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The Antagonist - 60%

idiobrett, November 26th, 2009

Metallica’s “S&M” album creates great conflict within me. The protagonistic/antagonistic nature that the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra creates as it paints its sounds on the sonic tapestry known as Metallica is a grand concept. A macroscopic look at this makes it seem like a really great album, but upon a more microscopic analysis of the items at hand raises questions in its integrity and quality. While I can appreciate it and have listened to it optimistically several times, I simply cannot hand out an overtly positive review of this album because it lacks what I believe to be intrinsic things such as its choices of repertoire, orchestration(s), and staff.

Upon first listening to these discs it is quite captivating with “The Ecstasy of Gold” leading into “The Call of the Ktulu.” The brass section in “The Call of the Ktulu” is quite dark and epic sounding and this honestly gave me an Emperor flashback to “IV Equilibrium.” I am sitting here listening to it anticipating the great sounds to come because after all this is Metallica we are talking about and they did play live with a symphony orchestra which is something that the majority of bands in the metal genre cannot claim as a been there done that (Deep Purple, Queensryche, Kiss).

So let’s talk a bit about orchestration. After reading the liner notes it appears that Michael Kamen is quite proud of his orchestration work (in the small print the liner notes also say that Kamen had a team of people working on the orchestrations). However, it is beyond me how he can compare this work (himself) to Beethoven, Stravinsky, or even more offensively a Wagnerian music drama (ego maybe?). Sorry, but this orchestration does not touch the level of Beethoven, Wagner, or Stravinsky. However, as I listened to this disc it did became apparent that perhaps Kamen was using some sort of leitmotif throughout the duration of the recording and that is a characteristic of Wagnerian style but not in the context of how it is used on this Metallica recording. By this I mean that Wagner used the leitmotif as part of his music dramas to announce the appearance of a character, event, or emotion. In the context of this Metallica CD there are no characters (unless we have to be constantly reminded that Metallica is on the stage) and there is not a story line (to my knowledge, even though the liner notes imply an intangible story line) that connects these songs together in a dramatic fashion as for instance Wagner did in “Der Ring Des Nibelungen.” This evidence will support my premise that the orchestration on this album is boring and redundant. Thus, the orchestration here fell short of my expectations and the true potential that an ambitious project such as this could aspire to be. In my opinion the orchestration is largely weak and unimpressive. Not to mention that the classical and romantic composers would in general frown upon Metallica’s approach to music in the respect that their songs are riddled with parallel fifths. That is something that did not become largely acceptable for composers to use until around the 20th century. The point is that Metallica’s music is not fit stylistically to compare to Beethoven or Wagner and the orchestration(s) did not help to remedy this taboo interval sequence that Metallica frequents (though it could have had the orchestrator(s) changed around the parts Metallica plays). Therefore, the CD is not classical or romantic in style but 20th century at best.

But what about the metal band that is the main attraction for this circus of sound? Metallica’s playing does appear to be razor sharp. However, I did do some research on this recording before writing this review and found out a couple things that make me question Metallica’s performance here. First, the DVD version offers sound options, “Metallica only” and “Orchestra only.” That is some serious isolation for such a big live performance and hence an opportunity for overdubs? Also, the small print liner notes on the disc say that this was recorded in two days. Maybe they used the Frank Zappa rule of statistics and superimposed parts of different performances (or maybe a performance and a rehearsal) to come up with an excellent recording (cheating in my opinion). Kamen’s liner notes say “after two evenings of sturm and drang” and then go on to say “after the evening was over” which is confusing. I was under the impression from some other sources and the photo of the set list on the back of these discs that this performance was recorded live in one night. Overall it does strike me as a good performance on behalf of Metallica. So I will give them the benefit of the doubt that they are able to play their songs flawlessly under any type of condition. BUT, I was kind of lost when I heard James sing “Master of Puppets Baby” or something to that effect. Come on, I mean that is something I would expect from Stephen Tyler or David Lee Roth not Metallica. Yuck! Bad taste James.

There is also the could have, should have, and would haves that in effect would have made this album superior. The song selection for starters is a problem. Where is the “Kill ‘em All” track? “Seek and Destroy” and “The Four Horsemen” are prime for orchestration. Moreover, “Fade to Black,” “Orion,” “To Live is to Die,” “The Small Hours,” etc are other songs that should have been on this recording. The tonalities of the orchestration(s) are another big grievance I have with these discs. The orchestrator(s) would have been better off sticking to the chord structures the Metallica songs have already defined without trying to second guess what the orchestrator(s) think that Metallica fans would like to hear woven into the songs or would be moved by if this type of tonality was added here. Furthermore, hire a person into the metal genre to orchestrate your tunes. Why hire someone unknown to metal heads and judging by his liner notes never experienced true metal at all? Had it not been for the metal fans that bought the Metallica albums and merchandise throughout the years would this album have been possible to begin with? The point is, give back to the community. There are several metal heads that have spent time studying orchestration. The first one that comes to my mind is Luc Lemay of Gorguts. Imagine how different this album would be if someone who knows the style(s) intimately and was hungry was given a chance to do something like this.

Theoretically I like this album because I am a fan of both orchestral and metal music(s). A big plus goes to Metallica using a real orchestra and not a synthesizer to record this. However, I am disappointed in Metallica for not making it a literally over the top recording. Just thinking of them as the stereotypical band that can do anything they want to with music because they have what seems to be unlimited resources when compared to other more obscure bands; then why not make an album to be revered and envied? This subsequently falls short of the greatness that could be found under the guise of a hungry band. Thus, this album is only halfway there but can be given a few extra percentage points for some of the pluses I pointed out. This album is certainly an antagonist.