The following text by Sean Doolittle appears as part of our twelfth annual extreme baseball preview. For any metalheads who want to pair their headbanging and windmilling with the national pastime, check out the full feature in the May 2016 issue, which is also available for iPhone/iPad and Android.
In 1984, Metallica released Ride the Lightning as a follow-up to their debut album, Kill ’Em All. If Kill ’Em All was an all-out air assault on your auditory system, Lightning is a laser-guided missile headed straight for your eardrums. It’s slightly more contained and has a more focused sound, but the raw energy and aggression of their debut is still very much there. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. As Decibel’s top-ranked thrash album of all time, it needs no introduction.
On April 30, the Oakland Athletics will be giving away a gnome figurine with my bearded mug on it. Since 2012, whenever I’ve entered the game from the bullpen, Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” has blasted out of the Coliseum speakers in Oakland. The gnome, decked out in a Metallica shirt and throwing up horns, will play two audio clips of the track for fans to rock out to during the game.
So, this year, Decibel has charged me with the unenviable task of ranking the tracks on this thrash-sterpiece. (Disclaimer: since all of the songs on this album are really good, I tried to rank them in ascending order of awesomeness.)
By no means is this a bad song, but the slower chugging guitars and melodic chorus cause it to stick out a bit on this album. Fairly or unfairly—maybe it’s because it’s in “A,” maybe it’s the way the guitars match the vocals in the chorus—it just doesn’t quite feel as heavy as the other songs on the album. It’s an awesome song, but I suppose it’s telling that the band has only played it once live. More like “Escapegoat,” am I right?
7. “The Call of Ktulu”
It’s a testament to the strength of this release that the remaining songs on the list are considered classics in the band’s catalogue. This long instrumental, clocking in just under nine minutes, features some of the best musicianship on the album. Inspired by Cliff Burton’s fascination with horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, the song’s guitars do an amazing job of capturing the eerie essence of the Ktulu—a creature that is part octopus, part man, part dragon—thanks to Burton’s efforts on bass.
6.“Fight Fire With Fire”
The main reason I don’t have this higher is only because of the way I was lured into a false sense of security by the classical acoustic guitars in the intro, only to be blindsided by an absolutely pulverizing riff. Oh, and that noise at the end of the song is the sound of your mind being blown to smithereens after all the blistering guitar riffs, the wailing guitar solos and pummeling drums that are all packed into the first track on the album.
5. “Trapped Under Ice”
Another true thrash classic. The strength of this song lies in its straightforward simplicity. Once the drums kick in, the song just puts its head down and relentlessly powers full steam ahead. The galloping rhythm guitars, Lars’ driving double-bass drums, and Hetfield’s vocals do an amazing job of capturing the frantic and terrifying energy of being buried alive in an icy grave.
4. “Ride the Lightning”
While this song may not be a true thrasher, it certainly has plenty of thrash elements. And even though it chugs along at a mostly mid-tempo pace, it might just be one of the heaviest on RTL. In my ridiculously humble opinion, it’s one of the best-written songs on the album. It has an iconic intro, dark and angry rhythm guitars, a shred-tastic solo, and some of Hetfield’s best vocals. Absolutely electric.
3. “Fade to Black”
A coming of age song, in a sense, on which Metallica declared they were more than just a thrash band. This song proves that the guitars don’t have to be played at breakneck speed for a metal song to be heavy. This song is a ballad, but it’s really, really heavy. A solemn acoustic guitar leads into lyrics contemplating dark human emotions and suicide. Hetfield’s impressive cleans are full of pain and angst, and fit the song perfectly. As the song continues to build, the group spends the second half of the track back on familiar footing amidst powerful, driving riffage, featuring some of Hammett’s finest work.
2. “Creeping Death”
This is a metal song of biblical proportions; a tour de force through the book of Exodus. Thanks to some seriously tight hammering riffs, the song manages to be melodic and seriously heavy at the same time. Lyrically, it’s dark and full of imagery (“Blood, running red and strong, down the Nile / Plague, darkness three days long, hail to fire”). Metallica are known for their monster intros and outros, which are both present here, but the ominous chants during the bridge may be the highlight of this song.
1. “For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“Take a look to the sky just before you die / It’s the last time he will.” This is Metallica firing on all cylinders. This song has a monster intro, thanks to Burton’s legendary bass riff. Powerful, heavy chords pace the track as it marches us headlong toward the battlefield. On an album full of powerful songs with lyrics about death and destruction, this may be the heaviest of them all, as the lyrics portray the tragedy of doomed soldiers. Don’t believe me? Come hear it for yourself at the Coliseum in Oakland, where it signals the end of the line for visiting teams.