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One of the big themes on Ride the Lightning is being alone. In three songs, that has a negative bent: the title track, "Fade to Black", "Trapped Under Ice". "Escape" is more positive about being alone. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is ambivalent; the first verse is about "men of five", but the second verse switches to singular second-person ("just before you die") and third-person ("he hears the silence so loud") perspectives. Wartime tests the ability of humans to band together, so this Hemingway-derived ambivalence is appropriate.

Interestingly, Hemingway titled his book after these lines by John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

This is a positive take on humanity's interconnectedness. Contrast with "To Live Is to Die" from ...And Justice for All:

When a man lies, he murders some part of the world

They, you, he - this an anthem, alright, but a musical one, not a personal one. It's hard to hang one's hat on ambivalence.

But one can definitely hang one's hat on this music. It's one of the most well-built metal frameworks ever.

The structure is very interesting:

0:00 - 0:07 Bells
0:07 - 0:25 First riff cycle, Cliff Burton's distorted chromatic bass melody
0:25 - 0:41 Second riff cycle, snare enters
0:41 - 0:57 Third riff cycle, Burton switches to clean chromatics in lower register
0:57 - 1:14 Fourth riff cycle, guitars take up huge chromatics
1:14 - 1:18 Two-bar pause to breathe
1:18 - 1:50 Anthemic triplet melody up top
1:50 - 2:07 Chorus riff, but without chorus lyrics
2:07 - 4:09 Vocal portion of song
4:09 - 5:11 Outro

So the song is approximately 40% intro, 40% with lyrics, and 20% outro.

That is a lot of setup time for vocals that last the length of a Ramones song. But it is perfect. That setup is a master class in dynamics and making the most of a few ingredients.

Consider the first four riff cycles.

  • The first one is a clenched fist - no snare except on the downbeat of each phrase. Tension builds because the four-on-the-floor kick drums want snare drums to complement them.
  • This doesn't happen until the second riff cycle. Aah, relief. That snare comes in, and now we have nice call-and-responses, both between kick and snare, and the two-chord riff and Burton's chromatic lick.
  • The third riff cycle unclenches the fist. The two-chord riff relaxes into ringing quarter notes. Burton switches off the distortion for a bubbling chromatic figure down below. It's a nice groove - but don't get too comfortable.
  • Kapow! The guitars take up Burton's chromatics with big, munching power chords. (This is an Anthrax trademark, incidentally.)

Then the feel relaxes again to let Hammett's triplets loom overheard. It's a great representation of "Take a look to the sky just before you die".

Overall, the pace is perfect for the theme: a slow march of death. Not many metal bands write songs at this speed - triplets at around 118 BPM. In fact, at the moment I can think of only one other metal song with the same feel, Pantera's "Walk". That song, of course, is also a massive anthem. These songs are heavy, but they swing at a speed to which the body naturally responds. At this pace, one can't hide behind speed. You have to have something to say. Most bands lack the cojones and know-how to play at this speed. That Metallica nailed it on their first attempt (this was their slowest song to date) is a testament to the mighty forces they wielded.

— Cosmo Lee

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