After 1988's ...And Justice for All, Metallica pared down its progressive, heavy metal sound. During the '90s, the band's studio releases grew slicker and more produced, resulting in mostly radio-friendly, good ol' boy metal. By the end of the decade, Metallica was established as the pioneer of modern metal, but the band hadn't done anything innovative, arguably, in ten years. In April 1999, the group performed two concerts with the San Francisco Symphony, and the result was S&M, a two-disc collection of the concerts. Overall, the album successfully pairs violin strings with guitar strings, but it's no surprise that the best tracks here are the older songs; their multi-layered, compositional style works well with symphonic arrangements. "Master of Puppets," "Call of the Ktulu," "One," and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" sound richer and fuller with violin, trumpet, clarinet, harp, trombone, and flute accompaniments, but "Sad but True," "Devil's Dance," and especially "Of Wolf and Man" range from haphazard and melodramatic to uninspired. S&M definitely has its moments, and not just with the pre-Black Album material: "Fuel" surpasses the furious pumping energy of the studio version, "Hero of the Day" stays poignant throughout, and "Until It Sleeps" has a wonderfully sinister feel. James Hetfield maintains his madman persona from beginning to end, laughing maniacally and grunting and growling at all the right moments. Overall, the symphony adds a macabre, ghoulish atmosphere -- it all sounds like a Broadway freak show or a revved-up Danny Elfman nightmare. Which is exactly what a Metallica album should sound like, even if every song isn't the best (or most appropriate) in the band's catalog.
© Gina Boldman /TiVo