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Revisiting Metallica’s thrash classic ‘Ride the Lightning’

In 1981, tennis player turned drummer Lars Ulrich placed an advertisement in a Los Angeles newspaper seeking to jam with other metalheads in the vein of Diamond Head and Iron Maiden. James Hetfield responded, and five months later, they officially formed a band under the name Metallica, with guitarist Dave Mustaine and bass player Ron McGovney.

However, McGovney was soon kicked out for lack of contribution to the band and was replaced by Cliff Burton. So too did Dave Mustaine get the boot during the recording sessions for the band’s debut album Kill ‘Em All (1983), as the other members of the band felt that his drinking and drug use was overly excessive. 

Mustaine was replaced by Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett and he has previously said in interviews that he dislikes Hammett because he essentially stole his job and earned fame by playing parts that Mustaine had written. Mustaine would go on to form another ultra-successful thrash metal band, Megadeth, who are considered, alongside Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer, one of the ‘big four’ thrash outfits.

So Metallica now had at least some form of a consistent lineup, and after the release of Kill ‘Em All, the real work was to begin. The band headed to Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen to record their second studio album, Ride The Lightning, with Flemming Rasmussen. Ulrich had chosen Rasmussen as he had liked his work on Rainbow’s 1983 album, Difficult to Cure.

What came out of the studio in Copenhagen was downright astonishing and cemented Metallica’s place as one of the best metal bands of all time and probably the single biggest metal band of the 1980s. Cliff Burton’s music theory knowledge lent the band a broader scope of writing. No longer were the tracks one-dimensional, as they had been on Kill ‘Em All; they were now still powerful and heavy, yet harmonious.

Acoustic guitars came into the fold, most notably on the intros to ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ and ‘Fade To Black’, and the album featured extended instrumental sections in ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ and ‘Trapped Under Ice’. All the while, Metallica drove home the most brutal thrash metal conceivable, brought to the fore by Rasmussen’s exquisite production techniques.

The album featured several multi-layered guitar solos – some of the best you are likely to hear – arpeggiated chords in clean, reverberated tones, and some of the best metal drumming of the decade. Metallica were pushing the boundaries of metal on Ride the Lightning, rewriting the rulebook for the genre and laying down the foundations for experimentation on future releases.

Lyrically, James Hetfield began to explore more socially conscious themes and concepts. ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ explores the notion of ‘eye for an eye’, particularly concerning the threat of nuclear war that had plagued the social consciousness of 1980s American society during the anxiety-provoking Cold War. ‘Ride The Lightning’ is an examination of the criminal justice system, written from the perspective of a prisoner on death row, awaiting the electric chair that dominates the album’s cover art. Hetfield screams, “Guilty as charged, but damn it, it ain’t right.” ‘Fade To Black’, meanwhile, was written during Hetfield’s experience with suicidal thoughts.

There are literary influences across the record too, with the theme of ‘The Call of Ktulu’ taken from H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shadow over Innsmouth and its mythological demi-god Cthulhu. ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ takes lyrical inspiration from Ernest Hemmingway’s novel of the same name, while the album’s title was taken from a line in Stephen King’s novel, The Stand, which Kirk Hammett had been reading at the time. ‘Creeping Death’ describes the ten Biblical plagues that descended upon Ancient Egypt.

Ride The Lightning went on to go six times platinum in 2012, having sold six million copies of the album in the United States. It has had a lasting legacy, not only in thrash and metal but in other genres too, such as hardcore punk. Future Metallica bassist, Jason Newsted, said that the album was the best Metallica record after Metallica (1991), though he himself performed on the latter, so he may have had some biased grievances.

This is an album that showcases a band with a clear goal of dominating the growing metal scene of the 1980s, having finally gotten over the initial turbulent lineup changes of the band’s early days. Hetfield had also overcome his early fears of being the band’s lead vocalist and fires away lines at us with unrivalled energy and vigour.

All of Hetfield’s prowess is only given such a platform by the sheer speed and precision with which Ulrich, Burton and Hammett deliver a sonically earth-shattering vision and sound. Ride The Lightning’s legacy will live on as one of the best thrash metal albums of all time. It changed the future of metal with its experimentation and brazenness in trying things that had ‘til that point not been conceived.