Ride The Lightning: Metallica and the sound of Sweet Silence

By the time they arrived in Copenhagen in February 1984 Metallica were established as thrash metal pioneers.

Kill ‘Em All, their debut album, had been a critical triumph but they barely had two quarters to rub together.

They disembarked in Denmark having recently had all their equipment stolen in Boston and trudged to Sweet Silence Studios to record their second album with a copy of the first – producer Flemming Rasmussen had never heard the record – and the riff tapes that provided the raw materials for drummer Lars Ulrich and singer/guitarist James Hetfield to build the new songs.

Rasmussen, like Metallica, was a relative rookie. He produced his first album in 1982 but had become a co-owner of Sweet Silence, the studio he built with Freddy Hansson in 1976, a couple of years before working with Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow.

Rasmussen and Sweet Silence were developing a reputation for, in the Dane’s own words, his speed as an engineer and in gaining an understanding the needs of the artist regardless of their genre.

The studio was situated a few blocks from the beach towards the northern end of the island of Amager, a short distance from Copenhagen Airport and just along the coast from where the remarkable Øresundsbroen now connects the city with Malmö on the other side of the Øresund strait.

Ulrich, who founded Metallica with Hetfield in California in 1981, knew Copenhagen well. He was born in Gentofte, to the north of Copenhagen, and arrived with his band on a wintry corner of Strandlodsvej and Øresundsvej to settle in to the studio that would be not only the office for the next month, but home.

Throughout much of their career Metallica have recorded at night – Ulrich’s preference for doing so being central to the decision – and they slept at Sweet Silence during the daytime.

In the crisp darkness of the Scandinavian nights Rasmussen guided Ulrich, Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bass player Cliff Burton through the production of the most underestimated record of their career; Ride The Lightning was recorded in a matter of weeks but its legacy for the band and for heavy metal in general is undeniable.

Though Metallica are often credited as part of the clutch of bands who created the thrash metal genre it’s Exodus whose first record, Bonded By Blood, is widely considered the Bay Area thrash archetype. That’s due in no small part to the basic veracity of the viewpoint but it’s also because Metallica’s first album arguably outstripped thrash metal before it ever really began.

Even on that first album Metallica were dealing in riffs over outright speed, in classically-rooted melodic metal over the flat-out aggression and maniacal arms race that defined so many of their peers. That Kill ‘Em All was creatively bigger than a genre it helped to form is undoubtedly a controversial suggestion. What’s incontrovertibly true is that Ride The Lightning completed the job.

Metallica’s 1984 release forms a journey from the thrash metal puritanism of the opening tracks to the instrumental experimentation of the last.

The third track – not the fourth as one might assume – is arguably the defining song of their early development. ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ moved the basic tenets of thrash into a more mature version of themselves. In doing so Metallica set the tone for not only the songs that followed, but the albums too.

Why, then, do we still talk about Metallica as a thrash metal band? Because that’s exactly what they were at their core in the early days and they were innovators even then. But when their thrash chops are questioned it’s the beginning of Ride The Lightning that provides the most powerful rebuke.

While there’s always been a melodic element to Metallica’s sound, an element that plays a part in ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ in particular, the first two songs on Ride The Lightning are thrash how thrash should be. The first begins with an acoustic introduction and then explodes like a hydrogen bomb and just keeps on going.

But in ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ Metallica found a truly special formula and one of the very brightest songs of their entire history. Inspired by the 1940 Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, it paints a picture with extraordinary vividness and clarity. From the literal tolling of the bell at the start to the sinister finality of its end, it’s flawless.

Hetfield and Hammett rip through one of Metallica’s most epic beginnings but the real star is Burton, whose bass introduces the song’s second best riff before the guitars even get near it. It’s a delicious intricacy and it’s vintage Metallica.

When the main riff puts the song in a death-grip it’s clear that thrash is in its blood but a NWOBHM-inspired ear for a riff is in charge.

Metallica have recorded a lot of songs since 1984, played a lot of shows and generated many memories for a great many people. Few get close to the first time a Metallica nut hears ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ and even fewer can match the first time they see it performed live.

‘Fade To Black’ was famously written not about the thinly-veiled suicidal themes in the lyrics but about the theft of the band’s equipment in the winter before they arrived in Copenhagen.

It was Metallica’s first ballad, a choice that indicated very clearly that the band’s ambitions were bigger than their roots. Sell-out accusations were first levelled at Metallica for having the temerity to sign a record deal and put out their first album; they increased tenfold when ‘Fade To Black’ hit the record stores.

Hardened thrashers needn’t worry, however – at least not yet. Parts of Ride The Lightning play like an A to Z of everything that was wonderful about thrash in the mid-1980s. ‘Trapped Under Ice’ and ‘Escape’ represent a vicious one-two combination punch that maintains Metallica’s nuanced writing and focus on gigantic riffs but reflects their thrash roots unapologetically and credibly.

These two tracks are among the most under-appreciated of Metallica’s older works; ‘Escape’ in particular is another song that bridges the thrash band Metallica were and the straight-up metal behemoth they would become.

They undoubtedly suffer by comparison with the songs that wrap around them. Where ‘Fade To Black’ book-ends them on one side, ‘Creeping Death’ follows on the other. And nothing can compete with ‘Creeping Death’.

Ride The Lightning‘s first single, its seventh track, has got the lot: a massive intro, an unstoppable thrash riff, Burton’s little twiddly three-note fill that outsiders wouldn’t even notice – and that’s all in the first 30 seconds.

The riffs are all anchored in pure thrash and abetted by a huge chorus and an astonishing guitar solo. It even boasts a breakdown section that was years before its time and gives the fans an excuse to shout “DIE!” over and over again at the top of their lungs at Metallica shows to this day. What could be finer?

The final song on the album is ‘The Call Of Ktulu’, a Lovecraft-inspired instrumental that could scarcely contrast more with the track that precedes it. It’s beautiful and ethereal, hauntingly played and able to combine tempos and moods at the drop of a hat. It’s not a song but a composition, a classical piece played hard by one of the bands responsible for the punk-infused genre that changed heavy metal.

What Metallica went on to achieve has been nothing short of breathtaking but alongside their astronomical success there’s been unspeakable tragedy and more than a few questionable choices.

Whatever Metallica do in the future, wherever they play, whoever they play with, Ride The Lightning will always be very close to perfect. That it was unleashed in 1984, while the other great thrash bands of their generation were still preoccupied by snapping necks, is testament to their imagination, to their ability and to the sheer scale of their ambition.

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Chris Nee
Editor