According to Rolling Stone, Metallica’s debut Kill ‘Em All was, “the record that defined thrash metal.” So with such impressive beginnings, it was clear that the common problem of the ‘difficult second album’ was going to be even more difficult for these four early 20 somethings. Rolling Stone goes on to say that the difficult follow up, Ride the Lightining, “stands out in the group’s catalogue as the album that introduced melody to its arsenal.” All of that is more than enough to have me more than a little intrigued about Ride the Lightning has to offer.
A finger picked and harpsichord sound isn’t how I would have assumed a Metallica record would start, but it soon gives way to the break neck speed and full on assault I was expecting as Fight Fire With Fire gets down to business. Head banging business. As I wrote that sentence, a surge of nostalgia overtook me. “Head banging” used to be a very common and very loaded phrase. And hearing this song and this vintage Metallica, the term’s loaded connotations seem very earned.
As the screaming in unison guitars peel off the into Ride the Lightning, the title track stands out as the perfect encapsulation of what I think of when I think of pre-mega star level Metallica. Hetfield’s voice was still at its high pitched scream, the solos were pure exercises in speed and dexterity, and the sound was like a punch in the face that made you say, “thank you sir, may I have another.”
But maybe I spoke too soon, because when For Whom the Bell Tolls kicks in, I’m reminded of the other quintessential early Metallica ingredient, Cliff Burton’s roaring, yet playful bass work. Heavy metal in the early 80s didn’t call for much melody, creativity or originality from its bass players, but Cliff delivered it any way. During his tenure on Metallica’s four string, Jason Newstead delivered a solid, driving bottom end foundation. And Rob Trujillo has over a decade under his belt of holding down the bass work in his own imitable style in the present day incarnation of the band. But Cliff really was a one off, with no one else, then or now, contributing to metal the way he did.
After the speed bump that is the blandness of Fade to Black, it’s back to thrashing business on Trapped Under Ice. Then Escape proves what Fade to Black couldn’t. It proves that Metallica can still make exciting, gripping music, even when they dial the tempo back and the aggression down. But the real showcase of everything these dudes can do instrumentally is saved until last, with the epic instrumental, The Call of Ktulu.
Ride the Lightning is in no way a huge departure or change of direction from Kill ‘Em All. But it is a clear and impressive step forward for Metallica. The instrumentation is still centred around riffs and solos, but there’s a little more nuance to them. It also shows a slight maturing in Hetfield’s lyrics. There’s less affectation and straining to sound tough, threatening and dark here. Instead, it sounds like Hetfield was becoming more comfortable and confident with more personal writing.