Master of Puppets has always been the critical favorite. Metallica ("The Black Album") is one of the best-selling albums of all time. But Ride The Lightning marked Metallica's legitimacy as one of the biggest acts of the '80's: All the attitude and morbidity of the thrash metal scene coupled with songwriting chops and instrumentality that critics couldn't help but acknowledge was masterful. Most would say the fire lit by Lightning directly resulted in Master, one of the most revered metal releases of all time.
Some however—namely myself and Kurt Cobain—would go as far as to label Lightning the band's best overall effort (it helps to have Kurt Cobain on your side when contradicting the status quo). Join me as I revisit Ride The Lightning and rank its tracks in order of greatness, while providing the less heavy of you a suggested moment in the song to seek out and aid in your appreciation of this classic.
Thrash purists were appalled when they heard stadium anthems such as "Enter Sandman" and "Sad But True" on the "Black" album. They should have seen it coming years earlier when they listened to "Escape." Although I remain a staunch defender of "Black," hair metal clichés like "Escape" don't get approval. Do we really need an anti-conformity anthem from a band that had already recorded Kill 'Em All? The sludge metal-predecessor riff during the bridge is tight, but James Hetfield's exaggerated growls prove that he was meant to sing '80s thrash, not death metal. The air raid siren that takes the track to the exit would normally be frowned upon, but it's an improvement here. Master of Puppets doesn't have any bombs, so this song's presence on Ride The Lightning helps bolster the argument for its followup album as Metallica's best.
BEST MINUTE: 2:47-3:47
07) "Ride The Lightning"
Another win for Master of Puppets, as its title track far outshines that of the band's previous album. Indeed, "Ride The Lighting" is really just a poor man's rendition of Iron Maiden's "Hallowed Be Thy Name." Both come from the viewpoint of a man doomed to execution, although Maiden's is more introspective while Metallica's is more political. Maiden also had Bruce Dickinson's pipes at their most epic, while Metallica again has Hetfield. It's impossible to write this track off however, thanks almost entirely to Kirk Hammett, who delivers the album's single best solo, a 90-second monster that wanders from agonized to aggressive like the inner thoughts of the song's theoretically split-personality psychopath (Hetfield acknowledges that "someone else was controlling me" when the crime is described). The relatively low ranking of this track just goes to show that solos aren't everything.
BEST MINUTE: 3:20-4:20
06) "The Call of Ktulu"
It's interesting to note that although little space in this article will be granted to the lyricism of Metallica, a strictly instrumental track still falls far below our favorite songs. It goes to show that, despite being somewhat obtuse lyrically, the band makes up for it with a general badass nature that encourages us to sing along. That's not to say that "The Call of Ktulu" is at all a disappointing track, aside from the brutal misspelling of "Cthulhu" (come on guys). The album starts subtly, but rather kick it into fifth gear like some other Metallica tracks that open at a low speed, "Ktulu" rises gradually until around the six-minute mark, when looming chords and guitar effects announce the rise of the titular old god. The band also gets kudos for realizing that ultimately it would need a sweet instrumental track for whenever it recorded a live album with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the future.
BEST MINUTE: 6:10-7:10
05) "Trapped Under Ice"
Thanks to games like Guitar Hero, kids who have never picked up an actual instrument think the basic formula for becoming a guitar god is to write a balladic five minute song and then figure out a way to transition into a blistering solo to end the track out. Metallica subverted the formula (which applies to its own "One") on "Trapped Under Ice" by just featuring meedlies and squeadlies all over the place. Hammet tears out of the gate like a six-string Seabiscuit and then adds two more totally independent solos elsewhere within the four-minute track. The solos are so prevalent, the difficulty of the bleeding-fingers verse riff is often ignored. This song is basically a thrash 101 thanks to all the noodling, broken wrists and occasional gallop riffs. It makes the fact that the song is about being frozen like Brendan Fraser a moot point.
BEST MINUTE: 2:05-3:05
04) "Fight Fire With Fire"
One inescapable trend in metal music: Bands open albums with a minute-or-so acoustic bit, fooling your mom into thinking everything is safe, and then lurching into death growls or 180 BPM riffing. The contrast is effective. The world more-or-less has Metallica to thank for this, and not just because of the classic Master track "Battery." Ride The Lightning gets its own shot of adrenaline in "Fight Fire With Fire," a song so shred-tastic that it makes you question if Hetfield and Hammett possess cyborg wrists. Sure, "Battery" might mess around with chord progressions and stuff but this is just tremolo picking to the extreme. The pacing is so intense that when Lars Ulrich is left stomping out blastbeats by himself for a few seconds post-bridge, it almost seems like a breather. This track truly gets Lightning off and running.
BEST MINUTE: The first one.
03) "Fade To Black"
"Fade to Black" has wrongly been relegated by many to the classification of "ballad." No. "Nothing Else Matters" is a ballad. "Fade to Black" is a song that just happens to exist on an album full of fretwork fireworks. Thanks to the relative lack of guitars (very relative), "Fade to Black" is also the album's most hard-hitting track, as the listener is forced to consider Hetfield's lyrics versus his guitar prowess. Lines such as "I was me but now he is gone" keep attention on the wordplay for a song that doesn't feature a hook. The album's heaviest guitars (except perhaps a few moments on "Call of Ktulu") help complement the heavy themes of suicide coming from the protagonist. And just in case you, as a long-haired metalhead, didn't come here for deep spiritual reflection, Hammett does get time to deliver another great solo to take this one home.
BEST MINUTE: 3:55-4:55
02) "For Whom The Bell Tolls"
Despite doing exactly the opposite during "Fight Fire With Fire," Metallica realizes that lyrics are worth waiting for. "For Whom The Bell Tolls" makes the wait easy, as the band lays down no less than four unique riff parts during the song's two minute introduction, from the chugging time bomb (:55) to the "time marches on" riff (1:50). The lyrics hit almost as hard. Metallica's anti-war stance can't be overplayed but in truth the band only released two songs between Lightning and Master that directly mention warfare (although many tracks allow listeners to assume for themselves). The band doesn't skimp in relaying horror to its audience, from the haunted toll of the titular bell to the damning line "look to the sky just before you die, it's the last time you will." Metallica may have bummed the bell concept from AC/DC's "Hell's Bells," but at least it delivers a far more hellish experience. This track is the only one on the album to not feature a solo (that's just a riff at 1:20, sorry), but the chaotic squeals of the instrument add to the terrifying effect.
BEST MINUTE: 1:05-2:05
01) "Creeping Death"
Metallica and religion aren't the most logical of bunkmates, as "Leper Messiah" and "The God Who Failed" would later demonstrate. Still, the Old Testament is home to some fairly metal activity, such as the Angel of Death who comes to kill the Egyptian firstborn sons in the book of Exodus (another thrash band, less than coincidentally). The opening chords bring visions of the pharoah's grandiosity, reminiscent of Iron Maiden's Power Slave album art (which came out two months after Ride The Lightning, so Metallica is safe in this case). The beauty of this track lies in its double-edged sword of a bridge. Yes, there's another Hammett solo and it ranks among his best (if not quite up to snuff with "Ride The Lightning"). It touches on traditional Egyptian music briefly with a phrygian passage and then creates a tremolo drone to imitate a plague of something, maybe locusts or maybe death itself. As soon as Hammett ends is where the album's greatest moment begins. A riff imitates the sinister call of war horns, leading into Hetfield's own sinister delivery of "die...by-my-hands," a personal narration from the Angel itself. The moment resulted in one of the greatest moments in live music, when full arenas begin pumping their fists and chanting "die." Metallica has never asked them to, but it's such a natural reaction to the riff. Try to resist.
BEST MINUTE: 3:10-4:10