In the annals of the history of popular music, most second albums play the ugly step child. The songs that embody the record often do not fit with the rest of the artists catalog in retrospect. Bands demo through dozens of songs for their debut and when it comes time to do their second album, they either have the mediocre leftovers or sprint through writing songs and not allowing them to exhale and cultivate. But with Metallica, they managed to create a work that in many ways isn't so much superior to their raucous debut, Kill 'Em All, but a titanic leap forward musically and lyrically. Their debut was a speed demon of a masterpiece, high on testosterone and vitriolic muscle tone whereas Ride The Lightning houses songs equally reverberating, but instead of youthful exuberance, it shows a mature side concealed in thrash metal up to that point. Metallica was one of two bands whom I immediately bought their entire catalog when I bought a CD player in 1989. Imports, singles, rare out of print items, I bought them all. However, the one album I almost never listened to was Ride the Lightning. For some odd reason I can never quite explain, I deemed the record a disappointment. Was I on drugs? No. I simply have no excuse for explaining why I didn't feel this album was up to par with their other four records at that time, I just didn't listen to it closely enough. Over time I found myself returning to this record, discovering new mysteries and songs finding their way inside of me. There's a ferocious metal side to the record and an equally composed yet superbly solemn and stunning side as well. The two worlds of this record make it astonishing. Still, over the years, I've always leaned heavily on Master of Puppets as their magnum opus with nothing else coming close, until this year.
As I stood in the hallway of the Allstate Arena (aka Rosemont Horizon) outside of Chicago last winter, I found myself talking with Tom Trakas, editor in chief of Midwest Metal and the None But My Own Blog (http://deathstar330.blogspot.com/). Tom and I met a few years back at a book signing in Chicago for Lonn Friend's Life on Planet Rock which I worked with Lonn for 3 years on. Even though our musical tastes are at times on opposite sides of the spectrum, we always love picking one another's brains for insight and the possibility to look at something in a new light. The topic turned to best Metallica album and Tom gave me his argument for Ride the Lightning and at first I was surprised. As it sunk it, it made complete sense. Tom has always been an enormous Cliff Burton fan, as displayed by the shirt he was wearing, and this album has many shining moments displaying Burton's miraculous talents. That night I went home and begun listening to this record with fresh ears once again due to that conversation. The second time this year that I begun a deep dive into this record was when I completed Joel McIver's new book To Live Is to Die: The Life and Death of Metallica's Cliff Burton. McIver's book brought to the forefront as to why there was such a substantial augmentation between these two records; Cliff Burton. By the time Burton joined Metallica, the greater part of songs for the debut had been written, but it didn't stop Burton from contributing "Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)", a turn-on-your-head bass solo that redefined the instrument in ways no one ever deemed imaginable. By the time the band came to write their second record, Burton's influence was sinking in. Burton came with formal musical training and a profound knowledge of song structures and melody. Having studied classical music, he had a deeper breadth of knowledge of the history of music than anyone else in the band, and they knew it. Even though he was a quiet personality the rest of the band elevated their games when he became a member and after a year of constant touring they were ready to take on the world.
Ride The Lightning is the sound of a band that was fully confident in their craft. Even the often deemed throwaway "Escape" has bite. This was the first collection of songs that largely evolved between the Hetfield, Ulrich, Burton and Hammett. While Dave Mustaine still receives a writing credit on the title track, this was the first true band effort from Metallica's original line-up. The album's opening track "Fight Fire With Fire" begins with the sound of acoustic guitars (and some bass deeper in the mix), a far cry from the howling "Hit The Lights" pronouncement of Kill 'Em All but the song quickly dissolves into a rapid-fire scorcher more devastating than anything on Kill. At the time, the mere inclusion of an acoustic was enough to make the metal community think the band has gone soft, but they did anything but. Particularly interesting are the wailing orchestral solos provided by Kirk Hammett adding a texture to the band that would be mimicked time and time again.
On the title track, it opens with a call-to-arms melody forged with the most glacial rhythm guitar riffs imaginable. This was one of two songs to make the record that Dave Mustaine had worked on when he was still in the band. "Trapped Under Ice" is as merciless as the title as features an uncommonly rapturous guitar solo right past the thirty-second mark. "Escape" has never been performed because it was the one track the band attempted to record for airplay and when it was over, it didn't sit well with them and as a result it's largely forgotten but even amidst seven other stone cold classics, it still feels fresh, dangerous and at the forefront of metal. The album's closer, an instrumental, "The Call of Ktulu" is the sound of Beethoven two centuries onward in the band's most complex and rewarding composition yet. If Beethoven was alive in the 1980's and had a love for thrash metal, this is what it would have sounded like.
The album's two truly classic tracks, "For Whom The Bell Tolls" and "Creeping Death" showcase a band not just attempting to out-distort their contemporaries but who could ever so gently wrap melodies around these impenetrable thundering walls of music. The former doesn't even feature vocals for the first two-minutes and a Cliff Burton bass solo that sounded like a guitar solo. Metal fan or not, in 1984, nothing else sounded like this. Great art doesn't come easy and there's no formula to follow. The key to being truly innovative is to take chances and throw yourself out there to be chastised. This happened with more orchestral arrangements, an acoustic guitar opening and even dare I say it, a ballad, "Fade To Black". Granted, "Fade" is unlike any other ballad you have ever heard, but still, to the thrash metal hard core, it was viewed as a sell-out. Lyrically the band took a step forward as well. Digging beneath the destruction and death vehicle, "Fade To Black", while ultimately tragic was a song that that fans to this day wrap themselves up in. This is one of those songs that people put the headphones on in their bedroom, they grab their vinyl, stare at it and somehow they hope that the circular disc can make sense of their inner tribulations. Instead of focusing on darker themes, they managed to create epics that wouldn't just let you bang your worries away, but you could also crawl inside of to find shelter.
Thrash was still in its infancy here, yet on Ride the Lightning Metallica sound like masters of their domain. There's no scent of a sophomore album slump anywhere to be found and to this day, many feel Lightning is their preeminent record, even surpassing the monumental Master of Puppets released in March of 1986. The fact that four men barely old enough to drink legally created such a weighty masterpiece that wasn't just reflective but a leap forward musically for an entire genre of music is something to be in awe of. I may have foolishly not acknowledged this album's greatness initially, but I'm on board now. To this day, Ride the Lightning didn't just transform Metallica into the band they eventually became, it helped take heavy metal in a direction I'm not sure if anyone every deemed possible. It provided a road map of possibilities for an entire generation of metal music fans allowing the genre to become something more than a fly by night fluke; they helped metal become art. One listen to the record and you can hear the world spinning on its axis. Illustrious music evolves from artists who don't play by the numbers. Metallica didn't just spin the metal world on their heads, they showed us that heavy metal could be something more than anyone ever imagined. They could have done the easy thing and followed trends but instead, they created them and that is why thirty years onward, they are still the biggest, baddest and best metal band on the planet.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
Metallica's 'Ride the Lightning' Turns 30
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