Ride The Lightning by Metallica
By Eamon O'Neill
Few would have believed upon glancing at the back cover of ‘Kill ‘Em All’ that the four scruffy figures pictured with the mantra ‘bang that head that doesn’t bang’ would go on to become one of the biggest bands in the world. It took a few years of course, but from upstarts to thrash metal masters to prog metal originators to mainstream megastardom in just five albums, Metallica’s trajectory is one of the most remarkable in music.
It all began with that explosive debut, and released in 1983, ‘Kill ‘Em All’ was a ferocious statement of intent. Packed with the speed metal anthems that not only forged their reputation but helped invent an entire new subgenre dubbed ‘thrash metal’, it was a landmark album in every sense. But just how do you follow up a release that redefines the musical landscape?
Expanding on their origins, ‘Ride the Lightning’ took their frenetic beginnings and both refined and expanded their sound, utilising the theoretical music knowledge and harmonies brought by Burton, and varying the pacing and tempos. Released in 1984, it marked a new chapter in their history. Whereas ‘Kill ‘Em All’ had been conceived largely by founders James Hetfield (guitar and vocals) and Lars Ulrich (drums) along with original lead player Dave Mustaine, this was first to feature significant contributions from guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton, with writing contributions from all four. It was also the last - officially at least - to feature co-writes from their gnarly ex-guitarist who would go on to form Megadeth upon his unceremonious late 1983 exit.
From the minute the needle hit the groove, it was immediately clear that Metallica were not only not content to simply rehash the past, but streets ahead of their contemporaries. Opening with a melodious Baroque-style acoustic intro conceived by Burton, ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ exploded with what is still one of their most incendiary riffs. A relentless dirge built on Hetfield and Ulrich’s technical precision and featuring a stirring, atypical melody in its harmony solo section, it’s an utterly thrilling opener.
The brutal title track which followed, proved no less ferocious. A nightmare set in the electric chair - as depicted on the album’s striking sleeve - it bore the hallmarks of their early days as one of a brace of tracks to be credited as being co-written by Mustaine. The riff in the breakdown at around 1m57s is unmistakably his, using his patented ‘spider chord’ technique. Not content to simply let Metallica use his ideas, it would appear again two years later, 1m 26s into Megadeth’s ‘Wake Up Dead’.
By track three, there was no let up, with ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ hammering home the heaviness. Featuring Burton’s distinctive bass sound and licks over a crushingly heavy chugging riff, like the rest of the album, it sounds enormous.
The real game changer however was ‘Fade to Black’. A darkly morose contemplation on life, the band were labelled as sell-outs in some quarters of the defiantly single-minded world of early ‘80s metal for having dared to record anything other than another breakneck speed anthem. Ambitious, majestic, and performed with utter conviction, it’s now rightly regarded as among their finest works. Like the rest of the album, it features another on-point guitar solo from then Joe Satriani student Hammet.
Flipping to side two, and Issued as a single in the U.K., ‘Creeping Death’ of course, is one of the album’s standouts and a favourite of the band themselves, ranking, as of 2023 as their second most performed song, live. Co-written by Hammett, it cunningly lifts its midsection from an old Exodus - the guitarist’s previous band - track ‘Die By His Hand’.
So far, so perfect, and while the later half of the album is less loved - ‘Trapped Under Ice’ is a perfect thrasher, if less remarkable by comparison, and ‘Escape’ gets an unjustifiable bad rap from even the band who refused to perform it live until 2012 and haven’t done so since - it all steers towards the monstrous conclusion; ‘The Call of Ktulu’.
An epic instrumental that rises and falls like a violent storm at sea, it’s thrillingly grandiose. Almost nine minutes of melodrama, it never once gets tedious, and as one commenter on YouTube put it; “there's something about early Metallica that's just flawless.” The second track to be co-credited to Dave Mustaine, once again, parts of the song would resurface in his own work, with the main riff in Megadeth’s ‘Hangar 18’ a reconfiguring of its intro arpeggios.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2024, ‘Ride the Lightning’ is today rightly regarded as a startling metal masterpiece, with Metal Hammer, Spin Magazine and Loudwire all ranking it as the second greatest album in Metallica’s discography after ‘Master of Puppets’; no mean feat considering it even outranks the mega-selling ‘black album’. For vinyl lovers, it was reissued in 2023 in electric blue vinyl, along with colour vinyl reissues of their first five albums. It’s also available on a standard black vinyl pressing.
Metallica would of course go on to achieve even greater success both artistically and commercially, but ‘Ride The Lightning’ remains a gem in their catalogue that no self-respecting fan should be without.
1. Fight Fire With Fire - Metallica (4.44)
2. Ride the Lightning - Metallica (6.36)
3. For Whom the Bell Tolls - Metallica (5.10)
4. Fade to Black - Metallica (6.56)
5. Trapped Under Ice - Metallica (4.03)
6. Escape - Metallica (4.23)
7. Creeping Death - Metallica (6.36)
8. The Call of Ktulu - Metallica (8.52)