Review Summary: An experiment gone right!
By the late 90's, a lot of people weren't happy with the state of Metallica. While they had gained a number of new fans with their 1991 self-titled release (better known as "The Black Album"), they had also lost a number of them, due to the music shifting to a more commercialized style of heavy metal. Things got even worse when the band cut their hair and released the disappointing "Load". While "Load" and it's follow-up "ReLoad" may not hold up as well as the band's first five albums, there are still a number of great tunes on those albums, and as any musician knows, it's important to experiment and try new things or else you'll get bored with what you're doing. So in that respect, I commend Metallica for taking a bold step with "Load" and "ReLoad". But, like I said, the albums still don't hold up as well as their previous albums.
1998 Metallica released the covers album "Garage Inc.". With it, Metallica continued to try new things as well as, in some respect, return to their roots. The band continued to experiment the following year, when they teamed up with composer Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony to orchestrate (no pun intended) what would become "S&M". With it, Metallica combined orchestras with their own music. This wasn't something that hadn't been done before or hasn't been done since. Bands like Deep Purple
have all done albums that combine symphonic elements with rock music; some have worked, some have not. At certain points, "S&M" works, and I mean REALLY works. While at other points... not so much.
For me, the main point of doing an album that combines orchestras and rock music is to add to the pre-existing songs. But in a good way. The orchestral pieces should add to the songs so that they emphasize the emotion and feel of the song, or that they fill in gaps that the songs might contain. For the most past, "S&M" does exactly these things. But what the orchestral pieces shouldn't do is feel unnecessary, out of place, make the song sound crowded, feel that they add nothing or make the song sound too different from its original version. Unfortunately there is evidence of these factors too.
Songs like "Until It Sleeps", "The Call of Ktulu", "For Whom the Bell", "Wherever I May Roam", "The Thing That Should Not Be" (where James Hetfield really seems to be having fun) and "Of Wolf and Man" really benefit from the orchestral elements; adding tension, making the songs sound even more bombastic than they already are, filling in gaps and emphasizing the feel the songs are trying to convey. "For Whom the Bell Tolls", "Until It Sleeps" and "Of Wolf and Man" in particular seem to benefit greatly from the orchestra, and quite possibly surpass the original versions (at least "Of Wolf and Man"). Other songs, such as "Sad but True", also benefit from the orchestra, with the orchestral arrangements changing the feel of the song completely, but in a good way.
But of course there are moments when the added orchestras just don't work. Songs like "Fuel", "Master of Puppets", "Battery", and "Enter Sandman" don't benefit from the orchestra at all; they actually hurt the songs. They make the songs sound crowded, and make the orchestra sound unnecessary. On songs like "One", "Hero of the Day" and "Bleeding Me" the orchestra doesn't really hurt the songs, but they don't really add anything either. There are also two new songs; "Minus Human" and "No Leaf Clover". Both are quite good, "No Leaf Clover" in particular.
In the end, "S&M" was a fun experiment to see how classical music mixes with Metallica. And in my opinion, quite well. Definitely recommended!