A Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony review was written by a band kid.
Full disclosure: I’ve known about Metallica since they were a four-line advert in the back pages of physical rock magazines. My first year of high school Kie C. gave me a mixtape of No Life Til Leather and Kill ‘Em All in the band room. I. Was. Hooked. Master of Puppets was released and I played it non stop. I learned to play the entire album on my flute, by ear. My first Metallica show was in 1986 when they opened for Ozzy. I was front row. That was my place for the next thirty-three years and nine countries consisting of 60 shows. It’s a lifelong love affair.
Metallica’s first foray into live symphonic expression was the S&M shows in 1999 with Michael Kamen. It worked because much of Metallica’s early music is written in F# Phrygian. James Hetfield would routinely drop the D (to D flat) which would give the otherwise classical and Castilian compositions a jazz feel. Thus, if you looked at Metallica compositions as sheet music with vocals included, it resembles classical compositions. Many of Kirk Hammett’s guitar runs and solos are reminiscent of Paganini. The way the songs are written is why Metallica can be covered in varying styles from bluegrass to country to soothing lullabies to 1920s jazz standards. It just works. From the standpoint of music theory and composition, Metallica are gobsmackingly amazing composers.
Missing from Friday night’s show was the obvious Pavlovian conditioned stimulus of ‘Long Way to the Top’ from AC/DC. Instead, the house lights went down and the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas launched into ‘Ecstasy of Gold’. Chills, it gave me! The rising tide of adrenaline and emotion swelled through the newly christened Chase Center and imprinted itself on every beam every rafter every rivet and nut and bolt. The crowd responded with a deafening roar! Hometown boys took the stage and launched into a supremely heavy ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’. Bruce Coughlin’s arrangement was sublime. He and Lars Ulrich have known each other for quite some time. His work on Broadway made him the natural choice to add depth and breadth to Metallica songs.
‘The Day That Never Comes’ was richer and fuller. It was more than just a Metallica song over a symphony arrangement. Symphony and Metallica were integrated and functioned as a single unit. A highlight of the night was the decidedly jazzy Bob Fosse inspired ‘Outlaw Torn’. The creepy factor was on eleven! The song dripped with malice. The basic structure of ‘Outlaw Torn’ wasn’t changed; the symphony parts merely filled in the shadows inside the original. Where the original had negative space in terms of rests and downbeats, the first S&M had the heavy brass section, Friday night with the San Francisco Symphony had a rich earthiness that expanded into the song and exploded. However, such raw power in a venue meant for sport made the sound get muddy near the end of the song as the music diffused out off the rounded stage into the bottom bowl of the audience then traveled up to the rafters and recoiled in on itself. Even with that, ‘Outlaw Torn’ was the best symphony pairing of the first half of the show. ‘No Leaf Clover’, written for symphony, was gobsmackingly amazing. But then it’s one of my favourite Metallica songs, so I can’t think critically about it. But, the hair did stand up on my arms and my eyes teared up.
That wasn’t the case with the entire setlist. ‘Moth To A Flame’ gained nothing. I could barely hear the symphony on that one. ‘Halo on Fire’ also seemed to swallow the symphony whole. Every once in a while the brass section would escape for a few bars or the violin section would screech some sixteenth-note arpeggios.
After a twenty-minute intermission, the Symphony returned to play Prokofiev‘s ‘Scythian Suite’. This was followed by the bombastic ‘Iron Foundry’ by Alexander Mosolov. Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony nailed it! ‘Unforgiven III’ is the reason I came to see Metallica with the Symphony. This song captured the true essence of marrying Metallica music with classical symphony musicians. It was the rawest performance of the night. The perfection of poetry in motion, it was. Go see the movie and buy the recording just for this song, consumer value far outweighs the cost.
‘All Within My Hands’ was definitely another Fosse moment. It was ballsy, blunt, and unrestrained. It was the perfect blend of jazz, Broadway musical, and symphony.
I would have loved seeing Gwen Verdon dancing to this version. It just “popped”. The tempo and structure also had hues of Jerome Robbinson or Tyce Diorio.
The show rounded out with a heavy ‘Wherever I May Roam’, ‘One’ (windswept and expansive), the always perfect ‘Master of Puppets’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’ (maudlin), and ‘Enter Sandman’ (It’s a little stock). All in all the grand opening of the Chase Center in San Francisco with Metallica and Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco was an amazing experience.
WORDS BY VICTORIA ANDERSON