestral accompaniment. “No Leaf Clover” is the stronger of the two new songs, a pretty cool semi-ballad with a bombastic, sweeping orchestral intro leading to a sweeter, more pastoral feel featuring a clean guitar sound. Of course this is Metallica, so at some point it gets big & heavy, but I especially like the quieter part with treated vocals at “Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel is just a freight train coming your way.”
The other new song, “-Human” (aka “Minus Human”) is a plodding rocker with dramatic strings. The “coming up for air” refrain is good but the song itself is nothing special. “Devil’s Dance,” one of my favorites from Reload, packs a similar punch to the studio version while the orchestra adds a dramatic element without being overblown. The final six songs on the second disc (“Wherever I May Roam,” “Outlaw Torn,” “Sad But True,” “One,” “Enter Sandman” and “Battery”) form a powerful suite of music that acts like a mini “best-of.” Most notably, the strings on “One” add a haunting counter-melody that makes it just as impressive as the well-known original from …And Justice For All. I was very impressed, and even a little surprised, by the song selection on S&M. Even though their earlier material, with its various time signatures & intricate arrangements, seems best suited for an orchestral makeover, 12 of the 18 existing tracks came from the last three albums (Metallica aka The Black Album, Load and Reload). That was a risky decision, considering how many fans turned on them during the ‘90s, but the whole album is punchy & powerful, and in many cases the excellence of the material from those albums (especially the previous 2) was exposed via these new versions. I consider S&M a rousing success.
One of the biggest turnarounds I’ve ever had on an album happened in the last 10 days. The first (and only) prior time I had listened to St. Anger (2003) was when I borrowed a friend’s CD on the week of release. Since I had only recently become a fan I didn’t have any particular expectations, but I hated what I heard that day and had no interest in giving it a second listen. Much like the bass-free mastering of …And Justice For All has tarnished an otherwise incredible album, the raw production, lack of any guitar solos & Ulrich’s putrid snare drum sound made it hard to get through St. Anger. It’s also the latest in a long line of albums with excessive running times, making it tough to digest even after multiple listens, let alone just one. But, only being a casual fan, I opted to not get my own copy, and until I started this series I had no plans to revisit it. Much to my surprise, the first time I played it (cranked up in the car) 10 days ago I really liked it. All the aspects I previously considered as negative were now its strengths. Then I read a little bit of the backstory behind the recordings (documented in the movie Some Kind Of Monster, which I saw once a few years ago), and how sessions took place over a couple of years as Hetfield battled his addictions through stints in rehab. With the band not in the best mental state, and Newsted recently departed, they opted to record a raw, in-your-face album with few overdubs or multiple takes, and lyrics directly addressing Hetfield’s personal struggles. Longtime producer Bob Rock took over on bass for the recording as they continued their search for Newsted’s replacement. Armed with all of this newfound information, I was now able to appreciate St. Anger on its own merits, without comparing it to any of their earlier efforts or weighing it down with expectations. Even the aforementioned snare sound, which comes across like the weaker brother of a timbale, brings a unique garage-band quality, and for a band known for their meticulous, time-consuming recording history, it comes across like a breath of fresh air. Well, a breath of angry & bitter fresh air.
Not everything on the album works for me, and at 75 minutes it’s both exhaustive & exhausting, but the first five tracks immediately caught my attention & stand up to repeated listening. “Frantic” is manic & angry and features a super-heavy riff. “My lifestyle determines my death style” is a great hook, made even stronger when followed by softer vocals at “Keep searching, keep on searching.” “St. Anger” has a heavy, chugging circular riff and a pummeling beat. The softer vocals at “St. Anger ‘round my neck” are a cool juxtaposition when followed by “You flush it out, you flush it out,” and the repeated mantra of “I’m madly in anger with you” is yet another excellent hook. Some parts of the song are so noisy & cacophonous but they make the lighter moments breathe more. “Some Kind Of Monster” finds Hetfield rattling off a litany of negativity (“These are the eyes that can’t see me”; “This is the face that I’ll never change”), and I love the way he growls the title of the song, reminding me of Kiss’ Gene Simmons. “Are we the people?” is another memorable refrain from a song that is definitely too long but still great.
I love the staggered start-stop rhythm at the beginning of “Dirty Window,” followed by another driving riff & propulsive groove. Hetfield shouting “Am I who I think I am?” and “Court is in session & I slam my gavel down” are the two main vocal hooks, but I also like the cleaner vocals & sparser music at “I’m judge & I’m jury & I’m executioner too” as well as “Projector, protector, rejector, infector…” Over the course of its relatively brief 5-1/2 minutes they cover a lot of musical ground, and it’s one of the highlights of the album for me. “Invisible Kid” might have had more impact if it wasn’t 8-1/2 minutes long, but there’s a great song here just waiting to be edited down. The vocals at “Invisible kid, never see what he did…locked away in his brain” are some of their most melodic, and the shifts at “I hide inside, I hurt inside” and “I’m okay, just go away…I’m okay, but please don’t stray too far” are just as memorable. He’s really working through his demons here, and shows more vulnerability than most hard rock & metal fans would have expected.
“Shoot Me Again” has great high-pitched guitar plucking in the intro, followed by dark, brutal riffing. The Alice In Chains-type harmony lead vocals, which they’ve used before, show up here right from the start (“I…won’t go away, right here I’ll stay”). Hetfield sounds defiant at “Shoot me again, I ain’t dead yet,” and there’s another great hook at “All the shots I take, what difference did I make?” Some of the tom-tom heavy sections remind me of Tool. I don’t mind the 7+ minute running time but, like a lot of songs here, it should have been shorter. Closing out an album once again with the longest song, “All Within My Hands” has Hetfield singing in a deeper midrange than most of the album, with “All within my haaaands…” and “hate me now” being two of my favorite vocal sections. I like the way the tempo slows to half-time, which offsets nicely with the steady fast rhythm during the rest of the song. None of the other four songs made the same impact on me as those I’ve already discussed, but they carry the angry, claustrophobic mood throughout and would sound out of place on any other record. Considering how much I hated St. Anger after that first listen in 2003, I can’t believe I’m now singing its praises. I know it’s a divisive album among fans, and rightly so, but I’m hoping that my change of heart might inspire others to give this album another shot. If you’re in the right mood, you just might be surprised.
With new bassist Robert Trujillo now firmly ensconced in the band, they returned five years later with Death Magnetic (2008). Working with producer Rick Rubin for the first time, they returned to the progressive/speed/thrash metal sound of their first few albums. This record seems to be regarded by most fans as a return to form, with the main complaint regarding the exceptionally loud mastering which can lead to ear fatigue (especially when listening on headphones). I agree that the sound is slightly brittle but overall it was recorded & mixed well. The important thing, of course, is the songs, and they delivered a number of good ones. Album opener “That Was Just Your Life” has a great feel with lots of rhythmic & tonal shifts, but nothing about it particularly grabbed me (although it’s nice to hear Hammett shredding again, and I like the “I blind my eyes” section). “The End Of The Line” has an Iron Maiden-esque power metal feel, alternating between driving & bouncy rhythms. I really like the sparse lyrics during the verses (“Choke, asphyxia, snuff reality”; “Time, choke the clock, steal another day”) and the twin guitar work in the instrumental section leading to Hammett’s wild guitar solo. “The slave becomes the master” is a cool repeated line near the end. “The Day That Never Comes” has a unique vibe that separates it from previous Metallica ballads, including a lovely circular clean guitar intro, but is clearly the work of the same band that recorded “Nothing Else Matters” and “The Unforgiven.” Although the music is uplifting the lyrics are anything but: “Waiting for the one, the day that never comes…the sunshine never comes.” It gets steadier & heavier with a chugging riff at “Love is a four-letter word” before going into Thin Lizzy twin-guitar territory at around 5:00.
After a staggered 40-second intro, “All Nightmare Long” goes into some super-fast speed metal riffing & drumming, alternating with a galloping beat. I love the melodic chorus (“’Cause we hunt you down without mercy, hunt you down all nightmare long”), and Hammett is on fire throughout. It’s an epic with several distinct sections that uses its 8 minutes wisely. “Cyanide” moves from a stomping, staggered rhythm to a brighter bouncy beat. “Suicide, I’ve already died, you’re just the funeral I’ve been waiting for” is one of my favorite parts. I feel like I’ve heard that melody before but can’t put my finger on it. “The Unforgiven III” is the second sequel to a song that originally appeared on The Black Album. I prefer this to the first sequel, from Reload, and even though it doesn’t quite live up to the original it’s a worthy successor. Beginning with mournful piano, soon joined by horns & strings, the recognizable guitar figure emerges & Hetfield’s vocals are very strong. “How can I be lost if I got nowhere to go?” is a great start to the chorus. Once again there’s some great soloing by Hammett; flashy but controlled. “The Judas Kiss” is a personal highlight, traveling through numerous sections, from fast verses with barked vocals to the more melodic “So what now? Where go I?” section to the excellent chorus, “Into abyss, you don’t exist, cannot resist, The Judas Kiss.” This might be the closest they’ve been to full-on progressive-metal since …And Justice For All. For a change, the album closer (“My Apocalypse”) is actually the shortest song, but in 5 frantic minutes Hetfield barks & growls a lot of lyrics over the most speed metal track on the album. It’s great to hear a band 25 years into their recording career still delivering music that could stand proudly among their earlier triumphs. I’m not sure I would rate Death Magnetic as a classic, but it’s certainly a strong return to the sound of their best-loved albums.
Live At Grimey’s (2010) was originally a download-only release but was later issued on CD. A friend of mine made a copy for me last year & I had only listened to it once before revisiting it for this series. It was recorded in June 2008 in the basement of a Nashville record store the day before their appearance at the Bonnaroo Festival. It showcases a band connecting with a small group of diehard fans in an intimate setting, and the set list is weighted heavily toward their early years (8 of the 9 songs are from the first 5 albums, including 3 from their debut, Kill ‘Em All). Unlike their previous live releases (the sprawling arena excess of Live Sh*t: Binge & Purge and the orchestral bombast of S&M), this is just a hard rock/metal band playing a raw yet polished set of classics and having as much fun as their audience. Now that I’m much more familiar with their discography than I was just a month ago, it’s a pleasure to hear new favorites like “No Remorse,” “Seek & Destroy,” “Motorbreath” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” I have nothing but praise for this album which may not be an essential purchase but is a rewarding listen for anyone who loves Metallica’s early years.
Thanks to the same friend, I was able to get a copy of Beyond Magnetic (2012), an EP of 4 additional recordings from the Death Magnetic sessions that I was unaware of until a couple of weeks ago. Three of the songs are as strong as anything from that album. In fact, Death Magnetic might have been even better if these songs replaced a couple of the weaker ones, but as a 30-minute extended play release it’s an enjoyable (and mercifully brief) listen. “Hate Train” has stuttered riffing with a cool rolling drum pattern (nice job, Lars) in the intro, and veers from a fast metal groove to a quieter half-time section at “No, you took away tomorrow, still I stand” with softer, more melodic vocals. I also love the way Hetfield builds up his scream at the start of each verse. “Just A Bullet Away” starts with excellent prog-rock start-stop rhythmic riffing until bashing drums & a chugging riff take over. There’s a cool vocal at “Even the promise of danger has gone dull, staring down the barrel of a .45” and “In the shine of the midnight revolver” is a memorable hook. After an abrupt stop at around 4:00, they build to a twin lead guitar section as Hetfield & Hammett work their way around each other. It’s very atmospheric & proggy…one of my favorite sections in their entire discography. “Hell And Back” is a grungy midtempo rocker with a big fat guitar riff & a climbing guitar pattern during the verses. With a slightly different arrangement this could be glam or power-pop. I like the way it shifts to a propulsive gallop near the 4-minute mark and ends in a blast of feedback. Beyond Magnetic was a nice way to close out their catalog so far.
Metallica has also released an album in collaboration with Lou Reed, called Lulu, as well as soundtracks to their movies Some Kind Of Monster and Metallica Through The Never. The former is something I’m curious about & may check out one day, but it’s gotten generally negative reviews from fans & critics so I don’t think it’s a glaring omission from this series. The other two consist of more live recordings which I’m sure are excellent but probably not essential for me to get a better understanding of their music, which is the main purpose of this blog. So with that I wrap up this series. It’s been enlightening & exhausting in equal measure. I don’t think they will ever be one of my all-time favorite artists, but in just over a month I went from being somewhat familiar with their best known material to having a much broader knowledge of all the music they’ve made over the last 30 years. Thanks to everyone who’s spent time reading these posts, listened to the audio clips and/or shared their insights, personal stories & corrections. I hope to hear from you in the Comments section regarding the albums discussed above, and I look forward to listening to the next Metallica studio album (whenever that may be) as a much bigger fan than I was when I started.
Note: For more info & reviews on Metallica from a knowledgeable hard rock/metal fan, please visit Mike Ladano’s (aka LeBrain) excellent blog: http://mikeladano.com/?s=metallica