Metallica’s ‘Orion’ at 30

Metallica’s Master Of Puppets album is recognised as one of heavy metal’s finest ever. Recorded at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen and released in March 1986, it dripped with creativity and ignited the band’s career. Metallica weren’t the vital thrash metal pioneers they’d been just three years before, but masters of their craft and icons in the making.

Six months later – 30 years ago this month – James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett were on the road to Copenhagen once again, this time on tour with Anthrax. They played a show near the Swedish capital, Stockholm, on September 26th. Burton, Metallica’s bass player, was killed at dawn when their bus crashed on the way to Denmark.

The cruel circumstances of Burton’s fate and the story of Hetfield’s solo hunt for black ice on the road have passed into Metallica lore. At Burton’s cremation ceremony the Master Of Puppets instrumental track ‘Orion’ was played. Although he’d never played it live, it was arguably Burton’s greatest recorded performance.

‘Orion’ is adored by hardcore Metallica fans and yet rarely referenced by outsiders, even those who lionise the album on which it dwells. For obvious reasons it occupies an emotional place in the band’s legacy. It’s not a live fixture and it was almost never played in full in the first 20 years after Burton’s passing.

The stunning performance that ends Metallica’s 2013 3D movie Through The Never is the best possible indicator of the esteem in which ‘Orion’ is held. After the chaos of a baffling concert film, the band, now featuring bassist Robert Trujillo, return to the stage in an empty arena. Seated, they play the instrumental in full. It’s a contemplative moment, one designed specifically to pay tribute to Metallica’s lost brother.

But it’s not just its elevated status and connection to Burton that make ‘Orion’ such an important song for Metallica fans. In its own right it’s an extraordinary piece, a milestone in the history of metal’s greatest band. There’s no sentimental substitute for quality and the reverence of ‘Orion’ originates in its brilliance.

When people talk about it as a progressive instrumental, they’re correct. But it’s entirely devoid of flab and within the first minute it tears into one of the harshest riffs of Metallica’s career, a stabbing headbanger’s haven that’s adapted in the next passage and then returns to underpin the first of the track’s four solos.

At the four-minute mark, ‘Orion’ falls silent. Burton takes over as the song goes off into the most progressive place Metallica have ever visited, and he never lets go. It’s Burton’s song. The middle section is a masterclass of bass playing and a masterpiece of metal orchestration, and yet it’s entirely without waffle.

The last solo of the track, Hammett’s second, is unhinged and brings ‘Orion’ to a close. 508 seconds after the start of a lengthy fade in, the song fades back out. Three guitar solos and a bass solo. Two of Metallica’s raddest riffs. One enormously successful experiment in reverie.

And, of course, no words. Maybe just as much as the unbreakable Burton bond, that’s part of the reason ‘Orion’ isn’t just a song. It’s not just an instrumental. It’s not just music. ‘Orion’ is a work of art. Burton’s death kicked it into a kind of mythical status but its genius trumps even that.

Thirty years on, ‘Orion’ still sounds alive. It’s still uncompromising and beautiful, still a perfect collaboration between vibrant musical imagination and raw thrash metal attitude. It’s the closest Metallica have been to echoing the classical influence that’s always been somewhere in their make-up, and yet it’s also indicative of a continuing connection with thrash. It booms with aggression even by today’s standards.

Ask any longstanding Metallica fan what their favourite song is and you’ll seldom be given ‘Orion’ as an answer. But ask them what they think of ‘Orion’ and you’ll see in their change of expression that this is one piece of music that really means something.

Chris Nee