Metallica: The First Four Albums – “Ride the Lightning”
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Early on in this endeavor, I got second thoughts. “You’re going to make people read about Metallica 35 times?” my voice of self-doubt asked. “And you’re going to write about Metallica 35 times? Just shoot me!”
Here’s the thing: as of Ride the Lightning, I’m not writing about Metallica so much as Metallica’s music. There’s a difference. Metallica as people is a prominent notion on Kill ‘Em All. You have the shadow of an expelled guitarist, the novelty of a new bassist, and seams that expose individual performances. Kirk Hammett playing Dave Mustaine’s solos! Cliff Burton’s instrumental! With Lars Ulrich doing who-knows-what! Those who enjoy the tabloid aspects of Metallica congregate around Kill ‘Em All.
With Ride the Lightning, however, the band is clearly secondary to the music. The individual faults of each Metallica member have been endlessly dissected over the years. But you don’t hear them on Ride the Lightning. These fallible men have conjured forces much greater than them.
Nowhere do I hear this more than the title track. Even after hundreds if not thousands of listens, its power still stuns me. I’m still wide-eyed when I hear it. I know what comes next, but each twist and turn still takes my breath away. In 1984, denim and leather fueled every metal album. More than that was at work here.
How else to explain that tunneling riff at 1:56 (after “I can feel the flames”)? Kirk Hammett soloing for almost two and a half minutes straight without one of those within-the-scale-but-still-sounds-weird notes he was prone to hit? The bass-and-drums breakdown after “I don’t want to die”? (My neck is sore just from thinking about it.)
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“Ride the Lightning”
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At any point, the band could have bailed on building this edifice. It could have had a single chord progression for the solos. The solos could have just led to a final verse, then an outro. When 99% of bands write metal songs, they don’t think along the scope of “Ride the Lightning”. They usually have a riff, a vocal idea, maybe some licks to throw in a solo. They don’t have dozens of themes that fit together perfectly, sometimes referencing each other, sometimes appearing once, never to reappear again. This song may be a hessian anthem, but it’s a complex weapon built to exacting specifications.
Every system is composed of smaller sub-systems; every song is composed of small decisions that contribute to its total effect. For me, the biggest decision in “Ride the Lightning” comes in the intro. The first riff is a 12-second fanfare: “Here we are!” It has minor key harmonies with a strong classical flavor. So it sets the expectation of more melody to follow – and a lesser band would have delivered on that. But Metallica don’t. They kick aside melodicism and ram a tritone riff down your throat: two deadly, dissonant notes. It’s like entering a room while wearing a tailored suit, then braining everyone in sight with a hammer.
Granted, metal bands do this all the time: mix and match musical modes – a blues lick here, a classical harmony there, some Phrygian for exotic flavor. But here the juxtaposition couldn’t be more deliberate. We’ll show you our colors; then we’ll knock you on your ass. Then over your body we’ll build a fire that grows and grows until it’s sky-high; then we’ll pound you into the dust. Once we’re done, we’ll reprise the first riff to remind you who we are. Wipe the blood off, put the uniform back on, march onwards.
All this talk about hammers and fires does presuppose a band, actors called “we”. But the best actors become their characters. Here we don’t have Hetfield, Ulrich, Burton, and Hammett, and not even Metallica © ™ Inc. Ltd. We have The Four Horsemen – and even more than that, we have force. Metallica embodied that force then, but they don’t now. Thankfully, we have documents of that time to cherish for a while.
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METALLICA: THE FIRST FOUR ALBUMS
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