" Soon to fill our lungs, the hot winds of death / The gods are laughing, so take your last breath "
-- James Hetfield, Fight Fire With Fire
By the summer of 1984, Metallica had it made. With a critically-acclaimed debut album, a gold disc under their belt, a huge cult status in the San Francisco Bay Area, and influencing an entire musical movement (The Bay Area Crunch), things couldn't really be better for a band who were, more or less, the most exciting garage metal group on the planet. As critically-acclaimed as their debut album Kill 'Em All was, it wasn't really as original, ground-breaking and consistenly good as the critics made it out to be. So, what do you get when you cross four talented metalheads, inflated egos, alcohol, acid, pot, and an increased studio budget?
A Heavy Metal Revolution, my friend.
Ride The Lightning (could that title be any more Metallica?) was released in August of 1984, at the peak of the newly dubbed Thrash Metal movement. Thrash Metal had a bit of a bad reputation for being unnecessarilly fast and loud with none of the substance, and the people who played them were seen as alcoholic high school drop outs with nothing better to do. While this may have been true sometimes, Ride The Lighting changed all of this. Metallica had managed, with one fell swoop, to lift themselves up and over every other Thrash Metal band that existed at the time. Suddenly, Metallica were wiser, more mature, and a lot more concerned about making good, from-the-heart music than being loud and fast. Not bad for a thrash metal band.
And what better way to start a Metallica album than an acoustic solo. Always ones to go against the norm, the moving ballad quickly changes into Fight Fire With Fire, Metallica's heaviest and fastest song of their career, only just matching it with ...and Justice For All's Dyer's Eve. With James Hetfield screaming in your ear, this song is not only about the horrors of nuclear war, but sounds like one as well. Their finest hour.
Taking no prisoners, The title-track Ride The Lightning doesn't take long to fill the previous track's shoes, giving no time for a breather. One of the album's slower moments, the band still refuse to let you go of their grip, as Hetfield muses about the ethics of Death Row. As it speeds up near the middle, lead-guitarist Kirk Hammett shows up with one of the best solos in metal, just before the band crushes you into oblivion with one of the crunchiest, most god-damned evil riffs ever conceived. The next track, For Whom The Bell Tolls, is based on the Spanish Civil war novel of the same name, written by Ernest Hemingway. Cliff Burton introduces us at the beginning, blearing out his expert skills on the bass guitar, effects pedal and everything. If Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth) didn't convince you of this guy's skill, just one listen to that bass line at the beginning will surely convert you. Crawling at a snail's pace, this song proved that Metallica could be slow and heavy at the same time.
The fourth track, Fade To Black, is considered as the first power ballad of the Thrash Metal genre. Crushing yet soaring, pumelling yet surprisingly moving, this became an instant classic in the months to come. Based on the thoughts of a manic-depressive on the verge of suicide, Metallica were suddenly imbued with a huge amount of respect from not only their peers, but from the rest of the rock world as well. This song also managed to gain quite a bad reputation, as people have been found listening to this song while commiting suicide, or having the lyrics in their suicide note. Nevertheless, these are the true colours of Ride The Lightning -- heavy, moving, and brilliant.
Trapped Under Ice soon gets things moving again, the second fastest track on the album. It isn't so much the drumming that makes it fast, as it is Kirk Hammett's constant will to do a blistering solo in between every verse. And yet, it works. Really well. It also happens to be the shortest track on the album, so it's all over quite quickly. Escape picks up the reign from here, another slow-paced slugger of a riff driving the song home. The haunting use of a warning siren at the end, coupled with Hetfield's repeated lyrics " Life is for my own, to live my own way", is unforgettable. Creeping Death keeps the pace going, Hetfield screaming about the plagues of Egypt in such a frenzied state, you'd think he'd jump out of the speaker and bite your head off without a thought. One of the more memorable moments of the album occur on this song: the pace slowes to almost a halt in the middle, and the words "Die! Die! Die!" are repeated over and over (no wonder this became such a huge hit in the live circuit).
However good the other tracks are, the band saved the best for last. The Call Of Ktulu is the real surprise on this album. Clocking in at just under 9 minutes long, this was Metallica's first instrumental, and happens to be one of their best songs. Based on the short story "The Call of Cthulu" (sic) by horror writer HP Lovecraft, this was the defining moment in Metallica's early history. This was as progessive as metal got in the early 1980s, and was enhanced further by the live offering on Metallica's collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (S & M), earning them their sixth grammy in 2001.
And then it's all over. Almost 50 minutes of pure, unadultered metal, crammed into 8 seperate tracks. Soon afterwards, Metallica acheieved their first platinum disc by the end of 1985, with over half a million copies sold by the end of 1984 alone. The album received almost unanimous good reviews from the rock scene, and was deemed an instant classic. And they did it again, and again, and again, and again...