Review Summary: Metallica's Ride the Lightning is an enthralling journey through the depths of thrash metal mastery and contains arguably the finest basswork from bassmaster Cliff Burton.
Metallica’s Ride the Lighting is their second album, following up the masterful speed metal album Kill ‘Em All, and remains often rather forgotten under the greatness of Master of Puppets. Unfairly so, as Ride the Lightning has some of Metallica’s best cuts, and remains on par with Master of Puppets.
In 1984, Metallica were the band to beat: they were playing large shows by themselves, touring the world with big bands, and selling records in the hundred thousands internationally. They had their all-star line-up of James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, and the mighty Cliff Burton. Never before had the metal world been so united under one band.
On this record, Metallica transformed themselves from one of the fastest bands in speed metal to one of the best composed thrash metal bands. Right from the first track, “Fight Fire With Fire”, we see that Metallica has become a bit unconventional, having made an acoustic composition with multiple layers right before a massive thrash metal attack. The riffing is fast, furious, and many fretboards were torn asunder.
The title track (do I really need to put it here? Really?) showcases some of the finest song-writing leftover from the Dave Mustaine days. Ride the Lightning is a powerful number with some epic lyrics, “flash before my eyes, now it’s time to die!” Hetfield wails amongst the towering guitars and flashy baselines. The shredding continues on for almost seven minutes!
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” is either the number one or number two standout track on the record. Driven by the basslines of bass guitar madman Cliff Burton, For Whom the Bell Tolls starts off with a loud bell (who would have seen that coming, right?), a really large one, and goes right into Cliff’s monstrous bass attack. Kicking names and taking ass – or something like that – is what Cliff does best. The guitars are merely backing for him. A damned good backing for him, too.
Another highlight, though not the best on the record, is “Fade to Black.” A mellow number at first, a suicidal-sounding epic dirge of a track builds into another thrash metal attack that only Metallica was capable of in 1984. Though condemned by some for its light beginning (as well as the suicidal sounding lyrics), it has become a fan favorite over time and has definitely remained a crowd pleaser through the years. This was Metallica learning the art of the ballad, a talent that would come in handy on their Venom-worshipping 1988 war-epic “One”, which landed on the US top 40 singles, marking their first top 40 debut.
The low point of the album is most certainly “Escape”, a heavy metal-sounding number presumably influenced by Judas Priest (think You Got Another Thing Comin’). The band themselves don’t even like the track, believing it to be a lame attempt at commercialization on their part, but the vocal and guitar line match up well enough to make an interesting effect, unheard of for Metallica since. Even if an attempt at commercialization, it’s a very interesting track, and a good, solid heavy metal number.
“Creeping Death” is about the plagues of Egypt. Another track nearing seven minutes, the eerie and dark subject is matched by the solid thrashing of both guitarists and the insane drums by Lars Ulrich. Creeping Death is the closest thing to Kill Em All on Ride the Lightning, and even it has greatly improved compositional merit. Not to mention killer soloing on part of Kirk Hammett, who was himself becoming one monster of a guitarist, by this point. No longer merely matching Dave Mustaine’s lines, Hammett was becoming a true standout and one hell of a shredder by this point.
The final track, “The Call of Ktulu” is an instrumental. It was also co-written by Dave Mustaine, and features an eerie mystique not heard since the aforementioned Venom. Reeking of Venom’s Buried Alive, The Call of Ktulu was originally titled “When Hell Freezes Over”, and you can either hear hell freezing over, or Cthulhu rising from the depths to destroy everything. The Cthulhu mythos suggests that spelling Cthulhu wrongly summons the beast. Listening to this track, can you doubt he’s being summoned? Starting off eerie, it ascends to a peak of chaotic soloing and wild guitar riffs, backed by some of Cliff Burton’s crazy bass guitar sounds. Truly a masterful work for any band.
Metallica’s Ride the Lightning was the first of two perfect albums which they made during the 1980s. The world has never been the same since, and sadly, Ride the Lightning remains somewhat overlooked in favor of the highly renowned Master of Puppets. While Ride the Lightning was as perfect as Master of Puppets, Master of Puppets ended up having a legacy far greater, due to Burton’s untimely death shortly after its release. Perplexingly, some of Burton’s greatest work remains on Ride the Lightning, forever underrated. Godspeed, Mr. Burton. Godspeed.