Ride the Lightning is hands down my favorite Metallica album. I also believe that it’s front-to-back Metallica’s best album. While many metalheads point to Master of Puppets as the Bay Area quartet’s finest hour, Ride the Lightning was the first album to showcase all of Metallica’s strengths, the sonic trademarks that would ultimately propel them not only to the top of the thrash metal heap, but all of heavy metal.
Metallica’s first album, 1983’s Kill ’em All, was an exercise in youthful exuberance, and it was on that album that they perfected their penchant for NWOBHM-influenced thrashers. Much of that intensity carried over to Ride the Lightning, which kicks off with a pair of neck-wrecking trad-thrash numbers in the form of “Fight Fire with Fire” and “Ride the Lightning.” It’s crazy to think that Metallica could already write songs like that in their sleep by their second album, but it’s true; the boys were without question thrash metal prodigies and writing a song like “Fight Fire with Fire,” as great as it is, was clearly no longer a challenge for them. What really surprises about Ride the Lightning is Metallica’s newfound ability to write epics.
“Epics” might be an understatement. Metallica was writing goddamn motherfucking epics by this time, and Ride the Lightning is loaded with them. First, there’s the Hemingway-inspired “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” a song that conveys the horrors of war through superior musical firepower. Not only does it feature some of James Hetfield’s most devastating riffage, but Cliff Burton’s bass playing during the intro still sends chills down my spine after all these years; there’s something to be said for that when you consider that I’ve been listening to Ride the Lightning for nearly two decades (I was only four years old when the album was originally released, cut me some slack). Burton shares writing credits on all but two of the songs here, and it is evident that his sheer talent and musicality had a profound effect on Hetfield and Lars Ulrich’s writing style.
Following “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is “Fade to Black,” the album’s centerpiece and one of the greatest songs Metallica have ever written. “Fade to Black” gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it; listening to it today has become pretty difficult for me emotionally, having weathered two suicides during the intervening years. It’s strange how songs that you love can take on an entirely different character based on life events and how deeply they can affect you. “Fade to Black” saddens and terrifies me; I can’t help but imagine the lyrics as the final thoughts of those I’ve known who have taken their own lives. For me, the song is an unfortunately perfect example of metal’s ability to tap into the midnight of the soul.
“Creeping Death” is another song on Ride the Lightning that I identify with heavily, albeit in a very different way. Lyrically, the track recounts a portion of the biblical story of Moses in which God sends the Angel of Death to kill all the first-born sons in the land of Egypt. As a Catholic school survivor, the stories of the Bible were drilled into my head repeatedly; it was surprising to hear a metal band tackle subject matter that I associated with the “establishment.” If you think about it though, the story is a horrific one; a vengeful, war-mongering God unleashing the grim reaper to take the lives of unsuspecting children as payment for the “sins” of their fathers. Listening to “Creeping Death” lead me to realize just how dark and utterly bizarre religion could be.
Ride the Lightning‘s final epic is “The Call of Ktulu.” This instrumental somehow manages to convey all the crawling, cosmic dread of the HP Lovecraft story that inspired it without the benefit of lyrics. It is a testament to Metallica’s compositional prowess and mastery of dynamics that they were able to so deftly conjure up the atmosphere of a great literary work without using words. If a big budget movie based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos was ever to be made, an expanded, symphonic version of “The Call of Ktulu” should be its soundtrack. Additionally, this song is the first of the complex instrumentals that would become a pre-black album calling card for Metallica. “The Call of Ktulu” closes out Ride the Lightning on an extremely eerie note and also serves to open up musical doors that Metallica would further explore on future tracks “Orion” and “To Live is to Die.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Trapped Under Ice” and “Escape.” These tracks tend to get neglected during discussions of Ride the Lightning; an unfortunate byproduct of being bookended by “Fade to Black” and “Creeping Death.” “Trapped Under Ice” is by no means Metallica’s finest moment, but it does feature a nifty galloping riff from Hetfield, as well as some frenzied lead work from Kirk Hammet; it’s always a joy whenever the band lets him unleash the shred. “Escape” is a catchier-than-herpes homage to Metallica’s NWOBHM-aping roots. Think of it as Metallica’s attempt to write a Diamond Head song, with a chorus that’s fucking glorious; something so hopeful and uplifting may seem out-of-place for early Metallica, but it’s damn fun to hear them pay tribute to their roots in classic heavy metal.
If there’s one album that taught me that heavy metal was capable of tackling subject matter that was just as heavy as the music, it is Ride the Lightning. It also taught me that metal could be epic and haunting and progressive and emotional, not just something to mindlessly bang your head to. Tracks like “Fade to Black” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” are the reason I worshipped the ground Metallica walked on during my teenage years; from both a lyrical and musical perspective, no one could fucking touch them, no one even came close. Metallica would go on to make some uh, questionable career choices, to put it mildly, but not even the embarrassing career suicide attempt that was Lulu couldn’t take anything away from the impression they made on me with Ride the Lightning.
THKD’s Top 100 Metal Albums
1. Celestial Season – Solar Lovers + an introduction to THKD’s Top 100 Metal Albums
2. Type O Negative – October Rust
3. Grand Belial’s Key – Judeobeast Assassination
4. Mayhem – Live in Leipzig
5. Helmet – Meantime
6. Metallica – Ride the Lightning