How Good Did Metallica Used to Be?

Metal fans love to say how crap Metallica are. In fact, it’s probably their favourite activity, next to obnoxiously yelling “SLAYER!” for no real reason, and completely denying that it’s worth talking about metal’s gender politics. So to redress the balance slightly I want to point out just how fucking awesome Metallica were once upon a time, by looking at two songs off Ride The Lightning. It goes without saying really that Metallica were great, and that they’ve been pretty awful for 25+ years (!), but I think these two songs totally encapsulate what used to be so good about them.

‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is that rare beast, a mid-tempo heavy metal song that isn’t completely fucking boring. After beginning with a bell (do u c wot they did their), it has an intro that has three killer riffs before it gets to the first verse. Man, Metallica used to just throw away riffs that other bands would base whole songs around. I love that oddly catchy widdly riff that’s really just a chromatic scale (??? Look at me pretending to know musical terms), and then it plows into that riff that forms the chorus. Der ner ner NERRRR, der ner ner NERRR, der ner ner NERRR, DER NER NERR (I can’t work out how to do a treble clef on here, so this’ll have to do as musical notation). Damn, that riff has a crunch that’s as satisfying as the crunch of really good granola. Or, um, a crème brûlée. Or something less middle class.

The other thing that really makes this song stand out to me is the melody. It sounds weird because Metallica are one of the first thrash metal bands and mark a point where heavy metal had even less to do with tunes than before, but they could write really good, catchy, singable melodies. They just didn’t hit screeching high notes like Rob Halford or Dio. The verses to ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ are always stuck in my head for days after I hear this song.

Can I also point out – it’s kind of obvious but still a bit embarrassing to say – how good Lars Ulrich’s drumming is on this song? It’s not really showy or hugely technically difficult but man does it get the job done. It’s an enduring mystery how he’s so crap now. What process of dumbification did he go through?

And then we come to ‘Fade To Black’, the greatest sappy ballad posing as a heavy metal song of all time. The solo at the beginning is great, because it’s almost a hummable tune as well as sounding like a widdly guitar solo. Then it goes into the verses, which aren’t the greatest thing ever but they provide the template for a lot of Metallica’s later (wimpy) stuff while being about a million times better. The way the ‘80s ballad verses are interspersed with a big chunky riff that’s played a few times is hilarious, as if they’re having to remind you “no, we are a cool metal band, honest!”

BUT THEN IT GETS AWESOME. At 3:53 in, the song kicks up into a proper thrash metal power ballad, and again it proves how Metallica could write excellent melodies. Just listen to that bit where James Hetfield sings “Yester-day seems/As though it never exist-ed/Death greets me warm/Now I will just say good-by-eye!” Killer. It also shows how good a singer he was, and how much he’s turned into a parody of himself; imagine how he’d mangle that melody now. “Now I will just say good-by-ey-eyie-yeeah! Wooah, no!” Not everything needs an extra six syllables, mate.

And then the song goes from that bridge riff into the outro without it sounding like the band even take a breath between musical phrases. Yes, I know guitars are stringed instruments and you don’t need to take a breath, it’s a metaphor. (I took a creative writing course once.) The solo over the long fade-out is like a ridiculously extended version of the intro solo – Kirk Hammett basically just works his way up and down the guitar neck, but it’s somehow still shred-tastic. Listen to the bit where it sounds like it can’t get any higher and then the guitar squeals and he starts playing lower notes again! Such a great solo.

And how do they follow up these two songs, the two biggest, most widescreen songs the band had done up that point? With ‘Trapped Under Ice’, probably Metallica’s most ludicrous song, a full-on thrashfest with lyrics that were clearly written with a thesaurus as Hetfield desperately tried to find as many ways of possible to describe being frozen in ice (“no release from my cryonic state!”) That blend of massive, over-the-top seriousness and total stupidity is exactly why I love heavy metal. Damn, Metallica were great.

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