The Nine Lives of Metallica

With Metallica having announced ‘S&M Volume II’ in July 2020, we revisited the first recording from 1999 and it was just about as terrible as we remembered. A second volume of Metallica tunes bolstered by a symphony orchestra isn’t necessarily going to appeal to an audience beyond the die hard fans, but then, it’s those die hards who’ve helped keep the band afloat through good and bad over several decades.

On the eve of a new album that’s bound to split opinion, Real Gone takes a look back at the times Metallica missed the mark.


The band’s fourth album contained some of their finest material to date.  It even marked the first appearance of new bass player Jason Newsted on all-new and original, Metallica-penned material.  Most of the songs were every bit as good as those laid down for the previous couple of albums, but the record was fatally flawed.  The new boy’s contributions were mixed so low, he may as well not have turned up for work.  Any bottom end the album had seemed to come from a distorted farting noise from the rhythm guitars, something especially intrusive when heard on the Sony Walkmans of the era.  Fans have complained about the mix on this LP for decades, but somehow love it anyway. [A later remastered edition was no better.]


Behind the scenes documentaries can be interesting…unless they involve grown men endlessly wittering like thirteen year olds for what seems like an eternity.  Any potential interest in this film is offset by Metallica being genuinely dislikeable, throwing darts at Kip Winger and somehow thinking that phrases like “fucking fucktwat” are funny.  Metallica rival Pantera in the tedium stakes once the cameras start to roll.  Best watched once and then forgotten, this has never had an official UK/US DVD release.


It’s difficult to follow a world beater of an album like 1991’s ‘Metallica’, so Metallica didn’t try. The first in a run of sub par releases, ‘Load’ shows off a band burnt out from touring. Even the best songs sound like dull retreads of riffs the band have played before. ‘Re-Load’, a disc rounding up things that weren’t good enough for ‘Load’, is best avoided altogether. There are probably three half-decent tunes to be salvaged from these complete sessions.


If Metallica sounded uninspired on record by the mid 90s, it became painfully obvious during a two hour headline set at the Reading Fesival in 1997. The new tunes sounded under-rehearsed and the oldest ones were restricted to a badly played medley that Lars just couldn’t handle when it came to needing any real speed. James Hetfield did his best to rouse the crowd and the faithful clearly loved it, but this honestly was a performance to forget – a band in need of a break.


On paper, ‘S&M’ should have been great. Just imagine the power of one of the world’s most popular metal bands augmented by a full symphony orchestra! Sadly, this didn’t become Metallica’s answer to Deep Purple’s ‘Concerto For Group & Orchestra’ where there seemed to be a general respect among the performers, but instead, a massive ego trip. Metallica spend two hours at full bore, desperately trying to drown out a symphony orchestra at almost every turn. Instead of thinking about places where an interesting dialogue could be set up, or a call and response between orchestra and band, Hetfield and company attack everything with the subtle qualities of a woolly mammoth. There’s a moment during ‘One’ where the strings are playing something that should have been powerful, but Kirk Hammett is hammering over the top, with no understanding of the “less is more” concept. There are other times during a painfully long performance where band and orchestra appear to be playing two different arrangements entirely. The only time this collaboration works is during ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, otherwise it’s just horrible.


A contender for the worst sounding metal album ever, this is nasty. The songs are average, the vocals workmanlike and the drum sound is atrocious. Lars Ulrich spends the entire record sounding like he’s bashing a metal biscuit tin. You’ll find plenty of critical words surrounding ‘St. Anger’ elsewhere on the net, so we won’t labour a point here. We’re just glad that such a sonic misfire spawned one of the world’s greatest reviews.


Speaking of “sonic misfires”, here’s one of championship standards. Like ‘…And Justice For All…’, ‘Death Magnetic’ featured some strong material – a case could be made for it being the only genuinely decent set of songs Metallica have released since 1991 – but it was all ruined with a bad end mix. In this case, “the loudness wars”, where the CD version had everything brickwalled into a distorted noise. Some people laughed at the idea that a metal album could be too loud, obviously not understanding the difference between “volume” and “mastering”, but there’s something wrong when you’re faced with an album you almost can’t turn down. In response to any audio criticism, Lars said he’d “played it in [his] car and it sounded fuckin’ smokin‘”, so there. Maybe, just maybe, it would be better if the final word on whether an album sounds good didn’t rely on the ears of someone who had potentially suffered hearing damage caused by decades of touring? Just a thought. [An interesting piece on the album’s mastering can be found here.]


Eyebrows were raised when the metal titans announced they’d be making an album with Lou Reed.  Not so much from Reed’s camp – his fans were used to the man making bizarre career choices, including an album full of feedback and a live record that savagely slagged off the record company.  Metallica’s metal-obsessed fans were decidedly more conservative, in that the most “out there” they’d been with their heroes was a symphonic collaboration and an EP of Motorhead tunes.  ‘Lulu’, while often a collection of strangely misjudged and tuneless dirges, was actually an interesting experiment…but ultimately it was a record that neither fan base genuinely liked.  Savaged by critics and fans, it would have been the kind of thing that would kill some careers… [A full review of ‘Lulu’ can be found here.]


Seemingly indestructible, Metallica survived the ordeal of ‘Lulu’ and any subsequent humiliation associated with it. They’ve survived St. Anger’. They’ve survived being among the worst offenders of the loudness wars and – most impressively – they’ve survived years of being themselves, of being unable to resist gurning for cameras and years of looking silly compared to some of their supposedly less popular peers.

If, like the proverbial cat, they are blessed with nine lives, ‘S&M Volume II’ might use up that very last one…but only time will tell.