Monday, October 25, 2010

Metallica - Ride the Lightning (1984)

Within a few months of releasing Kill 'Em All, Metallica had already begun working on new material. They recorded another demo in late 1983 and, by the early months of 1984, they traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to work with Flemming Rasmussen at Sweet Silence Studios. This would mark the beginning of a relationship that would span the rest of the decade. Released in the summer of 1984, Ride the Lightning would go on to become the definitive Metallica record, and the one after which their future albums would be patterned.

This was actually the first Thrash Metal album that I acquired, and was very significant in my musical development. It was through Ride the Lightning that I discovered Kill 'Em All, about a year later which , in turn, led to the search for more bands of this ilk. I actually purchased this on cassette, first, and that tape accompanied me everywhere for some years. As a critic, I am inclined to lean more toward the raw sound of Kill 'Em All, but the nostalgia attached to this one cannot be ignored, so it may edge that one out as my favourite Metallica release.

Curiously enough, Ride the Lightning almost wasn't the classic record that it was destined to be. James Hetfield still wasn't feeling very confident about his vocal delivery, and listening to the 1983 demo versions of these songs, it's difficult to blame him. As a result, he asked John Bush of Armored Saint to take over the vocal duties. Thankfully, Bush turned them down and Flemming was able to either coerce a good performance out of James, or to clean it up in post-production.

Of course, cries of "sellout" were already being heard by the band, even as early as 1984. Ride the Lightning features some new elements as they were expanding their sound, and many fans may have hoped that they would take a more brutal approach. "Fight Fire With Fire" begins with an acoustic intro, before unleashing furious riffs that pick up right where "Metal Militia" left off. This is, probably, the most intense song on the whole album, and the one that most pleased the die-hard fans. One could say, however, that an entire record full of songs like this would have weakened its impact and become rather stagnant. The overall impression, right from the beginning, is that the band is now louder, faster and heavier. Despite seeming rather straight-forward, even this song features a more complex arrangement and a very memorable lead solo. The NWOBHM vibe is still present, and the powerful production is probably the best that the band ever achieved.

The title track is another that features input from former guitarist, Dave Mustaine. This one is utilizes a slower pace, and would well fit alongside "The Four Horsemen". It's quite epic, somewhat reminiscent of Mercyful Fate. New verses were added, since the demo version, keeping the song from being as repetitive. However, the middle section and the solos contained therein constitute the real high point of the song.

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" begins with the sound of funeral bells and the familiar bass line of Cliff Burton. The solo that follows the intro is one of the more interesting moments of the song. As with the previous track, this one is more mid-paced and epic in nature. In general, the song isn't quite as complex as it may seem, once the intro and outro are removed. Those two sections are very critical for the atmosphere of this piece.

Side A ends with "Fade to Black", which was most likely one of the prime causes for concern among fans that thought the band had sold out. The opening is similar to "Melissa", by Mercyful Fate, with the sombre guitar solo and acoustic bit. I can't speak for the die-hard fans that were disappointed in 1984, but I feel that this is one of the most powerful songs on the record. The atmosphere is dreary and hopeless, and the lyrics are absolutely flawless; at least, from a personal perspective, they're very accurate and easy to relate to. Musically, tension builds as the song progresses and the bleak vibe increases as well. The NWOBHM influence is still very obvious, especially in the latter half of the song. Of all the songs on the album, this is one of the few that never seems to become boring, even after listening to it for a couple decades.

"Yesterday seems as though it never existed
Death greets me warm now I will just say goodbye"

Side B picks up the pace, with "Trapped Under Ice", not as fast as "Fight Fire With Fire", but definitely one of the more thrash-oriented songs. This is one of the ones that features riffs that were first spawned during Kirk Hammett's days with Exodus. It really goes a long way to show what good songwriters these guys were, back in the early days. None were so great on their own, but when they were working together they were able to craft songs that would stand the test of time. In later years, whenever revisiting this album, this has been one of my favourite songs to listen to.

"Escape" is another forgotten gem, largely going ignored by most. It's rather catchy, when you think about it, with a somewhat melodic chorus and mid-paced riffs. This song probably seems more fresh to me now, since it wasn't one that was listened to over and over, years ago. It's a solid track, on its own, but also serves as a good lead-in to the next song.

"Creeping Death" is one of the most well-known songs in Metallica's entire catalog. It's very epic and features more of a complex arrangement. It's not slow enough to be considered mid-paced (with the exception of the riffs that were taken from the old Exodus song, "Die By His Hand"), but never really reaches the speed and intensity of "Fight Fire With Fire". Everything here is very well executed and it's not a surprise that this is so highly regarded. In particular, the riffs and solo near the end are excellent.

The album concludes with one of my all-time favourite Metallica songs, "The Call of Ktulu". This nine-minute instrumental track really allows the band to focus on their strongest characteristic; the ability to create an epic atmosphere through the music, alone. Without having to worry about placement of vocals and the whole verse-chorus structure, they were free to explore and let the music progress in a more natural manner. This song also utilizes riffs that were written by Dave Mustaine, and that brings up a point that will be addressed shortly. While Ride the Lightning, in its entirety, manages to create a darker feeling than Kill 'Em All, this one song certainly represents the darkest and most epic thing that they had recorded at this point. There were many late nights, so many years ago, where I would listen to this song over and over. It is very conducive so deep thought, and takes your mind on a journey. The word 'epic' seems to inadequate in describing the powerful feeling of this piece. None of the subsequent instrumentals from this band were ever able to even come close to the brilliance that is found here. The same can be said for the record, as a whole.

Regarding Dave Mustaine's contributions to this album, it is a bit strange that they would include his riffs at this stage. With Kill 'Em All, it was more understandable since he was kicked out of the band right as they were entering the studio. However, by this point, they had plenty of time to come up with new material and he was already putting together a new band. Obviously, they realized the genius of his songwriting and knew that the album would suffer without it, but it is still moderately unscrupulous.

Ride the Lightning represents the pinnacle of Metallica's career and is highly recommended. Never again would they record an album of the same quality. Everything after this was merely rehash or degeneration. None of their other albums can be considered essential. All that you need to hear can be found on the first two records. The rest are negligible.