One word that often comes to mind when describing Metallica is "ambitious."
Beginning with Kill 'Em All, each Metallica album until And Justice For All (which I'll call the end of Phase I) has been groundbreaking in its own way. Kill 'Em All reinvented hard rock; the follow-up, Ride the Lightning, introduced classical textures and a ballad, "Fade to Black" (unthinkable for a thrash metal band at that time).
Metallica's third release, Master of Puppets, stands, perhaps, as the band's career-defining record. Finally, don't forget And Justice For All, which made the band a household name in the United States courtesy of the song "One" and its grim video.
Then, just when you thought the band couldn't top itself, Metallica released its self-titled "black" album. Working for the first time with a commercially viable producer, Bob Rock, was a sound decision as the album and accompanying three-year tour turned the band into the biggest rock act of the '90s. Cue end of Phase II.
Each subsequent record, including Load and Re-Load, has been a consistently solid outing.
Now comes what appears to be (at least on the surface) the band's most ambitious undertaking yet — a collaborative effort with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Kamen. Kamen, no stranger to the rock-symphony marriage, has also tried this with Aerosmith, Pink Floyd and a host of others. In some respects, some of the material on S&M works in this context. The older songs, such as "The Call of Ktulu," "Battery" and "The Thing That Should Not Be," sound strong. However, the band's newer material simply doesn't work; it's too cluttered and busy. Metallica's guitar attack on "Fuel" and "The Memory Remains" is lost amid the mishmash of strings and tympanis. As an experiment, the band proved its point. But in terms of artistry, S&M is an uneven, confusing record (I wouldn't be surprised if the band planned it that way).
Metallica has delivered many recordings — all good, some better than others. And alongside Led Zeppelin, Metallica remains the most consistent proponent of a genre that critics have always been quick to dismiss.
Stay tuned for Phase IV.