65. Metallica - For Whom The Bell Tolls

This song is another instance where I'm putting a specific version of the song on my list, not simply the album version. I love hearing different versions of a song that a band does. Live versions, remix versions, even covers done by other bands. But in this case, I'm not putting the version from Ride the Lightning on my list. Don't get me wrong, the album version of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is really good, but I don't think it would make my list without the brilliance of adding the orchestra. The specific version of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" that I'm talking about is the one that Metallica recorded for their 1999 album S & M.

Here's where the hardcore Metallica fans start screaming, swearing at their computer screens and thinking about transforming themselves via some sort of Matrix move into energy so that they can travel through the internet and jump out of my computer screen just so they could pummel my lame ass. "Nooooooo!" they're screaming. I can hear it, I swear. Okay, maybe not enough people are actually reading this for that to happen. And I'm pretty sure of the ones who are reading this, there aren't any really hardcore Metallica fans, so I guess I'm safe. But I know the argument: "S & M is where Metallica officially jumped the shark and entered Spinal Tap territory. Are you serious about playing with an orchestra? What the hell's hardcore about a goddamn viola? And don't even get me started on a motherf'in timpani! First they cut their hair and now this? Cliff Burton is rolling in his grave hearing this sh*t. Binge and purge this crap! Metallica has just become lamer than my dad! And he likes Neil Sedaka!"

Before I debunk the above argument, let me tell you about this great song. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" comes off of Metallica's second album, Ride the Lightning. It's the record where the band tried to add more melody and musical diversity to their songs, instead of just playing as fast as they could and having lead singer James Hetfield just scream the lyrics. It's a song based on Ernest Hemmingway's seminal book of the same name, set during the Spanish Civil War of the late 30's. The lyrics are about the horrors of war and the notion of dealing with the certainty of death, a death that you see coming up the hillside. How do you handle those last few thoughts? Musically, it was a serious step forward for the band. The intro guitar chromatic progression isn't actually a guitar at all, but bassist Cliff Burton's bass run through a wah-wah effects pedal with some serious distortion on top of it. Okay, I'll get back to the song in a minute, but I've got to get back to the whole orchestra thing.

For those slamming on the idea of performing metal songs with an orchestra, consider this: the entire idea of rock & roll and especially heavy metal is to be contradictory and do what you want to do. It's to rage against the establishment and do something revolutionary. (This is all in theory, of course, because there's not much revolutionary about the career arc of Nickelback) So the idea of doing something as seemingly absurd as playing thrash/metal music with the backing of a clarinet is exactly what metal's all about. It's like when U2 did their album Pop, which was heavily influenced by the techno music scene. A lot of people thought it was too much of a departure for them and it was ridiculous. But Metallica, like U2, at least had the balls to try. And in my opinion, with S&M, they succeeded. And for those of you thinking Cliff would've vomited had he heard the idea? The idea actually was Cliff's. Cliff Burton was a huge classical music buff, and he thought it would be amazing to do metal with an epic orchestral background. So the idea of S&M started fifteen years before in the mind of their hardcore bassist who tragically died in a tour bus accident in 1986. It's a tribute album to Cliff. So suck it, haters. I set you up with the Cliff quote above.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Michael Kamen, film composer of many notable films, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, put the orchestration together and it really works. Hearing the string section really pump up the opening, it strikes me how much cooler the song sounds with the added orchestration. True, I'm a fan of musical complexity, but not just for complexity's sake. Everything that Kamen did adds to the overall epic feel of the song, rather than just add superfluous layers of "stuff" just because you can. The wail of the french horn at 1:17 in really punctuates what the orchestra could add to the song. When I heard about this project, I thought that the brass and percussion sections would dominate, a la Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," because of the sheer volume of those two sections, but there's much more of a symphonic balance in the entire performance.

It's hard to believe that an orchestra could make a badass song even more badass, but that's what happens here. And the band realized that they just needed to play the song the way they usually do, just let the orchestra add to the overall sonic richness. If you listen to both the album version and the S & M live version, you'll hear that James Hetfield's voice is much richer than it used to be, with a fuller vocal timber to it. It seems as if screaming Metallica songs for all those years has done good things to his voice. Watching the YouTube video, it looks like drummer Lars Ulrich may not be working as hard as you'd think a metal drummer would, until you realize that you can't see his feet doing some amazing double bass drum work. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett plays flawlessly, as if he may have been born with a guitar in the crib. Cliff Burton's replacement, bassist Jason Newsted does a great job of playing the great bass riff at the beginning of the song and adding that great lower end sound that most metal songs have.

Lyrics about war are common in metal music, but the complexity of Hetfield's words show that Metallica was going for something more than just the aggression of war matching the aggression of metal music. The following lines are some great imagery of what a soldier faces in his last moments before he falls to the enemy:

Take a look to the sky just before you die, it's the last time you will
Blackened roar, massive roar fills the crumbling sky,
Shattered goal fills the soul with a ruthless cry

It's the knowledge that your death is imminent and that even though you've paid the highest price a soldier can pay, your sacrifice is in the shadow of a failed mission. Hetfield does such a good job of putting complete images into your brain that work so well with the frantic, pulsing pace of the music. There's lots of confusion in war, lots of noise, and that's echoed in the pace of Metallica's playing. Even the string section plays with a harried abandon that you almost never hear in an orchestral setting.

Overall, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and this orchestral version in particular, is a glowing example of why metal music didn't die the death of disco, but became an enduring style of music that may not be for everybody, but it could be. So even if Metallica isn't your cup of tea (or bottle of beer, if you were to ask the band), click on the video below and give it a good listen. You may not be converted, but you also may just appreciate the talent that Metallica brings, just in a different package.

(Again, not really a fun fact, but an argument on behalf of the literary genius of the heavy metal music world (okay, genius may be too strong a word, but I'm all riled up). Say what you want about metal, but the lyrics of metal bands are some of the most literarily sophisticated ones that you'll find, taking inspiration from classics throughout the ages and bringing those classics to new minds. There's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," of course, but there's also Metallica's "One," an amazing lyrical journey through a soldier being wounded in battle and losing his arms, legs, sight, hearing and voice (heavily influenced by Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun). Iron Maiden's "The Trooper" is inspired by Alfred Lloyd Tennison's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," while they take Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and make it a musical opus. Queensryche released the lyrically complex concept album "Operation Mindcrime" and the politically scathing "Empire." Rush probably started it all with their own concept album, 1976's 2112. I could go on (and probably have done so more than you'd like), but I think I've made my point. So before you denigrate heavy metal music as loud screaming on top of loud music that doesn't mean anything, realize that there's much more below the superficial layer that makes you whine to your friends that metal isn't really music at all. It may not be your musical genre of choice, but metal may just be inspiring young metalheads to read classics from all over the spectrum of literary history. Sure, you've got your Beavis and Buttheads, but true metal fans can appreciate the depth of their music of choice. You should at least concede that point, don't you think?)

Well, okay, I guess I need to also concede the point that the vapid shallowness of AC/DC's "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" and Kiss' "Rock 'N' Roll All Nite" is legendary. They want to rock and roll all night, and party every day. But both of these will always fall in the head-to-head battle of the ridiculous to the penultimate magnum opus of stupidity, "Space Cowboy" by N'Sync.

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