Classic Album Review : Metallica - Ride the Lightning (1984)
The legacy of Metallica is one of the most debated topics in rock n' roll. Have they sold out for money and prestige or have the collapsed under the weight of their fan base's rabid expectations? Or was it label demands? Nobody really knows for sure what kind of music they would've ended up playing, were they have been free of any scrutiny. Their debut album Kill 'Em All, while undoubtedly being a classic, doesn't offer any answer to that. All there is to it is their characteristic creative fire and fury in its angriest and most primitive form.
Ride the Lightning is where Metallica started revealing who their truly were and the magnitude of their ambitions, making it one of their most interesting albums.
From the first notes of the album, it's clear that Metallica is heading in a different direction. Fight Fire With Fire starts with an eerie acoustic guitar intro before slamming into the most straightforward thrash metal song on the record. It's like they're teasing you. James' vocal delivery on it is clumsy and overdramatic, but he's clearly trying to exert more control over it. Ride the Lightning (the song) could also be labeled thrash metal, but it has a longer and more complex structure and darker, more tormented lyrics, which have been a staple of their glory years. Even if the opening songs on the album are somewhat reminiscent of Kill 'Em All, they also foreshadow the shift that's about to happen.
There are three songs that ultimately matter on Ride The Lightning: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Fade to Black and Creeping Death. They are what the album will be remembered for, fifty years from now. They have little in common and that is what makes them great. Over the span of five recorded songs (Trapped Under Ice and Escape come in between), they reinvented themselves as this dynamic, multidimensional band that incorporated prog elements and dark, but empowering lyrics in order to create a powerful and unique sound. I would compare this moment, right in the middle of Ride the Lightning, to Jackson Pollock starting to drip paint on the canvas from a distance, in terms of significance. It was a turning point in the history of heavy metal.
But what makes these songs so different? Well, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a mid-tempo heavy metal song that borderlines on hard rock, with a gorgeously catchy and complex bassline. If Kill 'Em All is all about guitar, it is the first song where another instrument is so boldly put on the forefront. Fade to Black is Metallica's first "ballad", for lack of a better word, which emphasize more personal lyrics and a superb cooperation between James and Kirk. It's also the birth of an idea that will achieve its maturity two albums later.
And Creeping Death? Man, what can I say about this song? It perhaps is my favorite Metallica songs ever and perhaps their Metallica-est. Some people like Master of Puppets better. Some people enjoy One more and it's fine. But I gauge the realness of Metallica fans by how much they enjoyed Creeping Death. It is their first real metal odyssey that throws format out of the window. It is 100% focused on telling us the story of the Angel of Death and music is used like a Greek chorus to heighten James majestic storytelling skills. Creeping Death is fucking wonderful and if you don't like it, you probably don't like Metallica for the right reasons.
Metal has never been a breeding ground for creativity. Once you find success with something, your fans will insist you play within the same variables all your career or they'll desert you. Ride the Lightning is one of the first occurrences in metal where creativity and integrity aligned. Metallica explored new sounds and new themes without alienating their fan base because it still voiced their unsaid and mostly unlived emotions. Sure, part of it was luck, but part of it was also Metallica being incredibly attuned to their audience and apt at songwriting. And Ride the Lightning was the thunderous announcement of that. There was a new voice for a generation and it was darker than its ever been.