Inside Metallica's Ambitious 'S&M2' Album: 'We Wanted to Take It to Another Level'

Metallica
Brett Murray

Metallica performed with the San Fransisco symphony at Chase Center in September 2019

Since March 27, Metallica has entertained restless fans through the coronavirus pandemic with concerts from its archives every Monday. But come Aug. 28, the band will offer a new escape: Metallica & San Francisco Symphony: S&M2.

It documents last year's shows that the group played with the orchestra on Sept. 6 and 8, and will arrive in 11 different configurations including Blu-Ray, vinyl and packages that contain both audio and video footage of the event.

S&M2 comes 20 years after Metallica’s first concerts with the symphony back in 1999 at the Berkeley Community Theatre, during which they performed 21 songs (a mix of reimagined material plus two new tracks). The shows were the brainchild of late composer-arranger Michael Kamen, who conducted them; the subsequent album, S&M, reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200, while the song “The Call of Ktulu” won a Grammy for best rock instrumental performance.

This time around, the genesis for S&M2 came about when Bay Area-bred Metallica was invited to open San Francisco’s Chase Center, the new home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. As the group considered how to make the event special, drummer Lars Ulrich recalls how “somebody pointed out that it was the 20th anniversary of the first go-around, and slowly, this idea started taking shape of two different musical entities celebrating all things San Francisco.”

In 1999, Metallica’s members were in their 30s, and the symphony was significantly older. An even bigger disparity was their musical styles: The idea of pairing a thrash band with a classical ensemble was unheard of. Now, says Ulrich, “the divisions and the lines in the sand between different genres of music are eroding. They’re not entirely gone, but it’s much more communal and didn’t feel as awkward as it did in ’99. You feel that not just up onstage, but [in] the audience.”

At the band’s request, the orchestra’s music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, filled Kamen’s role in helping bring this project to fruition (Kamen died in London in 2003). “Honoring Michael was always a guiding light as we put things together,” says longtime Metallica affiliate Greg Fidelman, co-producer of the S&M2 album along with Ulrich and guitarist James Hetfield, and mixer of the album and film’s audio. “We wanted to revisit his idea — and take it to another level.”

Fidelman explains that in order to do that, his primary goal was breaking down the “perceived wall between orchestra and rock band, having them interact as one large group of musicians.” He says the stage design was guided by this, giving Metallica “the ability to walk up to the different sections of the orchestra and play with them,” and choosing “to not have any amplifiers or speakers onstage, allowing us to seat SFS musicians very close to the band.”

Still, the band itself had to make adjustments, losing the wiggle room that its loose approach to live repertoire affords: Ulrich says that until this pair of shows last year, the group hadn’t played the same setlist twice in any non-film-related concert in about 20 years. “With the symphony, you have to know your ins and outs, have to rehearse starts and stops, and you can’t all of a sudden extend the guitar solo by four bars or do a different ending or be impulsive,” says Ulrich. “That doesn’t fly.”

During the shows, Fidelman recalls being in the recording truck, “nervously listening, hoping for nothing to go wrong.” But on day two, he stopped worrying. “I remember during the extended singalong after ‘The Memory Remains,’ thinking to myself, ‘This is going to be f’ing great,’ ” he recalls, adding, “These guys are not afraid to challenge themselves. They have more fun when the idea of things falling apart is in the air.”

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