Retrospective

Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, The 30th Anniversary: “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

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Ride the Lightning 30th AnniversaryIf you don’t understand what this is or why we’re doing this, read this.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” was the only song from Ride the Lightning that I’d heard when I first purchased the album. Generally speaking, my rule was that I wouldn’t spend any of limited allowance on a record from which I had heard fewer than three songs, because if I liked those three songs, the odds that I’d like the rest of the album were pretty good. Every now and then, though, I’d make an exception, because something about an album would strike me HARD — and “Bells” hit my fragile young mind with the force of a giant metallic object like the one referenced by its title.

Which shouldn’t be surprising. The song kicks off with some foreboding sound effects, but it’s Cliff Burton’s bass that grabs you by the throat, splits open your skull, and burrows into your brain. Not many metal songs kick off with a bass lick, and when they do, it’s usually something simpler and funkier (see: Faith No More, Infectious Grooves, Korn, etc.). Of course, Burton’s bass barely even sounds like a bass — neither Jason Newsted nor Robert Trujillo have ever managed to quite reproduce his singular tone, let alone his unique style of playing. It sounds like Burton has a baby robot elephant-snake hybrid shoved into his damned instrument. And then you see how Burton played it live, and the whole thing just goes to another level.

And you wanna talk about music that feels human? You can hear his fingers sliding over the strings! Which is pretty much unimaginable today, but remains a strong reminder that Cliff Burton was one of a kind.

Of course, there are other things admirable things about the song besides Burton’s contribution — the cascading guitars, the rolling drums, the echo effects on Hetfield’s vocals, and the fact that the song is probably responsible for untold scores of high school kids discovering Ernest Hemingway all come to mind. But maybe more than any other single Metallica song — yes, including “(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth” — “For Whom the Bell Tolls” represents the magnificence and legacy of Cliff Burton. He is, and will forever remain, irreplaceable.

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