[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t may be hard for the young of today to imagine, but heavy metal band Metallica used to be more than the butt of endless jokes. Legends have to begin somewhere; kings and leaders have to somehow get those statues of themselves erected before people can start drawing penises on them, right? Prior to having come to personify the collective midlife crisis of heavy music, Metallica were zit-faced speed demons obsessed with electric chairs and bloody hammers before all that shit was played out.
Their ‘83 debut, Kill ‘Em All, may have ruled, but it also still had that lingering funk from Dave Mustaine; Ride The Lightning, then, was a move of maturation and sophistication, like when you first got rid of the tricycle training wheels, or when you find a significant other that convinces you to get a lamp from somewhere other than Target. It’s hard to picture Metallica in its first Mustaine-y iteration using harmonized dual leads and writing multi-part epics based on the Torah; Ride The Lightning, then, was heavy metal being brought, somewhat, into the realm of respectable culture.
Well, okay, not really — it was also the album cycle that spawned the Metal Up Your Ass shirts that the burnout kids at my school wore when they were busy skipping class and beating me and my friends up. But despite/because of a depiction of a knife-wielding hand emerging from a toilet, Metallica managed to weld brain-dead goofball-ism, classical and literary pretentions, wrist-cutting nihilism, and sheer rock and roll oomph into a highly inventive, satisfyingly dynamic 47-minute, 47-second motherfucker of a record.
As it celebrates its 30th anniversary on Sunday, July 27, New Ordered ranks Ride The Lightning’s songs from best to worst.
It’s hard to comprehend nowadays, but back in the early-’80s, a tune like “Escape” was considered a sell-out move. “Selling out to what exactly?”, say us in a time when racist BMers shill sensibly priced coffee mugs, etc. “Escape’s” crime was, of course, catchiness: heavy metal had begun, by the early-’80s, it’s war against music, against listenability, against the desire to have fans and/or an audience. It was the split between hair metal and metal-metal, and Metallica would eventually reap the rewards of this theological schism when 1991’s Black Album became the biggest selling metal album ever.
The song speaks of “escape from the true false world,” perhaps a commentary on the different sides pulling on them and their inability to trust anyone. There were always rumors that a label exec forced Metallica to pen “Escape,” but more likely it was drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett wanting to, you know, musically generate a female or two in their audience with some kind of melodic what-have-you. Guitarist/frontman James Hetfield stood opposed, and to this day claims that the song is substandard. But you know, he’s just a big hick who tools around with iron crosses festooned on everything he owns, so what does he know about his own discography, right? To sane ears, this song is the ultimate balancing act between the gloomy mope-ishness of Hetfield’s depressive death trip, Burton’s gorgeous chordal framework, and the sort of fist-in-the-air anthemic heft that the band would eventually rise above the rest of the metal chaff by peddling in.
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2. “Fade To Black”
It’s a well-known fact that goth doesn’t rock — a genre whose shining moment is a ten-minute improvised live squawk with no chords or chorus just isn’t going to inspire any truly earned devil horns, right? Secretly, though, metal perfected what goth dressed up in lace and stuck in the attic, tapping into adolescent torment while remembering to always attach said torment to pummel and drive. “Fade To Black” is the gothiest corner of Metallica’s oeuvre, where lonely little man/child Hetfield can vent his secret shame in a nihilistic toxic cloud-belch of suicidal whatever.
The unison guitar is piercing and true; the plangent verses are more aching and wounded than Nick Cave’s entire fake-ass career (which I guess gave them license to sexually molest his classic “Loverman” 15 years later); and the open-chorded bloodletting is more cathartic than a thousand Reign In Bloods.
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3. “Ride The Lightning”
It was David Foster Wallace, in his epic meditation on the sport of tennis that is the 1996 essay “The String Theory,” who correctly pinpointed the sport’s shift from graceful athleticism to brute barbarism in the grunting thud of players like Jimmy Connors. A young Ulrich was trying his hand at pro tennis during this transitional period, and this thud-paradigm definitely affected his eventually distinctive style as a heavy metal drummer.
Normally, his ham-fisted lack of subtlety and swing would have made him a liability; amidst the rhythmic fascism of the Hetfield/Burton/Hammett axis, Ulrich’s duh-duh pound somehow makes the Metallica monster take flight, Exhibit A of which is the opening salvo of this signature tune.
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4. “Fight Fire With Fire”
Metal’s dirty secret is that it is populated by a bunch of covert hippies penning tunes that aren’t far removed, thematically, from the ’60s exhortations of Woodstock Nation. This album-opening tune might sound super bad-ass, but it’s as No Nukes as Jackson Browne sipping Chardonnay in Laurel Canyon with Carly Simon; it’s opening line, “Do unto others as they have done unto you” could so easily be sung by CSN in “Teach Your Children.”
And, uh, you know, they had long hair and smoked pot. Acoustical interludes and intros were all the rage in metal at that time (see Ozzy/Randy Rhodes’s “Dee”), although really this intro sounds more like the acoustic beginning to “Maggie May,” only instead of detailing the end of a summer spent sleeping with your high school math teacher or whatever, it’s the end of the world, as Gorby and Ronnie both caress that shiny red button lasciviously, obscenely, just throbbing with the anticipation of setting the world aflame.
Oh, and at the three-minute mark, the harmonized Hammett/Hetfield lead break is the sound of winged angels firing lasers beams into a gorgeous never-ending eternity.
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5. “For Whom The Bell Tolls”
As a high schooler in the ’80s, I can’t count the number of times I sat in an English classroom, listening to a droning discussion of some old timey book I hadn’t read, thinking “Why can’t we be talking about Watchmen instead?” Turns out that those wastoid metalheads smoking in the back hallway were more literate-minded than I was; the Maiden-heads were awash in book-to-ten-minute-metal-epic adaptations, of course, but Metallica definitely dipped their toe in the literature-metal kiddie pool as well.
I would have had to at least have read the Cliff Notes to know that this 1940 Hemingway classic was mostly about blowing up a bridge, so it’s certainly metal enough in truth, but at first glance it looks really boring and man, this book seems to have a lot of pages!
Luckily for us, Hetfield and Co. put on their smart-person reading glasses and penned this ode to the persistence of time, a recurring theme in metal song-as-literature. I’m guessing that Hemingway, halfway through a fifth and filled with suicidal rage, would have been able to find something to commiserate with were he to fold time and bathe himself in the lockstep martial pummeling of this tune’s indelible mosh-chorus.
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6. “Creeping Death”
Metal has a storied history of songs sung from the point of view of relatively inanimate objects: you have Motorhead’s “The Hammer” sung from the POV of fascism; then you have Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye,” also sung from the POV of fascism; and of course Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” surely the first and only chart-topping rock tune sung from the perspective of coffee.
So sure, fine, Metallica, write a song from the perspective of death, and make it educational and whatnot by explaining the story of Passover for goyim heshers. Like so many of metal’s great mansplainers, Hetfield’s tale of the retribution against ancient Egypt filled an important void: in this case, between Biblical times and 1998’s Prince of Egypt (kind of like Iron Maiden making sure kids could tell you what year Alexander The Great was born and died in prior to the Oliver Stone/Colin Farrell flick).
The tune is basically “Seek and Destroy” redux and they’d redux it a few times again, most effectively in the Black Album’s “Holier Than Thou”; “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” was often the band’s maxim, until, you know, it was broke at some point in the early-’90s.
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7. “Trapped Under Ice”
A generation before Metallica, Ozzy, Geezer and Sabbath wiped enough of the cocaine from their beards and moustaches to sing “Snowblind”, their ode to being so gakked up that they couldn’t feel their extremities. Ten years later, when a young’n finding Volume 4 amongst his uncle’s 8-track collection probably thought that “Snowblind” was a song about the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, and Metallica used the wintry metaphor to epitomize the deathspell of their own negativity. Like being stuck underground while everyone else was having fun playing hockey above you, Slapshot redone as a Twilight Zone episode if you will; the frosty flanged emphasis on the s-s-s-s-s at the end of the chorus made the sound of some bully whizzing past you on icy blades. Otherwise, as a wise man once opined, “you know, it’s a little stock.”
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8. “The Call of Ktulu”
It’s no secret that Cliff Burton was the reader of the band (leader of the band?); his 1986 death not only meant an end to any classical allusions in the band’s music, but it also meant that the band’s lyrical focus was going to entirely focus on Hetfield’s grew-up-son-of-Christian-Scientist-opera-singer torment.
Which is a shame, since 2011’s Lulu collaboration with Lou Reed showed how adept the band can be when directed thematically by a literate bandleader. Anyway, to have been a fly on the wall as poor ol’ Cliff attempted to explain the many-tentacled unexplainable terror that is the H.P. Lovecraft tale that this tune is ostensibly the soundtrack for to Lars and James, jaws slack and “whu?” sliding out of their mouths like a creeping wet slithering Shoggoth.
In a playlist of nearly-ten-minute Metallica instrumentals, “Call” is squarely third, maybe fourth (for the record, after “Orion,” “Suicide & Redemption,” and maybe “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)”), a gorgeous tune that nonetheless, without having been fleshed out into a real Cthulhu-ian epic, stands as little more than the hold music in Satan’s elevator.