Ride the Lightning was the first Metallica music I ever heard, albeit it was at the beginning of 1986 and not at its release of 1984. Thirty years on from that release date, and everything that makes it one of the best and most admired albums of the metal is still there and relevant to listeners new or old.
This album was a step up from their debut Kill 'Em All, without losing the elements of thrash that made it the standout it was. The start of the opener "Fight Fire With Fire" draws on that immediately, the clean guitar beginnings lulling the listener into a state of ambiance, before cranking into the thrash guitar riffs that envelops the speakers into the heart of the song. Just brilliant. I will never forget the day when, on a school bus trip we asked the driver to put this album on over the stereo. The beginning of the album brought responses from many of the girls on board of "Wow, isn't this nice music!"... before the anguished cries of "OH, what is THIS shit!" as the real guitars kicked in. The perfect response to the start of the album, from lovers of metal and detractors alike. The title track "Ride the Lightning" follows, and in turn moves into "For Whom the Bells Tolls". "Ride the Lightning" is dominated by the guitars and Hetfield's squealing young vocals, while "For Whom the Bells Tolls" is distinguished by Cliff Burton's bass warbling through the song, wah wah pedal on full. Great stuff.
Two tracks on this album highlight what made Metallica stand out from the crowd. The first is "Fade to Black", what some people in the mid-80's called Metallica's 'sell-out' song - how wrong they were, and little did they know what the 90's would bring in that regard! "Fade to Black" instead showed all the strengths of the band, without losing the intensity of their music. It is one of their signature pieces, because it showed that as a thrash metal band their were able to diversify without losing their roots (certainly, at this stage of their career anyway). "Fade to Black" has been the song I have played on every stereo I have bought since this time, to judge if it is good enough to stand up to my music needs. That's how I feel about the strength of this song.
Shifting onto Side 2 of the album, and the goodness just keeps on coming. Opening up with the brilliant "Trapped Under Ice", the speed returns in true style and hammers along with glee. The hugely underrated "Escape" follows. It seems to be a song that has slipped through the cracks of Metallica folklore, and I for one have never really understood that. Hetfield's vocals in particular are great in this song. Perhaps part of the reason for this song's undervalue is that it is followed by "Creeping Death", certainly one of Metallica's most favoured. Thirty years later it is still as good as it was back in the day. A gem. The closing song on the album is the second of the two songs that helped Metallica pull away from the crowd. The instrumental "The Call of Ktulu" is an amazing song, combining every great aspect of the Metallica legacy. It too combines those clean guitars with the thrash and heavy metal throughout different stages of the song, telling its own tales even without lyrics to do so. The building crescendo to finish the album is majestic, and puts an exclamation mark on what is a classic album.
Ride the Lightning still stands the test of time, and thirty years on is still as important as it was when it was released. The memories and nostalgia that it brings up for me whenever I listen to it continue to make this one of the finest albums of its genre.
Rating: Feel no pain but my life ain't easy, I know I'm my best friend. 5/5