Where were you on April 21st and 22nd of 1999? If you don’t remember (which, to be fair, very few of us probably do), chances are you were NOT at The Berkeley Community Theater in California. Which means you weren’t present to witness the collaboration of heavy metal giants Metallica and The San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Kamen. What those in attendance were treated to was an astounding blend of metal and symphony that fans of either or neither genre can appreciate. The brainchild of the late bassist of Metallica, Cliff Burton, who had a strong passion for classical composers, finally came to fruition on those nights as the band performed a collection of their greatest hits with the backing of a beautiful symphony, with such precision and spot on timing that it’s enough to give listeners the chills.
It’s been over a decade and two studio albums since S&M, and next week, Metallica returns with another collaborative effort (and first in studio) with the legendary Lou Reed, entitled Lulu. What the new album will not be able to capture is the live emotion and obvious excitability that you can see and hear in Metallica while they played live for those two dates with the symphony. Looking back on this album, it really was one of a kind. Symphonic metal has been done before, but it never sounded so pure or seemed so right.
When the bands first come together during the instrumental “The Call of Ktulu”, you can instantly feel the anticipation building within the musicians and in the crowd. Listening to this album is kind of like the first time you experience Dark Side of the Moon and the The Wizard of Oz together for the first time: You’re amazed by the sounds and how they can match up and blend together so seamlessly.
One of the best parts of the album is listening to the crowd. They are completely unaware of anything they are about to see or hear. Small interludes of strings serve as eloquent introductions to some of metal’s most popular songs. “Master of Puppets”, “Fuel”, and “The Memory Remains” are all feverish and heart-pounding on their own, but the symphony breathes a new kind of power into them. You can feel how overwhelmed frontman James Hetfield is during the latter when the crowd belts out “but the memory remains” as he responds with his trademark response of “oh yeah”.
Two previous unreleased tracks also join the setlist, sounding like they’d been played for years. The frightening “Minus Human” could’ve come straight out of a horror movie murder scene, and the album’s single “No Leaf Clover” is one of the more underrated songs out of the band’s countless hits. The strings are prominent throughout, especially in the soft introduction and at the chorus. Hetfield’s performance on this track alone is reason enough it performed strong on the modern rock charts. He can haunt with his deep grunts just as well as he can sing along with a section of strings. This track is one of the main highlights on the disc.
It really cannot be said enough how much life the symphony brings into these already powerful tunes. Whether it’s the softer “Hero of the Day” or the absolute must-haves in your iTunes library (“Enter Sandman”) you can always catch something different that you didn’t hear before. The band was able to add and subtract little things from songs; normally, that could take away from a song’s essence, but backed by the symphony, it’s unnoticeable to the untrained ear and in every case works.
More and more these days, artists are teaming up to collaborate on music. Some are just doing it for money, others for the actual enjoyment of working with their fellow musicians. This album was about creating something that no one had ever heard before, and Metallica was able to blend two genres from opposite ends of the spectrum and make them sound like they always belonged together.