Metallica on What They Have in Common With Classical Music: ‘It’s All an Attitude’
It’s the day after Metallica played a stunning concert with the San Francisco Symphony at the city’s enormous new Chase Center, and guitarist Kirk Hammett is letting his hair down in a tank top at his favorite restaurant in Sonoma, California. He’s here for a photo shoot for an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone, but at the moment he’s reviewing video of last night’s rendition of “Nothing Else Matters,” which features a newly souped-up orchestral intro. The sight of it — or maybe the sound of it — brings an ear-to-ear smile to his face.
The gig, dubbed “S&M2,” was a supersized sequel to the metal militia’s first collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony in 1999, when it was led by conductor Michael Kamen and cheekily called “S&M” for “Symphony & Metallica.” The latest installment featured smartly textured, cinematic renditions of deep cuts that already sound grandly orchestral, like the instrumental “The Call of Ktulu” and the crushing “Master of Puppets,” as well as daring arrangements of big, pummeling hits like “Enter Sandman” and “Wherever I May Roam,” which sounded like a cousin of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” in all its Middle Eastern–tinged majesty. Although the original S&M was released on CD and home video, its sequel, which featured Metallica playing in and around 76 members of the symphony led by music director Michael Tilson Thomas and conductor Edwin Outwater, will first be shown in cinemas around the world October 9th and again on October 13th for everyone who wasn’t able to make it to the two concerts.
The ballad “Nothing Else Matters” was a no brainer for the shows, since Kamen, who died of a heart attack in 2003, had done the original string arrangement for the version on the Black Album. But at the Chase Center, they performed an even more intricate arrangement of the hit ballad. When Hammett led the orchestra into its jangly intro, the string section swelled up and shimmered around the chords, giving the track new harmonic depth that played off Hammett’s solo, inspiring the 18,000 fans there to hold up their phone’s flashlights like cigarette lighters.
As Hammett watches the performance on a friend’s phone, he’s transfixed. Even though he played an S&M show two decades earlier, he’s still amazed by what an orchestra can contribute to Metallica’s sound. “It’s like getting another limb or something,” he says later, still beaming. “You thought you brought a song to the maximum in the studio, as far as bigness and presentation — it’s as big and as good as you’re going to get it — but then you bring that orchestra in, and you find out there’s room for a lot more to happen. It’s incredible to hear.”
Throughout the program, the Symphony expands on Metallica’s sound by filling in for Marianne Faithfull’s bleating melody on “The Memory Remains,” adding extra shadows to an acoustic take on the otherwise crushing “All Within My Hands,” and totally replacing Metallica, other than James Hetfield who sang solo, on “The Unforgiven III.” Some of the percussion players even hammered on real anvils and thunder sheets.
The orchestra also collaborated closely with the band on innovative arrangements of “One” — which featured drummer Lars Ulrich performing percussion alongside the Symphony members in place of the recording of gunfire that usually heralds the track — and on an intense tribute to Metallica’s late bassist, Cliff Burton, as the Symphony’s principal bass player, Scott Pingel, played an interpretation of Burton’s “(Anesthesia)-Pulling Teeth” solo on an electric, upright bass with guitar stompboxes and Ulrich playing with him. And in an impressive feat, the two ensembles joined together for an intense rendition of an avant-garde piece by “futurist” conductor Alexander Mosolov with the extra heavy-metal title of “Iron Foundry.” The Symphony even opens the show with a live rendition of Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold,” which the band typically pipes in before their concerts after some AC/DC. “It’s always cool to hear that,” Ulrich says the day of the second show. “I was thinking, could they do a live version of ‘Long Way to the Top’?”
Throughout the night, the pairing of Metallica and the Symphony was well measured, with each ensemble complementing the other in more sophisticated ways than the original S&M. It was a defiant show of strength for the two ensembles, since fans of classical music had been questioning online why the Symphony would stoop to the dregs of heavy metal and headbangers wondered why Metallica would want to do anything so frilly. At the concerts though, the audiences — which admittedly skewed more toward fans of Metallica than Mahler (“San Francisco looks like a Metallica convention this weekend,” Ulrich says) — suspended their disbelief and allowed themselves to appreciate something new and different.
“The dimension of classical music is enormous, and most people are not aware of that,” says Thomas, or “MTT” as he’s known to Symphony fans. It’s the day before the second show and he’s just strolled into the arena, dressed all in blue, including his glasses frames, clutching a conductor’s baton. We settle into some seats in front of the string section, which is still running lines, and he explains the intersection between orchestral music and heavy rock as he sees it.
“People maybe think, ‘Oh, well, it sort of begins with Bach and then goes through Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky maybe,’ but of course that’s such a slice of it,” he says. “Classical music is an unbroken tradition that’s 1,200 years old, and in the course of those 1,200 years, it has addressed every human emotion, and social and political situation — from the most comforting to the most confrontational.
“Some of the pieces we’re doing in the second half of the show, these are pieces that come from the Soviet period, when there was such interest in ‘primitivism’ and ‘futurism’ and many of these pieces contain a lot of the elements that are involved in what Metallica does,” he continues. “It’s been great fun introducing that material to them, and they’re enjoying it and wanting to play along with it.”
Photograph by Kory Grow
The members of Metallica have been enjoying the challenge of playing classical music. A few hours before the second show, Ulrich already seems wired as he tries to relax in a room deep in the recesses of the arena. He’s barefoot and he already has tape on his fingers, as he drinks a tea and gets into his performance headspace. He, too, sees a connection between his way of playing music and orchestral music.
“Cliff was definitely the gateway to a lot of that classical stuff,” he says. “When he started talking about classical music in ’83, ’84, James and I weren’t — or at least maybe I, I don’t want to speak for James — we weren’t maybe ready to sort of receive that stuff, but slowly his persistence got things like classical music or Simon and Garfunkel, on our radar. It took a little longer for us to open up.
“But I now see an intersection between some of the darker, more dissonant, and more minor stuff we play,” he continues. “MTT sometimes calls up and says, ‘You gotta check out this performance,’ and he’ll invite me to some stuff like Mahler or Bach or pieces on the darker side. I appreciate a lot of the orchestral stuff but, over the last 20 years, I’ve figured out how to navigate toward the stuff I’m leaning more towards.”
Hammett has especially been enjoying digging into the Mosolov collaboration MTT brought to the band. In fact, he has a theory about classical composers and what he has in common with them. “I suspect that a lot of these composers were looking for something like heavy metal, and it just didn’t exist,” he says. “If they had the ways and the means, they probably would have been heavy-metal artists. If you listen to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from beginning to end, that’s like a heavy-metal freaking opera to me. A song like ‘Gates of Kiev’ is so huge. If that guy were around today, it would be huge power chords and thunderous fucking drums. I totally see a similarity between heavy metal and classical music; it’s all an attitude.”
Edwin Outwater, who conducts most of the program, also sees parallels between classical composers and Metallica’s music — even the group’s whiplash-inducing, speed-demon thrashers. “There are moments in music like Bartók or Shostakovich, where the music is lightning-fast and hyper-aggressive — there’s even a visceral and fast energy to some of Beethoven’s music,” he says. He’s seated in the “Food Room” backstage (according to a sign in one of Metallica’s fonts outside the door) where a steak awaits one of the musicians. It’s an hour or so before the concert, and he’s dressed casually in a T-shirt, which looks pretty different from the sparkly black button-up he’ll wear later.
“Beethoven’s music is hard-edged,” he says. “You hear it in the symphonies. There’s banging. It becomes super brutal at times. Beethoven still feels brutal to me. His music hasn’t lost its edge after hundreds of years. Shotakovich might be a good one, too, because he’s writing about oppression and there’s a darkness, and then there’s an anger that’s focused into this aggressive orchestra music.”
Perhaps the biggest proof of the strong connection between Metallica and the Symphony’s standard fair, though, are the bon mots Ulrich has been hearing from the orchestra’s musicians. When he arrived at the rehearsals, he felt anxious about blending in with formally trained players. But before long, he had Symphony members telling him they’d seen Metallica in Des Moines in 1997 or Pittsburgh when they were a teenager. It was eye opening.
“I’m just like, ‘fuck,’” he says. “It’s kind of crazy because I think your initial instinct when you’re around people of this caliber is to be just crazily intimidated. And then, a couple of icebreakers later, hearing about what role we’ve had in helping shape some of these guys’ musical journeys is kind of crazy. And I don’t even know what to do with any of that stuff. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ We like to err on the self-deprecating side and try to understand that obviously we have something that connects with people, but we wouldn’t classify ourselves in the higher echelons of musicians at the level that we’re collaborating with. But when you understand Metallica’s role in some of the musicians’ journeys, that’s obviously endearing and it kind of helps make you feel better about yourself.”
One Symphony member who grew up with Metallica’s music was principal bass player Scott Pingel. He started playing electric bass at age 15, two years before going classical, and drew inspiration from Cliff Burton. Before the second gig, he’s seated on a stool looking at the stage, rehearsing his show-stopping rendition of “Anesthesia” on a special electric, upright bass he purchased just for these shows. MTT had asked Pingel if he had any ideas of ways to show off the Symphony at the shows, and it occurred to him that he could pay homage to Burton — and once again highlight the connective tissue between metal and classical music — with a solo.
“Kirk Hammett was telling me that Cliff was really into Bach,” Pingel says. “And I said to him, ‘I knew it.’ I could tell because when I was writing an intro for my piece, I kept hearing Bach’s ‘Sarabandes.’”
His instincts paid off, since the bass solo ended up being one of the evening’s show-stopping standouts. Ulrich, who played drums on the original, was so impressed by it that he agreed to play drums with Pingel, marking only the second time since Burton’s death that he played the tune. When I tell Pingel that fact, he clams up a little and says, “I did not know that. Now I’m starting to feel nervous.” If he was anxious by showtime, though, it didn’t come across.
Another standout from the performance is “Unforgiven III,” which finds Hetfield all alone for once, accompanied by only the orchestra. The singer, who checked into rehab shortly after the S&M2 concerts, didn’t even hold a guitar. “I was out in the audience when he did that,” Ulrich says, “and it sounded great.” For the song, composer Bruce Coughlin worked up a new chart that incorporated every element of the track with new depth. “In the instrumentation, they did my guitar solo, which is a freaking hard guitar solo for me to play but they fucking nailed it,” Hammett enthuses.
Outwater was especially impressed by how it came together. “That piece went through the most changes because Metallica was on tour in Europe, Bruce was in New York, I was in Chicago, and Greg [Fidelman, audio engineer] was in L.A.,” he says. “So [the arrangement] was done over the phone, over the internet. I think ‘Unforgiven III’ went through eight versions until we got to the one that James was very happy with. The band was quite involved in making sure they felt good about the music.”
For Hammett, getting the collaboration right was especially important since it gave him the opportunity to learn and experience something new. “Being a huge classical fan and being able to take advantage of playing big, fat power chords alongside fucking woodwinds and string sections and horns is like a dream come true for me,” Hammett says.
The collaboration has also been meaningful for Ulrich, who appreciates all the changes between S&M and S&M2. “Obviously we knew this was gonna be different than it was 20 years ago,” he says. “There are different energies, different people. And I think also more importantly, Metallica is a much more collaborative, or open-minded to a real collaboration. If I went back and read the interviews of what was coming out of my motormouth in 1999, I think I was more like, ‘We’re Metallica. This is what Metallica does. If Michael Kamen wants to write a bunch of score on top of what we do, then that’s fine. But we’re not gonna alter what we do.’ So this feels much more like Metallica and the symphony together, and it’s collaborative with a give-and-take.”
In one way, though, the song has remained the same for a Metallica concert — and it’s something the symphony members have learned to appreciate. “The thing we absolutely can’t imagine in classical music is the response from the audience,” MTT says. “Before the song even begins, we’re experiencing what we would normally think of as a standing ovation. It’s just huge. We’ve had to learn that 19,000 people screaming at the top of their lungs can produce a whole other level of sound you have to work your way through.”
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