. . .

If aliens landed on earth and asked me what heavy metal was - of course, that would be a later inquiry; "take me to your leader" would be first, and "what's the wi-fi password" would be second - I would point them towards "Whiplash".

"This", I would say, "is heavy metal".

Now, many other songs could have that honor - I imagine that Voyager's golden record could contain, say, "Raining Blood" as a representative of human culture; I also imagine an intergalactic message in return, which, when decoded, said, "The earlier stuff was better"; at which point a literal flame war would erupt, in which laser beams decimated the earth, thus leaving "Raining Blood" as the only heavy metal song in existence, which wouldn't be so bad after all. But "Whiplash", after a not-so-rigorous selection process by the Ministry of Metal (me), wins, for several reasons:

  1. The riffs
  2. The riffs
  3. The song is about metal
  4. The song mentions Metallica, in a supremely bad-ass show of youthful bravado

We will never quit
Cause we're Metallica

(Admittedly, that couplet is more of a threat now than a promise.)

The riffs, the riffs!

When I think "Whiplash", I think "heavy metal" because of the relentless chugga-chugga. That is the sound of machines. For me, the prototypical sound of heavy metal is humans coping with industrial machinery by emulating it. (Even the blues-based Tony Iommi got his chug on after Ozzy left.) Of course, machinery can run fast or slow, or falter or break down, and heavy metal does all that. But before metal got ultra-fast or ultra-slow, it had a natural heartbeat.

Steppenwolf summed it up:

Heavy metal thunder
Racin' with the wind

Racin' with the wind is what "Whiplash"'s main riff does. It is gears, pistons, horsepower. Lars Ulrich's backbeat whips the mechanical horse, and the steel beast devours asphalt. It doesn't go so fast as to fly; all wheels are on the ground, throwing up dirt and rocks. The speed is perfect for raising heart rates.

. . .

"Whiplash" (main riff)

. . .

"Adrenaline starts to flow": that's simple and not that deep, but it's why so many love heavy metal. The music is a personal defibrillator. It jolts one's systems and wakes one from complacency. Even after decades of more "extreme" metal, "Whiplash" still gives me a rush.

Ironically, for all the movement and, frankly, violence that "Whiplash" incites (in the showdown of songs with "bang your head against the stage" lyrics, i.e., Exodus' "Bonded by Blood", "Whiplash" wins by a country mile"), it has a very tender moment. Five seconds in, the left side guitar plays an Em7 chord that sustains like smoke wafting over a battlefield. It lights the torch, so to speak, for the charge. I don't know whose idea that Em7 chord was, but it's the kind of compositional detail that placed Metallica above its competition.

. . .

"Whiplash" (Em7 chord)

. . .

Side B has begun, and Kill 'Em All has begun killing.

— Cosmo Lee

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