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   Metallica Interviews & Articles Guitar World Magazine Aug. 1999


Symphony of Destruction

The rough & tumble men of Metallica plug in and bash musical heads with the elegantly clad San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

It’s only a minute before showtime. As the last of a surging column of Metallica fans pour into Berkeley, California’s Community Theatre to see their heroes take the stage with the San Francisco Symphony, a member of the orchestra throws a devil-hand sign back at the crowd; a sign, however ironic, that the 79-piece orchestra is ready to rock. The crowd still doesn’t know exactly what to expect, even as the symphony begins playing a lush version of Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold,” Metallica’s traditional pre-gig overture.
But when the shadowy figure of James Hetfield becomes visible, followed by those of Kirk, Jason and Lars, and the group commence the fury of “Call of Ktulu,” everyone gets up from their seats, fists are raised, and suddenly it’s almost just another Metallica gig. Except this time, the band’s guitar and drum attack on “Ktulu” is flanked by heavy trombone and trumpet hits, searing violins and chugging cellos. It’s something so out of character for Metallica that it seems downright unreal.
But it’s no fantasy. The concerts, which took place over two nights in late April of this year, took root well over a year ago when film composer Michael Kamen, the creator of the soundtracks to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Brazil and orchestral rock arrangements for Pink Floyd, Aerosmith and Metallica’s own “Nothing Else Matters,” proposed to Metallica that they collaborate on an epic concert with a full symphony orchestra. The idea touched a nerve – evidently an exposed one.
According to Hetfield, “This is what I’ve wanted to do with our stuff for such a long time. In a lot of Eighties metal, you wanted to be grand and sound giant, so this is our chance. It’s always been in my head to create giant pieces of music.” Still, Hetfield concedes that, had someone suggested the idea to him 10 years ago, he would have “rubbed their face in the gutter or threw my beer on them. I would have said, ‘No fucking way, dude.’” Of course, haircuts weren’t on the agenda then either.
Sweetening the deal was the prospect of working with the San Francisco Symphony by all accounts one of the best and most adventurous, symphony orchestras in the country. Kamen describes the Symphony as “a first-class orchestra of the new breed,” and praises musical director Michael Tilson Thomas for having “seen to it that they’re a very modern orchestra. They really love it when they’re playing Mozart or Beethoven, and they loved it when they were playing Metallica.”
“It’s true; we’re not all powdered wigs and tails,” says Jeremy Constant, the Symphony’s first violinist and Concertmaster for the Metallica shows. “The Symphony is committed to doing new stuff, and we put on lots of pop concerts and even have a ‘New and Unusual Music’ series. People tend to have an image of established classical music institutions as very conservative. But in fact, we do look for new collaborations and new ways of presenting things.”
But even Constant admits that the Metallica/Kamen show is hardly a groundbreaking idea. Finnish cello quartet Apocalyptica – who covered Metallica tracks from “Harvester of Sorrow” to “Creeping Death” on their 1996 release Metallica on Four Cellos – and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo – whose new Vivaldi: The Meeting (Thirsty Ear) finds him improvising around classical themes with top shelf virtuosi – have found decidedly fertile ground for experimentation in the cracks between classical music and rock. And of course, rock music has been getting the orchestral treatment for years, whether in George Martin’s grandiose arrangements for the Beatles, Tony Visconti’s killer string scores for Bowie and TRex or Deep Purple’s adventurous, though muchmaligned Concerto for Group and Orchestra, composed by Jon Lord and performed with the Royal Philharmonic in 1971.
But no matter how you slice it, a metal band playing with a symphony has “Spinal Tap” written all over it. That presented no problem for Kamen, though, who has an avowed taste for epic productions.
“Yes I do,” Kamen acknowledges, a few days after the concert. “Which is why I jumped at the opportunity to do it. Metallica are the best, the heaviest, the loudest and the most bombastic heavy metal band you can find, although I don’t really think of them as metal; they’re rock and roll.”
Okay – really big rock and roll. As if the challenge of mounting a concert with the kings of bombast and a 79-piece orchestra wasn’t enough, consider what it means to work in a 44-member film crew and a complete mobile recording studio (for the upcoming Elektra album release and video, scheduled for a holiday season release). “It was an enormous undertaking,” says Constant. “And there were a lot of opportunities for it to not work. It was not a sure thing. There could have been a real culture clash. There could have been huge problems with the scores. There were just many, many opportunities for it to go tits up and not happen at all.”
There weren’t many rehearsals to tighten the titanic ship, either, which included 20 Metallica songs, from chestnuts like “One” and “Master of Puppets” to newer tracks like “The Outlaw Torn” and “Hero of the Day” and brand-new tunes like the Soundgardenish “Minus Human.” Kamen, who worked from Metallica concert tapes, took six months to score the songs. The first rehearsal, says Constant, was only for the front players of each string section (violins, violas, cellos, basses) and the woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons). The intent was to make sure the basic mechanics of the score were right, that everyone had the same number of bars, that there weren’t any glaring misprints. That was followed by three subsequent rehearsals with the full orchestra and band, the last of which was a dry run that included blocking for the cameras and sound.
“I don’t know how many cameras were running around,” says Constant. “You had to remind the cameramen not to run into the violin bows. I had mine hit twice.” During the dress rehearsals, there were many frayed bows onstage, the result of string players playing extra hard because – bottom line – they couldn’t bloody well hear themselves. “The advice Kamen gave us,” Constant explains, “was, ‘Let the microphones do their job.’ That’s all fine and well, but on a fretless instrument like the violin, the way you get around the instrument is guided by your ears. That’s the normal technique, but it wasn’t available to us because of the band’s volume.”
“Look, I didn’t want to do an orchestra sweetening of Metallica,” says Kamen. “My idea was that the orchestra would have every bit as much energy and power as the band. I wanted to keep the players busy, in the same style as the band was playing as fast as Kirk Hammett.” The downside of that intensity was that the sound coming from the stage could be incredibly dense and even confused at times. Metallica’s music doesn’t have a lot of space to begin with, and there were too few moments when the orchestra was allowed to do its thing sans Metallica, though Kamen says the band is looking forward to more sonic trade-offs like that for next time.
“In some ways it was more like a film music experience,” notes Kamen, “because apart from some intros and a couple of middle bits, the orchestra was really in support – sometimes answering, sometimes responding, and sometimes making a statement that the band would seem to respond to. But the orchestra played very fully fleshed arrangements on almost every song. There were a lot of black pages; lots of notes.”
Kamen, explains Jeremy Constant, knew exactly what the orchestra was capable of playing. “And in an effort to show off what the orchestra can do, he wrote very challenging things in almost all of the pieces. Sometimes you sit down and play footballs – whole notes – for two hours, where your biggest challenge is staying awake and keeping in the right spot on the score. But for this concert, the symphony was going at it non-stop the whole time. It was very challenging, technically.”
But was it challenging stylistically? Sure, Constant is dead right when he asserts that “people tend to forget that symphony orchestras can scare the hell out of you.” Anyone who’s ever listened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima or Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna can tell you that. And it’s no accident that most great horror films derive a lot of their eerie power from the orchestra: think of the violin slashes during the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, to name just one example. As able and dramatic as Kamen’s score was, couldn’t he have been a bit more, y’know, outside? What about throwing some modern classical idioms into the mix – say, a taste of brainy Gunther Shuller, or a bit of renegade Elliot Carter perhaps?
“Elliot Carter is not the kind of music I can hum in the shower,” says Kamen unapologetically, “and I’ve played his music before. It’s music that’s not about music; it’s about the composer, and it is not, for me, what music is about. There is a lot of very high-brow, very intellectual music being created for orchestra, some of which is very exciting and interesting, but personally, I think it’s too theoretical, and I’m more interested in music as a result.”
“The vibrancy and energy of rock and roll feeds my appetite for the classical traditions I grew up with,” he explains. “That’s more creative for me than the mind game of experimenting with different intervals and tone colors; that’s all theory and this is about melody and harmony and, most of all, power. That’s what I like.”