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Imagine that you start a new job. You immediately deliver a big project with a bang, and people take notice. One year later, it's time for your performance review. You and your team have been working hard, and you roll out another project. It becomes a company milestone, the stuff of old-timers' stories a quarter century later: "Remember when Jimmy and his boys pulled off that crazy deal? No one - and I mean no one - saw it coming".

[Shaking of heads, clink of beer bottles.]

That's exactly what happened with Metallica. Ride the Lightning came out a year and two days after Kill 'Em All. During that time, Metallica became the greatest metal band that ever lived.

Who would have guessed it? Kill 'Em All was powerful, aggressive, and miles ahead of the competition. But its influences were obvious, and parts of it were just strung together. It went a long way on sheer attitude (and rhythm guitar chops).

I'd bet that even Metallica fans didn't predict the massive improvement on the band's second album. Its second album! How many bands now write second albums like Ride the Lightning?

It's hard to think of second metal albums with such a leap in artistry.

  • Sad Wings of Destiny, maybe. (A year and a half after Rocka Rolla)
  • Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?, maybe. (A year and a half after Killing Is My Business... And Business Is Good!)
  • Paranoid, maybe. (Seven friggin' months after Black Sabbath, released in the same year!)

How many bands now write any albums like Ride the Lightning?

We beat on bands now for changing their sound, or laud them for micro-progressions. ("The performances are tighter, and the songs are catchier".) Screw that! Let's overhaul the sound completely, introduce acoustic guitars and ballads, and write songs where every damn person will know every damn note. Let's shoot for the stars!

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"Fight Fire With Fire"

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What happened? How did the songwriting become perfect? (Yes, even "Escape", the weak sister of the bunch, was perfectly formed. She was just weak.)

Maybe Cliff Burton happened. He has songwriting credits on 3/4 of the album. Maybe he brought the subtle classical influence that freed Metallica from its NWOBHM crutch. I have but a year of long-forgotten music theory classes under my belt. But many parts of Ride the Lightning light up areas of my brain labeled "classical": a harmony here, a chord progression there. Even the acoustic intro to "Fight Fire With Fire" baffles me to this day. Its chord progression blooms - I can't describe it any other way - and its celestial harmonies remind me of "Carol of the Bells".

Maybe woodshedding happened. One can practically feel the spent casings spewing from that first electric riff in "Fight Fire With Fire". Lean back, deliver machine gun fire, obliterate all.

How many bands now write any riffs like this?

Maybe rhythm happened. Listen closely to "Fight Fire With Fire". For being so relentless, it is rhythmically rich: odd meters tucked into phrases, strategic pauses to breathe, crash and splash cymbals letting one know exactly where one is. Kill 'Em All had no such grace.

Finally, when did the band get a conscience? When did "No thought to even what we have done" become "We all shall die"? Leonardo da Vinci said, "While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die". Kill 'Em All was learning how to live. Ride the Lightning was learning how to die. Metallica dove into the abyss - and, for a while, took everyone along with them.

— Cosmo Lee

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