Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Metallica – Ride the Lightning (1984)

I will get a lot of flak about this, but I’m not a big fan of this album. It’s not horrible, but to me, it’s nothing more than a mid-point between the near-perfect Kill ‘Em All and the completely perfect Master of Puppets. It doesn’t have any of the raw aggression of the former, or the fine detail or complex workmanship of the latter. It’s got good songs, and sounds okay, but it’s not an album like …Puppets.

Okay, a few things should be said here. Metallica went out with their first album and did good, and Megaforce pulled them back in the studio in 1984, pretty much with the intention of releasing another album with ten clones of “Seek and Destroy.” And moving from one good thing to the volume two of it is always problematic. Do you copy your success? Do you try to go that extra bit you didn’t get to do on the first album? Do you try completely new formulas? And Metallica (or let’s be honest, Cliff Burton) decided to do a bit of each.

There are some songs that follow what happened on the first album closely, like the anti (or maybe pro)-military “Fight Fire with Fire,” that has the fast riffs, the barking lyrics, and some screaming leads. Ditto for “Trapped Under Ice” and even more so for “Creeping Death,” a very riffy little number that actually tells the story of Moses and his battle against slavery in Egypt. But it isn’t a good-times, Davey and Goliath bible story; it’s got a real edge to it that makes it much more rockable, and forecasts the kind of work the band does on their next album. It’s also got a nice little chorus part with the lyrics “die/by my hand/I creep across the land” that people love to chant when the band plays the song in their live sets.

Another song that shows the band’s movement in a new musical direction is “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” about the Ernest Hemingway book of the same name. It’s a slow dirge that seems to almost be the antithesis of thrash metal at the time, but the sludge of the guitars and the eerie lyrics (plus the giant bell that they used) make the song so authentic and true that it still remains a hugely popular number for the band, who still play it live. The album, while not a concept album in the strictest sense, features songs that all have to do with death in very intense circumstances, and this song fits that theme well.

There is one song here that alone deserves a perfect ten, and that’s the ballad “Fade to Black.” The song, which deals with suicide, was apparently written after the band’s entire equipment truck was stolen, almost derailing their entire career. It starts with simple acoustic guitar and haunting lyrics, then builds to very powerful rhythm chords and an incredible hook brought through the distorted Marshall stack sound. The tune swaps back and forth between totally clean acoustic guitar for verses and this blinding power chord riff before launching into a much faster ending, complete with absolutely perfect, harmonic lead guitar work by Hammett. This song is probably one of the most perfect examples of heavy metal I could think of. If I were going to Mars tomorrow and could only bring one mix CD for my voyage, this song would be on it. It’s a flawless production and I love it.

The album in general has good sound, and is the first production credit for Flemming Rasmussen, who also recorded the aforementioned Master of Puppets and remained one of those strange names that every headbanger saw on the inside of their album cover and wondered if the dude was a Swedish Chef or something. (Danish, I think, and oddly enough, his biggest credit before this was engineer on a Cat Stevens album. Rasmussen also recorded …And Justice For All before getting the boot for Bob Rock and the black album.) My main complaint is that a couple of the songs, like the title cut and “Escape”, sound pretty atypical for Metallica songs, especially the vocals. It makes it sound like they were trying too hard to experiment with song structure, and it didn’t work well. And the album ends with “The Call of Ktulu”, a nine-minute instrumental snoozefest that sounds like they were listening to too much Rush that week.

Like I said, the album’s got some good cuts on it. But it doesn’t fit together well, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to listen to this start to finish without heading for the fast forward button. It’s good to see them taking the first step toward what I think might be their best album, but as an album, it doesn’t entirely work for me. I’m loath to say that, for fear of a slew of Metallifans telling me I’m wrong, but this was the kind of album for me where I’d take the two or three good songs on it and pad out that C-90 tape that I used for one of their other albums with those tracks. But it got better, much better, and it’s good to hear this in-between point.

Rating: 7.5