“Ride The Lightning” is Metallica’s Best Album

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These days, everyone knows Metallica, even if they don’t know Metallica. Much like Nirvana, the band has transcended being simply a musical act and has turned from a band to a brand. Their famous logo has been emulated many times and can be seen on hats and shirts everywhere. The band has essentially become an American cultural icon in recent decades and, despite having different bassists come and go throughout the years, the core lineup of vocalist and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammet, and drummer Lars Ulrich has stayed consistent since 1982. In that time they have put out ten albums, some absolute classics with timeless riffs and others not nearly as good (2003’s St. Anger falls into this category), and have established themselves certainly as the biggest and most well-known of Thrash’s Big Four including contemporaries Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth.

Released on July 27th, 1984, Metallica’s sophomore album in Ride The Lightning was sent out to record stores across the world following the well-received release of their debut album Kill ‘Em All just the year prior. When released, Kill ‘Em All quickly became an underground hit and helped become a formative release in the early days of the Thrash Metal genre. The band quickly went to Lars Ulrich’s native Denmark in early 1984 to record their next album, which would become Ride The LightningKill ‘Em All helped display the band’s mastery of guitar and especially the bass, with Cliff Burton’s bass instrumentals and harmonies shining through throughout the whole album, however it would be on Ride The Lightning where the band’s songwriting abilities would show serious potential.

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Ride The Lightning’s iconic album cover, depicting a flashy logo and a prominently featured electric chair.

 

The album opens with Fight Fire With Fire, a socially conscious thrash piece discussing nuclear war and the annihilation associated with Mutually Assured Destruction. The instrumentals mirror the horrors of nuclear war, with a soft acoustic ballad that transitions without warning into a high-tempo metal piece. The lyrics of the verses and the chorus are extremely in-your-face and direct, refusing to simply allude to its message and instead saying outright “Nuclear warfare shall lay us to rest.” After a guitar solo by Hammet, another verse, a final chorus and an outro of James Hetfield repeating the song’s title phrase, the song ends and leads into the next song, Ride The Lightning.

The album’s title track is subjectively one of my favorite songs ever, subjectively one of Metallica’s most underrated, and objectively a strong piece. Ride The Lightning opens with separated guitar notes and a pounding bass slap, transitioning into palm-muted strumming and sliding on the E string while Cliff Burton slams bass chords before joining in with the guitars. The muddy tone of the bass and guitars and the synchronization of the bass and drums allows the song to really feel heavy, and Hetfield’s soaring tenor vocals contrasts with the low, heavy instrumentals. The piece is as frantic as the unjust execution by electric chair described in the lyrics, detailing the final moments of a man wrongly put on death row left alone with only his thoughts and time. The execution is extremely painful and is emphasized by deep, heavy instrumentals which draws the listener in nearly immediately and will keep anyone interested in headbanging sticking around and wanting more.

Ride The Lightning transitions into one of Metallica’s most famous tracks, For Whom The Bell Tolls. This retelling of Ernest Hemingway’s novel on the Spanish War opens with bells quite literally tolling, transitioning into a beautiful instrumental riff played by Cliff Burton’s bass high up on the higher strings of the instrument, relying on a whammy pedal to sound not too dissimilar from a guitar. Cliff again utilizes bass chords to enhance the song while James and Kirk play intense riffs on the guitar. Lars’ consistent drumming holds the rhythm section together, and the vocals again remain interesting and distinct from the rest of the song, making it all the more memorable. For Whom The Bell Tolls transitions into Fade To Black, Metallica’s first real attempt at a ballad.

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Cliff Burton seriously makes some of these tracks what they are. His ability to hold down lead bass instrumentals are next level.

 

Fade To Black depicts the feelings of a suicidal man as he loses faith in himself and the world and his descent into death. The song is extremely emotional and was inspired by two things, chiefly – the death of James Hetfield’s mother in 1979 to cancer, and the theft of Metallica’s gear in Boston before travelling to Europe. The band lost almost everything, and most of the members slipped into depression because of it, inspiring some of the darker songs including Fade To Black. The song clearly shows dark motifs, and the emotion is portrayed beautifully through the guitars, bass, and drums. James’ vocals show pain and emotion, and the track ends as beautifully as it begins with the man saying goodbye as he dies.

Continuing the theme of torment and anguish (an oh-so-metal theme to focus on), Trapped Under Ice is a high-energy song relaying the story of a man awakening from cryogenic slumber only to discover his own entrapment within the freeze chamber. The man in the song is “dying to live” and the horrifying lyrical themes are supported by a seriously great instrumental playing underneath of it which would work for any song regardless of lyrics. This is one of a few rare songs which, to me, the vocals are distinct from the lyrics, and the entire song would work regardless of the content of lyrics. The riffage and solos are extremely tight and very talented, displaying Metallica at full force once again.

The sixth song on the album, Escape, is one of Metallica’s least played songs, only having been played in full once during a full run-through of the album in 2012. The song is extremely radio-friendly, featuring easily memorable verses and an extremely poppy verse. While not as dark as the other songs on the album, Escape‘s songwriting is unique and maintains the heaviness featured throughout other songs in the album, and the lyrical themes of self-determination and self-reliance ring true in the darkest of times as an inspiration to ride out emotional storms and try to find peace within oneself. While certainly radio-friendly, the song is still better than 90% of radio rock today and deserves more merit both from the band and the fans.

Creeping Death follows Escape and is probably Metallica’s most famous song along with Master Of PuppetsFor Whom The Bell Tolls, and Enter Sandman. The song has some of the heaviest riffs on the album behind only Ride The Lightning and For Whom The Bell Tolls and depicts the Plagues of Moses and the Exodus from the Bible from the perspective of the plague. The iconic “Die” bridge in the middle of the song following a guitar solo is the work of Kirk Hammet, who composed the song for his previous band and thrash metal legends Exodus in 1979. The song ends with a heavenly guitar solo and a repetition of the opening riff, and the whiplash from the song’s instrumental shredding, epic lyrical themes, and vocal display will leave anyone wanting more.

The last song from the album is an instrumental, called The Call Of Ktulu. The instrumental piece was written by James, Lars, Cliff and former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine and features nine minutes of eerie guitar motifs, drum beats, and backing bass representing the essence of Lovecraftian lore. The song fades out after a seriously epic buildup, concluding the album in a completely different but still addicting mood as it begins.

Ride The Lightning represents Metallica’s best album- every single riff in the album is memorable, every vocal done properly, and every drum beat pounding into your ears. Even the arguably weakest track, The Call of Ktulu, is only weak because of a lack of vocals and a more unique, arthouse feel rooted in Lovecraft’s writing. Every track besides The Call Of Ktulu stands out, and more tracks on the album are legendary to me than not. The duo of For Whom The Bell Tolls and Creeping Death are some of the only songs which have been played at nearly every concert Metallica has been performed since their composure and release, securing the album’s reputation in their live repertoire. The 6x Platinum album has sold millions of copies in the US alone, and has certified Metallica’s reputation as the preeminent representative of thrash metal above all the rest.

Legendary: Ride The Lightning, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Escape, Creeping Death

Standout Tracks: Fight Fire With Fire, Trapped Under Ice, Fade To Black

Forgettable: The Call Of Ktulu(still better than most anything in other band’s discographies).