For practical purposes, the electrically amplified rock band rendered the symphony orchestra obsolete; employing scores of musicians is simply no longer necessary to make an imposing noise. Yet rather than keep a distrustful distance, rock bands and symphony orchestras are sometimes drawn together for a cultural exchange: the former's popular audience for the latter's aura of refinement. Beginning with the Beatles--whose producer, George Martin, was a classicist at heart--rockers have often employed classical players and even whole orchestras. Still, it's a long way from "Eleanor Rigby" to Metallica, the speed-metal quartet whose albums include such baroque titles as "Kill 'Em All."
Metallica's music is often grandiose, but it's symphonic only in sweep, not in style. Still, sweep was apparently all that was required by Michael Kamen, who conducted the April 1999 concerts that paired the band with the San Francisco Symphony. Kamen calls the result, which is captured on the new "S&M" (Elektra), "a Wagnerian orgasm." For those who don't thrill to bombast, however, the matchup is more athletic than erotic.
Now best known as a film-music composer, Kamen began his career some 30 years ago with the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, one of the first attempts to meld rock and classical. For "S&M," he scored orchestral arrangements for 21 Metallica compositions, including such songs as "Master of Puppets," "Fuel," "Enter Sandman," "Until It Sleeps" and two never-released tunes, "No Leaf Clover" and "-Human." Aside from a prologue taken from Ennio Morricone's score for "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the material is all Metallica's.
That's not the only way in which the band leads the orchestra. The latter dominates "The Call of Ktulu," the instrumental track that follows the overture, and displays its skills during various intros and interludes. But as soon as Metallica's James Hetfield starts to sing, the orchestra is relegated to a subsidiary role. Kamen's arrangements are sympathetic and the orchestra's performance is energetic, but it's impossible that either can become integral to music that was designed for head-banging--even if it is Wagnerian head-banging.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8172.)
CAPTION: Metallica singer-guitarist James Hetfield, drowning out the strings at a concert in Berlin last month.
CAPTION: Metallica's James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich and Jason Newsted have a few strings (and quite a bit of brass) attached to their latest album.