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35 Years Ago, Metallica Took a Quantum Leap on Ride the Lightning

on July 27, 2019, 9:59am

The first four Metallica albums are among the genre’s most powerful and enduring documents, and while the band’s debut LP, Kill ‘Em All, was a landmark for thrash metal, Ride the Lightning presented a quantum leap in terms of songwriting and structure.

Kill ‘Em All leaned heavily on elements of boogie beats nabbed from ’70s Judas Priest and the heavy swung feel to fast-paced riffs that Dave Mustaine would eventually take with him to Megadeth, but Ride the Lightning, released July 27th, 1984, almost wholly struck the swung-boogie vibe from its mostly slower-paced riffs, focusing instead on a near neo-classical sense of grandeur plucked more from the pages of groups like Rush, Rainbow, Blue Öyster Cult and even Priest’s more grandiloquent epics than bands like Sweet or even the more rock ‘n’ roll end of hardcore punk, a genre whom the members of the band were vocal fans.

This change would be inexplicable if not for Kill ‘Em All songs like “Four Horsemen”, “No Remorse”, and “Phantom Lord”, more programmatic tunes that sought to echo the epics-in-miniature of NWOBHM bands like Diamond Head and more obscure groups like Savage. Ride the Lightning tunes like “Fight Fire With Fire” and “Fade to Black” can be seen as evolutions of this stylistic dalliance, elaborating on the sense of atmospherics that were present in those earlier songs compared to the relatively straight-ahead thrashing heavy metal fare of songs like “Whiplash” and “Jump in the Fire”. This shift became the foundational element of almost every track of Ride the Lightning (save for band-hated track “Escape”; more on that one later).

This shift on Ride the Lightning would prove to dominate Metallica’s future songwriting as well, expanding the band’s use of inventive guitar harmonies, prog rock-inspired structures and chord voicings while dialing back overall speed in order to increase the intricacy and well-roundedness of transitional riffs and fills. These stylistic elements that the group committed to on Ride the Lightning became the foundation for their sound for that early golden period, being honed on Master of Puppets before being exploded out to its maximum on …And Justice For All.

Many argue that Master of Puppets is the greatest heavy metal album of all time, and thereby the best Metallica album, as well. And while this may very well be true, it is not the most important Metallica album. Master of Puppets may have been a perfection of the forms Metallica conceived in those early years, marrying the psychopathic aggression of the more outré forms of hardcore punk with the grandiloquence and sophistication of progressive rock all within the hard-driving brutal carapace of NWOBHM — and Motörhead-inspired heavy metal, but those forms first erupted on Ride the Lightning.

There is always a power and an allure to those eruptive moments in history, be it a band’s history or a group’s history. It’s precisely why despite both Paranoid and Master of Reality being better records, Black Sabbath’s debut album still holds greater mystique in the greater tale of heavy metal mythology. In Metallica’s case, while Kill ‘Em All was the band’s first album on paper, it also represented the last in a line of demo recordings that marked the early Mustaine years, in a way making it more a finale than a beginning. It is on Ride the Lightning that the Metallica everyone truly loves, the Metallica that conquered the world and birthed a million varied forms of heavy metal from the perfected crystalline forms of those first four albums, was born.

An important aspect of this is the greater control over album-length pacing and sequence. Ride the Lightning was the first album to employ a pacing stratagem that became standard for the remainder of the golden period and found usage again on their more recent albums, with a sharp and fast opener, then the title track, followed by a moodier track before closing out Side 1 with a ballad. Side 2 would then pick up with a parallel to the opening track, typically being an up-tempo thrasher. Ride the Lightning  however, did not demonstrate the final approach to this album pacing sequence; for Master and Justice, the group would have track six be a moodier piece before the lengthy progressive instrumental of the record and closing on a high-tempo thrasher again, while on Ride the Lightning the up-tempo closer is moved to track 6, with all the others being dropped down by one.

Despite not being the exact pacing structure that Metallica would employ to great effect on those two masterclass followup records, there’s no doubt that the modified version treats Ride the Lightning better. The notion of “Trapped Under Ice”, a classic epic metal track replete even with bright major key riffing and speed metal punch-up in terms of pacing and drums, leading directly into the substantially moodier “Creeping Death” isn’t a displeasing notion, and the transition from the dirge of “Creeping Death” into the prog-thrash showcase of “The Call of Ktulu” is one of the greatest track pairings in heavy metal history. The issue arises when imagining “Escape” as the closing track. The song, to the ears of a common listener, isn’t a bad one, fusing elements of the heavier ends of Judas Priest-styled NWOBHM, including the harsh bark that Rob Halford would employ on those earlier tracks, before transitioning to a chorus more informed by the melodic and immediately hummable sensibilities of heavy metal circa the mid ’80s, and its brief half-tempo brutal chugged bridge and keen and glassy solo section offer nice nods back to the timbres of album opener “Fight Fire With Fire”.

However, the band notoriously hated the track, feeling forced to write it to appeal to label desires for a more obvious single given that their second record was substantially more challenging and brutal than its predecessor. It’s important to remember that, given the landscape of heavy metal circa 1984, tracks like “Fight Fire With Fire”, with its elegant neo-classical layered guitar opening transitioning into harsh and heavy salvos of tremolo picked guitars and damn near guttural bellowed vocals from Hetfield, was some of the most absolutely brutal music cut to tape at the time. Adding to that the darker sonic character of the album, the very slight sense of murky reverb giving the songs the feeling like they were issued by Satanic figures from deep within a blood-painted cave, not to mention the challenging aspects such as a lush and evocative ballad maturely grappling with a sensitive topic like suicide in “Fade to Black”, one of the most transcendentally forlorn songs ever recorded, and it’s no wonder the label desired something a bit more straightforward to counterbalance things.

It’s not unsurprising, though, that a band as notoriously strong-willed and ambitious as Metallica would chafe at this demand, and while “Escape” is still a thrilling song to any other listener, it’s major key brightness cuts hard against the bleak and fatalistic tenor of the rest of the tracks, making it an intriguing album cut but one that wouldn’t do well to close out the record. Given the strength of future album closers “Damage, Inc.” and especially “Blackened”, it’s no wonder that Metallica saw fit to adjust the formula they more or less perfected on Ride the Lightning.

It’s a well-recorded fact that nearly every riff on every Metallica album is written by James Hetfield, and those not written by him get the Hetfield touch, in which he nails the challenging balance of the brutality of sharp downpicked assaults with a sensitive enough feel to conjure that invisible orange-clutching sense of the dramatic that all the greats of ’70s heavy metal and prog had in spades. The riffs, once written, would go through the duo of Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, and the value of the latter figure would come to bear given his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the history of ’70s and early ’80s metal, mapping out the order and repetition number of the various dozens of riffs the group had composed.

For the years prior to Ride the Lightning, this was the writing schema and, when bassist Cliff Burton sadly died, this would become the process again, with Kirk Hammett and future bassist Jason Newsted allowed to contribute riffs but song-shaping still primarily handled by the duo of Hetfield and Ulrich. For the material that would become Ride the Lightning, however, the learned and worldly Burton would intervene, bringing to bear not only his own knowledge of heavy metal but also his understanding of classical music, folk, progressive rock, and even the hoarier ends of psychedelic rock and other spaces to offer methods of expanding the group’s songwriting.

We may have a good glimpse of what Metallica would have developed into without the intervention of Burton in the first few Megadeth records. While there are apparently still legal debates raging behind closed doors over precisely what riffs were penned or played originally by whom, we do know that several of the riffs the incredible guitar duo of Hetfield and Mustaine wrote together wound up not just on the early Metallica albums but largely in their original forms on Megadeth albums. And while those early Megadeth records are themselves important heavy metal texts that contributed greatly to the shape of metal to come (and being just plain kick ass to boot), it’s hard if not impossible to deny the major leap in the quality of songwriting following Burton’s tweaks and suggestions in the writing period for Ride the Lightning. The iconic layered classical guitar intro to “Fight Fire With Fire” as well as the rich and evocative acoustic portions of “Fade to Black”, for instance, were written at his behest, with his understanding of music theory and particularly functional harmony.

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I’d be remiss in discussing this album if I didn’t disclose my personal connection to Ride the Lightning. I was born in the late ’80s, and I likely heard Metallica before I could walk or talk, between the popularity of the first four albums to their absolute conquering of rock radio with “The Black Album”. But despite this, and despite growing up in a deeply music-filled household, I didn’t have a personal connection to heavy metal much at all. My father was largely into jazz, classical, soul music, R&B, psychedelic rock, and things of that sort. My mom liked things a bit harder edged, preferring groups like The Who and The Rolling Stones.  But it was a cousin who, on joining the military and being told he couldn’t take his records with him, would bring me into contact with heavy metal.

My cousin was a metalhead, growing up in Florida in the ’80s and ’90s and catching death metal on the rise, and had a green metal grocery basket he’d stolen from a Circle K filled with metal CDs. My older brother, ever the covetous type, secured the basket away in the closet of his room, away from my young hands, fearful that I would break the records he’d just acquired. One day, being an impish sort, I snuck into his room and withdrew the forbidden basket of metal records. I seized the first one that seriously caught my eye, the deep purples and blues of the stormy sky behind a lightning-rattled chair with the bright silver letters “METALLICA” across the top. It was one of the first pressings of the CD, the one that had an ugly silver face with blockprint letters and a ring of ink around the outside. I put it into my boombox in secret and, within those first billowing seconds, fell in love. Ride the Lightning was my first heavy metal album and decades later remains my favorite.

My story is mirrored by those of many others, as Metallica tend to generate these stories naturally. They are as important as they are not only because of the depths of the riches of their albums, but because they have that spark of the mysterium tremendum, that impossible fire that opens up the door of heavy metal to the ear. You can play certain great records for people outside the world of heavy metal, show them Morbid Angel and Darkthrone and Sleep and Morbid Saint, and have them not understand; but there’s something about Metallica, especially on those first magical four albums, that makes it click with people and drives them deep into the wild depths of the genre. And while Kill ‘Em All may have historically been the band’s first LP, Ride the Lightning is, in many ways, the first true Metallica album — not the first record they penned, but the first time they were truly Metallica.

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