Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Our Electric Band


Recorded in Denmark with producer Flemming Rasmussen, Ride the Lightning showed a band making Brobdingnagian strides in writing and performance.  Although there are a couple tracks which continue Kill 'Em All's manic obsession with war and mythology, this album is earthier and more relatable--and better.

"Fight Fire With Fire"--In their 30-plus years of more-or-less music-making, Metallica have three  impeccably-crafted kick-starts to songs.  "Fight Fire With Fire" is the earliest of the trio, a Renaissance-styled acoustic piece that puts me in mind of a poncy prince posing for a portrait.  But, turns out, all that prettiness is really portentous.

This destroys "Hit the Lights."  Everything sounds like burning.  The flashover wasted zero seconds and showed zero mercy.  People who get off on tap dancing on the threshold of pain will find much to make their bodies move.

James Hetfield is less whiny throughout, and his throat is showing the effects that touring has on a still-developing vocalist.  Kirk Hammett steps even further away from Dave Mustaine's shadow, his solos flagrant and foul, spiraling like Fiendfyre, only with the added bonus of control.

"Fight Fire With Fire" was made for--and quite possibly by--those dudes who lived day-to-day in a rapidly-Reaganing country.  "Dog has fleas?  Burn it.  Grandma has the flu.  Shoot her.   Bedroom window's cracked?  Throw me through it."  Those guys who always seemed to have leftover Chinese in the fridge, y'know?

"Ride the Lightning"--Not an anti-capital punishment screed (just ask the fella who wrote it).  The lyrics are a stark snapshot of a condemned man's last day on Earth, and the music takes pains to detail every shallow rapid breath from his lungs and each frightening palpitation in his chest.  Cold sweat on warm skin gone green at the sight of that chair, that salad bowl, those straps.  Realizing that is the place where, and the method by which, you will die.  This man took someone else's life into his own hands--that's bad!  Now someone else is taking his life into their hands--that's good!

Hetfield loses a bit of his newly-acquired vox control here at times, but given the songs subject matter, the occasional squeals can be forgiven.  My forbearance is greatly boosted by the break at 3:12, when Hetfield starts to play a marvelously repetitive mid-tempo riff over which Hammett goes many gates of Hell off.  (Life flashing before your eyes, at a different speed in each orb.)  And that makes two straight songs with exhilarating rhythm tracks laid masterfully underneath lead work that is nearly-as.  Neatly done, gentlemen.

"For Whom the Bell Tolls"--The bell sounds at the beginning are quite trite and cliche (not to mention mad AC/DC, son) but Metallica promptly follow them up with a game-changer.  That squirrelly riff is being played on a bass.  When I first heard this, I had zero comprehension as to how that could even be a bass guitar.  Forgive my ignorance!  I was quite young then, and a girl atop of that, and girls are the confirmed worst (source:  Internet).  When I saw live footage of "Bell" weeks later on the Cliff 'Em All laser disc, I was dumbfounded at the sight and sound.  Looking back now, I'm equally astounded that my brother owned a laser disc player.

At 0:57 the chromatics chunk up, that sort of nasty surge that might cause scrunch-face or punch-face.  After a breather, a melodic section I like to call "The Ruling Threes" takes center stage.  Another fucking transition, then finally, we hit the verses.  This is another war anthem, but unlike the near-lascivious offerings on Kill 'Em All, "Bell" takes the bluntly fatalistic approach, outlining a battleground stomped upon by regular men wielding slightly-irregular weapons.  The title and subject matter were taken by Ernest Hemingway's 1940 novel.  Dunno how much quality reading time Hetfield was able to sneak in, what with doing shots of Jack out of aspiring strippers' belly buttons and pissing everywhere but toilets, but it's no surprise that he'd gravitate to Papa.  All those short sentences.  All that short-penis overcompensation.

Ride the Lightning was the most-played album of freshman year, and no song inspired me to press the "back" button on the CD player more than "For Whom The Bell Tolls."

"Fade To Black"--A minor-riot occurred among the fanbase when this tenderly-plucked ballad sifted out of speakers.   Bud cans were crushed...denim was ripped...allegiances were spat at James Hetfield.  Listeners who stuck around were rewarded with some heavy, solemn shit.  The soliloquy of a no-hoper is pie-easy to relate to, but "Fade To Black" lacks the insight to make James' words something other than.  "Life sucks you suck I suck let's die" is a "ten gets you twelve" sentiment in the world of heavy metal.

Thankfully, Hetfield the musician possesses a wider, deeper capacity for effusive expression than Hetfield the lyricist does.  Come for the basic suicidal yearnings, stay for the stretch of soloing that commences after the chair has (presumably) been kicked away.   It's the "Comfortably Numb" of metal.*

"Trapped Under Ice"--It would be super if this expanse of burnt blue was not a metaphor of isolation/alienation.  It would be magnificent if "Trapped Under Ice" were in fact about a person trapped in a frozen body of water.  Or sealed in a cryogenic chamber.  Or hogtied in a Kenmore Elite.
Dumb as the topic may be, the band brings the heat.  Kirk's fissure-creating volley of notes, James' Death Point-Striking Riffs hitting sharks square on their hearts, and some of Lars' more noteworthy drumming (especially how he tests for cracks at the end of the first verse).

"Escape"--Now.  Was the scruffy, spotty, short-sighted portion of the fanbase also pissed about this poppy venture, or were they too busy beating their girlfriends over "Fade To Black" still?

Yes, "Escape" is poppy.  Mmm, I love pop music.  Some people don't.  Some people can't wait for the opportunity to slander their heroes, knowing deep down that idolatry is dumb.

The opening chords are more water than vodka, but soon enough the punk-ish lyrics (Independence!  You can't make me compromise!  "Feel no pain but my life ain't easy!") arrive with a fresh bottle.  Honestly all I need is the chorus.  Basically we have James singing and playing in front of a mirror.  I imagine some vessels burst hearing Hetfield harmonize but again...I love me some pop.  And it's not like this is Spandau Ballet, it's still fucking Metallica.

"Creeping Death"--That riff.  That riff.  Pharaohs announce the dawn of their reigns to such sounds.  Then God kills their kid.

It is all about the bridge, AKA "Die!  Die!  Die!"  This goes over like a Hetfield on fire at gigs, explaining why only one other song in their catalog has been played live more times than "Creeping Death."  The riff was taken from Hammett's days in Exodus and judging by the title, that wasn't the only thing the Metalli-dudes decided to borrow.

Exodus 12:29 in the King James Bible concerns God heartlessly laying down a plague upon Egypt that wipes out all first-born children, beginning with the Pharaoh and working on down.  Cool as the lyrics here, nothing is on the level of "and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead."  Say what you will as loud as you can about the Bible, that thing is endlessly quotable.

"The Call of Ktulu"--A nine-minute instrumental co-credited to Mustaine.  This is pretty much what happened to the poor schlub from "Trapped Under Ice":  he was devoured by a great old one.  Aw.  I'm sure it's warm in the intestinal tract.  And gross.  Which suddenly reminds me I've never visited the state of Florida.

Ride the Lightning gained Metallica ever more converts to their caustic cause, and has aged very well.  Decibel magazine named it "Best Thrash Metal Album" in 2011, and while I would not go that far, it's definitely among the greatest of the genre (and my second-favorite by Metallica). 

*"Fade To Black" inspired a number of the band's more impressionable fans, so it's almost hilarious to learn that James Hetfield was driven to write the lyrics after the theft of Metallica's equipment during a tour stop in Boston.  Part of me is, Wow dude, really?  Yet another part tries to sympathize.  It's tough indeed for musicians when the tools of their trade are swiped by ne'er-do-wells.  The expense can be enormous, for one.  Whereas if I lose my last live pen, I can just walk to CVS and buy another whole pack of the damn things.

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