On its second album San Francisco thrash upstarts Metallica show what they were truly capable of. It was the first of two albums that the band would record at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark with famed producer Flemming Rasmussen. Interestingly, it was the last album to feature writing contributions from early guitarist Dave Mustaine (who had formed his own band Megadeth in the interim). On the whole it has Metallica at its peak in terms of speed, songwriting and production. For good reason this is universally considered to be a Bay Area thrash metal classic, and rightly so. “Ride the Lightning” sees a hungry band growing in leaps and bounds – and it is testament to what this band could have been wouldn’t they have strayed from the path they laid out.
Where the band formerly was little more than a more muscular Venom, Motörhead and Diamond Head clone on this second album they break out of their creatively stifled shell. Gone are the embarrassing youthful tributes to metal culture and its lifestyle and instead we get interesting dissections of socio-political topics and classic literary subjects. The band was at a crucial juncture in its career. They had to choose between remaining a novelty act that just played groovy heavy music, or tackle more serious and mature subjects and actually become a veritable creative force in a more accomplished sense. As the band was evolving musically at a steep level the lyrics had to fit the more ambitious and involving songwriting. Lest the band become a Manowar they had to adapt or perish – thankfully, the band choose to abandon its goofy beginnings and wrote something they themselves were passionate about. Music and lyrics work in perfect harmony here.
The album opens with ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ and the track itself starts out with a fragile acoustic piece. The contrast of the acoustic opening section and what is to come greatly emphasizes the strength of the band at this time. Everything is in service of the song, and where the band had previously not used any acoustic instruments here they do, to great effect, I might add. After the peaceful opening the first riff comes in and Metallica now plays faster than they ever did. The leads take a greater prominence in the songwriting, and their inclusion is a vital part of the songs. The songs themselves are more open in terms of composition, and far more melodic. The amount of riffs per song has increased, and each of these riffs flows naturally from the next. Nothing is forced, and one can only imagine what this band could have been had they had a more versatile drummer. There is a greater reliance on recognizable hooks within each song and the album as a whole flows better than the debut. It has the same storytelling qualities, and richness of composition that wouldn’t feel out of place on an early Iron Maiden record. Safe to say Metallica only take songwriting cues from that pivotal British heavy metal bastion, and weave those into its own brand of fast-paced but still fairly melodic thrash metal.
The songs cover a wide variety of subjects. ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ is, as its title cleverly suggests, about revenge, Armageddon and the end of the world. The title track details the misery of the criminal justice system. In fact, it is written from the perspective of a deathrow inmate awaiting electrocution. Apparently, the faults of the criminal justice system was a topic near and dear to the band’s heart at the time as they would eventually base an entire album around its premise. ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ concerns the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, and talks about the horror and dishonor of modern warfare. ‘Fade to Black’, once again introduced by a 12 string acoustic guitar opening, is the band’s first power ballad. ‘Trapped Under Ice’ is based upon a demo track named ‘Impaler’ that Kirk Hammett wrote for his former band Exodus.
‘Escape’ is another power ballad of sorts with angsty, angry-at-the-world adolescent lyrics that every teenager can relate to. ’Creeping Death’ describes the Plague of the Death of the Firstborn (Exodus 12:29), written from the perspective of the angel of death as summoned by Moses. The middle-section of the song was originally written by Hammett while he was in Exodus. It is based on a song called ‘Die By His Hand’ which was a staple in the Exodus setlist, but the track (like ‘Impaler’ before it) never made it on to any official Exodus recordings, and was thus re-used here. Last but not least, the ambitious and highly atmospheric closing instrumental piece ‘The Call Of Ktulu’, co-written by former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, is based on the H.P. Lovecraft story “Shadow Over Innsmouth”, which Burton introduced to the band.
The cover artwork perfectly fits the thematic of the album. Each member is on top of his game instrumentally, and the warm analog production emphasizes the strength of each individual player and the band as a whole. The entire band poured blood, sweat and tears into this record – and frankly, it shows.
Produced in a time of difficulty and strife by a young and hungry American band that were road dogs if nothing else, it is where the stars aligned for Metallica. The songs have near storyteller qualities and the pacing makes it a pleasure to listen to. The lyrics, while angry and frustrated, are far more mature, intelligent and interesting on their own. Recorded on borrowed amps and instrumentation in a brief month and a half at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark “Ride the Lightning” has all the hallmarks of a classic. Everything fits and the record sounds as fresh and invigorating now as it did when it was originally released.