This week it’s time to dust off an all-time metal classic. One of heavy metal’s most important bands and one of their most significant albums. I haven’t had the occasion yet to discuss Metallica besides in passing mention, now it’s time for my first exploration into a band who will certainly be discussed here more in the future.
Metallica – Ride The Lightning
Released July 27, 1984 via Megaforce Records
My Favorite Tracks – For Whom The Bell Tolls, Creeping Death, Fade To Black
The album had an immediate impact on the market, selling out of its original pressing in a few months and forcing the band’s move to a major label as they outgrew underground infrastructure. As Metallica entered a supernova period of growth, they gave rise to a heaver version of metal than what was being favored by radio and MTV.
But even as Metallica brought forth the ferocity that would be a hallmark of heavy metal to come, they also displayed a refined songwriting approach that would serve them in the future as they went from being one of metal’s biggest bands to the biggest band in the world. Their musical evolution would being on Ride The Lightning.
Books could, and likely have, been written about this record. I’ll not bother with too much exposition, instead I’ll go in to the 8 songs on Ride The Lightning track-by-track and get under the hood of one of metal’s greatest albums.
Fight Fire With Fire
The album opens with a short, melodic intro that belies the sheer force to come. Fight Fire With Fire is the song that connects this record to Metallica’s savage debut Kill ‘Em All. It is pummeling and unrelenting throughout its 4:44 runtime. This misanthropic plea for nuclear annihilation sets an image and tone that would be ever-present in the oft-pessimistic world of metal.
Ride The Lightning
The title track marks one of two writing contributions from former guitarist Dave Mustaine, he of subsequent Megadeth fame. The song chugs along to the lament of a convicted killer being executed by electrocution. (Shocking, I know). The track flies along in a precise, militant manner while James Hetfield executes some of his best early vocal work in the higher register, his screaming sounding like the pleading of a condemned man.
For Whom The Bell Tolls
It’s time now for one of Metallica’s most iconic and beloved songs. For Whom The Bell Tolls is a long-celebrated staple of the band’s live set and is always in the conversation when discussing the band’s best songs. The song was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the same name and depicts a particularly brutal sequence where a group of 5 soldiers die in an airstrike after capturing a hill.
Everything about this song is pure magic – Cliff Burton’s effect-drenched bass intro, the lyrics, the frenetic music. It all just works on a level few bands ever achieve.
I did read Hemingway’s book after hearing Metallica’s song. Hey, at least I like the song.
Fade To Black
Perhaps the most unique track on the album, Metallica have a go at a power ballad. For a band that had so heavily thrown the gauntlet into thrash metal, a subgenre they were helping invent, Fade To Black marks the first sign that more than savage heavy metal was to come from the group.
This song, like the preceding track, fires on all cylinders. The guitar work is gorgeous and perfectly suited to the morose subject matter. James Hetfield delivers haunting vocals that portray someone giving up on life. While such is common lyrical fare in metal music, very few acts execute it on this level.
Trapped Under Ice
Now for the first of two songs that are, at best, considered less than their fellows on Ride The Lightning. Trapped Under Ice is a perfectly fine thrasher that doesn’t break new ground or anything, but also isn’t a total stinker. It fits fine on the record, it’s sufficiently thrashy and I don’t feel it should be as maligned as it sometimes is. It might stick out a bit on an album with at least 3 of the band’s best-ever works, but in the end only a few songs can be the greatest. Not everything has to be best ever or worst ever, there’s plenty of room in the middle, and Trapped Under Ice fits just fine there.
The second, and the truest version of, what the hell were they thinking? Escape was apparently an attempt at a radio single that was apparently forced on them by the record label. James Hetfield supposedly hates the song, an opinion shared by a lot of Metallica fans. This song is the runt of the litter on the album, whereas the records before and after this tend to lack for a lesser track.
I honestly have no real problem with Escape. It’s still heavy enough, it has some attitude, and I never feel the need to skip it when I play the album. I’m used to it and I’m not that offended by it. No, it’s not great and it does ding the record, but it’s not that big of a deal in the end. It didn’t become a single and the 3 songs that needed to be singles did, so no harm no foul.
It’s back to business in full for Metallica on the last vocal track of the record. Creeping Death is an epic headbanger about the biblical story of plagues in Egypt. This is thrash at its finest as the band shreds through verse and chorus in true Old Testament style (not to be confused with Testament the band).
The song’s mid section offers a breakdown that translates to one of music’s iconic live moments, with thousands of people screaming “Die!” along with the band. Sunday school at church was never as badass as Metallica.
The Call Of Ktulu
The record closes with a great instrumental piece that fits with the album musically and provides an interesting listen, something that some instrumentals find hard to do. The song would mark the end of leftover Dave Mustaine riffs for Metallica, something I’m sure they were happy to move on from just as Mustaine was about to start his own legacy.
Ride The Lightning is one of heavy metal’s all-time classic albums. It bridged a few gaps between their raw beginning and the polished sound to come, but also offered its own weight in thrash metal gold. Metallica would go on to become a massive band in the 80’s without the benefit of radio play, an effort owing to the force of their music.
It’s long been argued that some old-school die hards have a problem with recognizing anything beyond Metallica’s first four albums. Plenty of those arguments can be had another time but, for the sake of the albums themselves, just listen to them and then ask yourself why people wouldn’t be hung up on them. They are high points of heavy metal and lie on the summit of the genre.