For about 12 minutes, Metallica’s decision to perform alongside the San Francisco Symphony and record the results seems brilliant. The orchestra powers the opening track, a haunting cover of “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly soundtrack, and then classical music and metal merge perfectly on the intense instrumental “The Call of the Ktulu.”
But when James Hetfield makes his entrance, contributing an utterance that sounds like “hoo-yah,” things go downhill quickly. To be fair, when Hetfield keeps his vocals low-key, as he does on “Outlaw Torn” and “Nothing Else Matters,” his singing strengthens the songs instead of tarnishing them. However, on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Wherever I May Roam,” his overexertion distracts from the fascinating riffs-and-woodwinds backdrops.
For the most part, the unlikely stylistic marriage succeeds, although the horns and flutes sound woefully misplaced during the heavier sections of “One” and “Battery.” On the other hand, the introductions to those songs become positively beautiful because of the added instrumentation. “No Leaf Clover,” one of two unreleased tracks on the album, begins with a sinister violin-fronted death march which leads into engaging, flute-driven music that brings to mind moments from King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. When the riffs pound in, they spoil the mood but not the song, which becomes an anthemic mid-paced rocker.
Metallica deserves credit for experimenting instead of merely adding to the pile of thrown-together live albums with holiday-season release dates, and for finding a way to make the sub-par songs on its albums Load and Re-Load interesting. Had the band left its “Hey!” chants, stage banter, and other anachronistic antics at the arena instead of dragging them to the symphony hall, S&M could have been stunning. Instead, it offers a listening experience that’s similar to watching an awe-inspiring opera while a noisy buffoon in the seat next to you titters intermittently at the Viking helmets.