Metallica may not have invented the genre of heavy metal, but they certainly popularized it. Blasting onto the scene in the early 80s, the Los Angeles based foursome became legendary in the underground circuit for their bleeding fast riffs, extreme attitude, and surprisingly complex lyrics. They showed that metal was more than just some gimmick for angry teens, cultivating the style into a full-blown phenomenon.
Along with bringing awareness to this burgeoning style, Metallica would eventually introduce the world to symphonic rock with their 1999 release S&M. A massive concert combining the likes of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra with Metallica’s guitar amps, it was not only a major success but a hallmark moment in the music industry. This was metal ascending to the legendary status it was always meant to have.
20 years after that historic event, Metallica reunited with the San Francisco Symphony to put on another event, creatively named S&M2. Combining basically those same elements with a more focused creative direction, this out-of-nowhere sequel feels like a celebration of everything that Metallica has come to represent for the metal genre. For those of us unable to attend to event in person, a concert film has been given a limited release to better capture the sensation of being there.
Much like the band itself, there are highs, lows, and some odd decisions, but this concert is something well worth watching for any mega-fan.
Director: Wayne Isham
Release date: October 9, 2019 (Limited Release)
If you had any hopes that S&M2 would be a bit more involved than simply a concert film, let me put that assumption to bed. Apart from a short opening promoting Metallica’s charity (a foundation named “All Within My Hands” after one of their songs) and a very confusing explanation of the emotions behind the setlist, S&M2 focuses entirely on the music. This is essentially the same experience you’d get if you had attended the event this past September.
That’s damn fine, too. Despite getting up there in age, Metallica still puts on a great show. I’ve actually managed to catch one of their concerts some years ago (it was the Big 4 Tour at Yankee Stadium in 2011), so I had some pretty reasonable expectations going into this. The original S&M was also the first album I purchased with my own money, being the crafty 11-year-old that I was. There’s history here for me and S&M2 does justice to it.
What a lot of fans will tell you is that Metallica’s presence in the 90s and through to most of the 00s was pretty rocky. “Selling out,” as many people would put it, the band created a duo of releases titled Load and ReLoad that were pretty much duds. Some decent bangers can be found among the mess, but it’s nothing to really write home about. Since those two albums were relatively new when S&M happened, they made up a majority of that first concert’s setlist.
Right off the bat, S&M2 has a huge advantage over the original show. Load and ReLoad only comprise two songs out of the 20 track listing. While Metallica’s worst album, St. Anger, gets some representation, it is also only contained to a single song. I can understand not caring for the group’s more recent work, but everything after St. Anger is a marked improvement and sounds remarkably fresh being played opposite an orchestra.
Here is the setlist, by the way. It’s a solid selection of winners, even if the pacing is awkward.
- The Ecstasy of Gold (Made famous by the film The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly)
- The Call of Ktulu (Ride The Lightning)
- For Whom The Bell Tolls (Ride The Lightning)
- The Day That Never Comes (Death Magnetic)
- The Memory Remains (ReLoad)
- Confusion (Hardwired)
- Moth Into Flame (Hardwired)
- The Outlaw Torn (Load)
- No Leaf Clover (S&M)
- Halo on Fire (Hardwired)
- Scythian Suite, Op. 20 Second Movement (Classical Piece played by Orchestra)
- Iron Foundry (Classical Piece played with Metallica)
- The Unforgiven III (Death Magnetic)
- All Within My Hands (St. Anger)
- (Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth (Kill Em All)
- Wherever I May Roam (Metallica)
- One (…And Justice For All)
- Master of Puppets (Master of Puppets)
- Nothing Else Matters (Metallica)
- Enter Sandman (Metallica)
As you can see, it’s an incredibly strong list, though the middle sort of drags. I don’t have that much of a problem with Hardwired, the band’s 2017 release, but the songs chosen kind of lack energy. “Confusion” is one of my favorites from the album, but the performance here is indicative of a problem I feel S&M2 suffers from: the orchestra doesn’t have much presence.
While it’s a lot easier to get into the concert and bang your head this time, the orchestra almost comes off like an afterthought. Those musicians are obviously putting their all into it, captured wonderfully by the different cameras stationed around the Chase Center in San Francisco, but something has gone a bit off in the audio mixing. There are moments where you can hear some real thought put into these arrangements (“Day That Never Comes” swaps the beginning guitar lick with horns and violins), but other times the songs mostly play like they would at a standard Metallica concert.
I also have to wonder why those specific songs from Load, ReLoad, and St. Anger were chosen, because they are the lowest points of this whole affair. It could just be my bias against those albums, but “The Outlaw Torn”, in particular, sounds miserable. This song was present in the original S&M concert, but I think the excess of this new event led everyone to okaying Metallica’s crazy ideas to try and play a country song juxtaposed against orchestral sounds. It’s a confusing mish-mash of styles that creates this cacophony of ugliness for roughly 10 minutes.
“All Within My Hands”, as well, brings the momentum screeching to a halt. I suppose St. Anger had to be here, but why select the most boring song from the album? At least right before it, “Unforgiven III” is given this hauntingly beautiful rendition that almost redeems the song. On Death Magnetic, the original composition is probably the weakest track from the album. Here, vocalist James Hetfield sings to the orchestra’s interpretation of the music, which creates a very somber atmosphere that the original only ever hinted at.
For every other moment, though, S&M2 is pretty damn good. A few tracks even get what I’d consider the definitive renditions of them. “One” and “Day That Never Comes”, in particular, have almost thrash-metal like closers that speed up the riffs to extreme degrees and prove Metallica really hasn’t lost its edge. The surprise inclusion of “(Anesthesia)”, performed here by orchestral bassist Scott Pingel, follows a short tribute to the late Cliff Burton and sounds majestic. It’s the highlight of the entire show and worth watching this two hour and 30-minute concert alone.
I wish there was more to comment on with regards to visuals, but this is a pretty standard concert film. It’s obviously better than looking up cellphone recordings from the show floor and the audio mixing makes use of full surround sound. I was surprised at how loud my theater was playing this, too. I could swear I was actually in the arena among the 100,000 or so fans.
The intro montage leading up to the concert is this bizarre pastiche of quick cuts and time lapses, but I guess the film’s editor wanted to have some fun. Everything else is so professionally cut that the guy likely slotted clips into place in Adobe Premiere. At least all of the cameras are in sync, avoiding the problem that some concert movies have with misplaced shots.
There’s not really much else I can say about S&M2. If you’re a fan of the band and liked what they did 20 years ago, you’d be absolutely insane to skip this. It not only does a better job of representing what Metallica has become, but it also has a much stronger setlist than its predecessor. I would have liked to see some more classic songs here, but I really can’t complain too much when there are only really four bad songs out of 20.
So come on! Jump in the fire that is S&M2 and bang your head like there’s no tomorrow. No life till leather, indeed.