Sunday, October 13, 2019

Metallica & San Francisco Symphony: S&M2

20 years after the original collaboration between Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Symphony and Metallica (S&M), in 1999, the band was approached to do it once more for S&M2. Not only would this new concert celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original concert, it would also provide Metallica the opportunity to open San Francisco’s Chase Center. After a back-and-forth collaboration between the two groups over the course of Metallica’s WorldWired Tour, they performed two shows, one on September 6, 2019 and one on September 8, 2019. These performances were then edited together into a 160-minute concert film that was shown theatrically for one night on October 9, 2019. As a longtime Metallica fan, I naturally went out to see the theatrical showing and, fortunately, walked away satisfied.

As S&M2 is a concert film, there’s no plot to speak of, but after an extended ad for Metallica’s nonprofit All Within My Hands Foundation, the film does open with the band and some members of the symphony telling the story of how both collaborations with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra came to be and how this second go-round differs from the original run with Michael Kamen. They felt the process this time was more collaborative, with more input from Metallica on the compositions and selection of songs, specifically wanting to strike a balance between old and new songs.

This effort paid off, as the final result is a pleasing mixture of the metal and orchestral worlds while showcasing Metallica’s output with a number of their most popular songs, along with newer ones that work surprisingly well with a symphony backing them up. There’s a good balance of tempos in the setlist, with slower songs like “The Memory Remains” and “No Leaf Clover” alongside energetic songs such as “Master of Puppets” and “Enter Sandman.” Much like with the original S&M, the orchestra helps breath a new life into each of the songs by embellishing the emotional core of each piece at the right time.

What helps S&M2 stand out from the original, however, is not just the inclusion of new songs like “Confusion” and “Halo on Fire”, but also a certain willingness to experiment more with the concept and try new approaches to existing material. Such experimentation ranges from James Hetfield playing an acoustic rendition of “All Within My Hands” to a cover of “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” performed by the San Francisco Symphony bassist. Where the original S&M put Metallica into the spotlight, S&M2 has more moments where the symphony is given time to shine, including a mostly orchestral version of “The Unforgiven III” and a performance of Sergei Sergeyevich's “Scythian Suite, Op.20 , Second Movement” that excludes Metallica entirely.

The most interesting experiment, however, came with the performance of Alexander Mosolov’s “Iron Foundry”. As explained during the show, the symphony decided to introduce Metallica to the piece to see what they would think of it. To their the surprise, the band not only loved it, but wanted to play it themselves. The result is a unique twist where instead of the symphony backing up Metallica, Metallica backs up the San Francisco Symphony and adds a new dimension to a fittingly futurist piece.

Of course, since this is a film, there is a visual element that can’t be overlooked. As explained before the show, the visuals and staging have a theme of circles. The San Francisco Symphony circles Metallica and the fans circle the stage. As well, the screens suspended above are also in a circular shape. This gives the show a more intimate feel that invites the audience watching it later to feel like a part of the event as the cameras show off the capabilities of the musicians at the best possible angles. You can also tell that the members of Metallica are having fun at times, with moments like Lars and a symphony percussionist banging on each other’s drumsticks to help simulate the gunfire from the opening to “One”.

S&M2 proves not only that Metallica can operate well with an orchestral backing, but also that there is still room to experiment with the concept and tread new ground in both worlds. As a film, the visual element helps with the presentation and gives a distinctly intimate feeling when watching talented artists show off their full capabilities. While I would immediately recommend this to Metallica fans, if a theater filled with fellow fans is anything to go by, I would also suggest that fans of orchestral music give it a try to see how well the combination works.

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