I have put off writing this letter for too long. But I feel compelled now to speak my heart to you, to express my love for you, and to praise you as the world-topping moment of communication you are.
I first heard you the day Master of Puppets was officially released. At that time, Metallica was my favorite band, and Ride the Lightning had been played—almost daily, certainly weekly—since I first picked it up as a senior in high school two years earlier. My world before Ride The Lightning was filled with great bands and lots of heaviness—Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon, Fastway, Sabbath, Riot… and some metal that I had come to dismiss, like Ratt, Crüe, and Def Leppard. MTV was ruining rock music for me, and taking a lot of mainstream metal with it.
But Lightining was so fresh, so angry, but so well thought-out. It was performed with fire, with a lot of moments that took my breath away, and an overall effect that was supercharging my thirst for new bands. Anthrax, Slayer, Exodus, Possessed, Celtic Frost, and more stormed the gates of my record and tape collection. It had even opened my ears to punk and hardcore in a way that my cliquey high school bro-ness would not allow.
So powerful was Lightning that I could not conceive of any way Metallica would top it. Maybe replace “Escape” with a cover like “Am I Evil” and essentially re-record the whole thing? What could this band do that could surpass a record that had changed my head, literally, with its heaviness?
I got Master of Puppets home, unwrapped. I placed needle to groove, sat on my bed, lyrics in hand, and found out what Metallica could do to one-up a masterpiece.
“Battery” hit my face like a Nicklaus golf swing. As soon as the acoustic guitars started, I was already certain the song would be devastating. I just knew. It wasn’t a premonition: It was a certainty, a physical state of the universe. “Battery” was simply bound to be jaw-dropping.
And so it was. Speed, precision, bulk and aggression—but with a hint of the progressive. This was a complex rhythmic powerhouse that made even “Fight Fire with Fire” and “Trapped Under Ice” eat its dust.
The title track itself was not quite the spine-grabber I would have expected, to be honest. At the time I thought it was a little pedestrian and long-winded, which sounds ridiculous, but it was where I was at. “The Thing That Should Not Be” made that irrelevant. This was new! A trudging, plodding, goop-adorned sludge track like few songs I had heard before. But one that didn’t lose an ounce of the fire. “Sanitarium” was the analog to “Fade to Black,” and while it lacked the simple, empathetic resonance of “Fade,” the actual music and pacing were a step forward.
So went Side One. No matter what, I had purchased wisely. If Side Two was nothing but multiple versions of “Escape,” it was still a great album.
What I could not have expected was that the very first song on Side Two would become my favorite Metallica song with vocals, period. “Disposable Heroes” is the single best James Hetfield performance you will hear, and the whole band was on fire, so hyped through this track—itself one of the best compositions in all metal, lyrically and musically. It is Metallica’s “Angel of Death,” their “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” their “Electric Eye,” “Swords and Tequila”… It rarely gets mentioned by most metal fans in this regard, but compared to the other set-piece, “Master of Puppets,” this is a P-51 Mustang to the title track’s F4F Wildcat. This love letter would mean little without sending some flowers to that monumental work of metal. It’s MONUMETAL!
“Leper Messiah” could have been what “Escape” was, another Side Two road bump, but it wasn’t at all. It was another sludge monster, intricately timed and played just exactly as it ought to have been to bring David Bowie’s best line from “Ziggy” together with the then-prevalent television evangelist phenomena. It struts with so much pomp and arrogance that you can literally picture some bloated, sweating, brow-mopping wattle-chinned superpastor decrying the very song itself while demand-begging for money on a Sunday morning.
So far, so fantastic. Who could expect more? This album was everything Lightning was, and in some ways even a little more. Where could it go from here? On? Absolutely. Down? Maybe. Up? Impossible.
Which brings me at last to you, “Orion.”
“Call of Ktulu” was a wondrously dark and terrifying piece of music. I would take my tape of Ride The Lightning in the boombox that served as a car stereo down to the causeway of the Great Salt Lake, back when it was all farmland and rushes. I would park it there at night, watch a thunderstorm cross the dead lake, lightning and thunder crashing, and listen to “Ktulu,” mesmerized, imagining elder gods lurking and gibbering behind the clouds. Perfection.
Cliff Burton had incredible solos on this piece, but I could barely hear them. The boombox made them whispers among the drums and chanking guitars. When I got home, even the LP barely hinted at what Burton was doing. But I heard enough, and I knew “Anesthesia.” Cliff was fucking it all up.
Cliff was more than just a Randy Rhoads on bass, but a sublime artisan unlike most contemporary musicians. He was more akin to Pete Townsend or Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, or John Paul Jones. The bassist brought something extra, something almost indefinable to the table.
Which is why I knew that Cliff was special. He had to understand that on the equipment of that time, his best work was more a feeling than a statement. On “Ktulu,” his greatest contribution was almost an aura, rather than something aural. And he made that shit work. It creates tension and mystery, seething and flitting. It is why the song succeeds.
Puppets is chock full of these Burtonisms. The break down in “Battery,” the creeping climb in “Master,” the extra slap here and there in “The Thing,” and of course, the pummeling rhythm he powers underlying all of “Disposable Heroes.” He needed nothing more than the songs themselves to be one of the greatest bassists ever. He was, in my opinion, the soul of the band.
But “Orion” is something more than all that. It almost demands to be left undescribed by words, itself lyric-less. To try to take it apart and analyze it means you can’t experience it as a whole, and that is, if not blasphemy, then at least an opportunity missed. I have said elsewhere it is the metallic “Moonlight Sonata.” This is not because it is quiet or mournful, but because the very act of listening transports you to some other place. Lyrics—vocals—would fracture this. It needs to be sans voice. It is the voice.
Nevertheless, I am here to write about it, so I will. But how best to describe something like this non-reductively? I want to tell you where it takes me. Hopefully to let you see what I see when the music takes me away. I want you to visit the space “Orion” takes me to.
So where does it take me?
Into the dark night sky, filled with stars and milk and dust. To Orion the Hunter’s constellation, animated now, filling in with light and power as Burton’s distorted, cathedral chords wash into my brain. Now, with Lars’ simple drum beat, he moves, eyes cast wide, surveying. Ready now, James and Kirk see him run, spear held low, bow slung and chest heaving.
And there: the prey. Scorpio. Burton’s classic riff finds Orion’s focus, his eagerness, and his cunning, loping now, with the new rhythms matching his quarry, but remaining distant, speeding and slowing, ever keen to the signs of the hunt.
Finally the prey stops, unaware, and the hunter must cool himself for what is to come.
He lies quietly in the long grass, heart slowing, gazing up at the stars above—his home, as they turn and dance and stray to Cliff’s baroque melody. His mind drifts a little, to his past, his future, his place in the cosmos. He sees the hunt in the dance; life and death play out, again and again, chasing each other in the harmonies of the guitars. He sees his fate, his own demise in Kirk’s solo. But then he sees his eventual heroic memorial in the skies eternal. Forever the huntsman in Burton’s mighty, poetic bass solo.
The prey is ready! The hunt comes to its conclusion. Orion, arrow notched, makes the first strike and finds no purchase on the hard carapace of the giant arthropod. A mighty, world-shattering battle ensues to the screaming of Kirk’s final solo, Orion’s iron spear against the scorpion’s mighty sting, and at the last, both find their mark simultaneously. Orion and Scorpio, fallen in each other’s grasp, and their images emptying of all substance until they are left once again in the constellations, forever and ever battling their final battle…
That’s where “Orion” takes me.
All the above is my vision. “Orion” means to someone else whatever it means. It is the pace, consideration and RESTRAINT of Metallica on this song that is why it’s set so far above what came before, that causes it to transcend its own medium. This is a work of art. To listen to “Orion” purposefully is to understand everything there is to know about why humans create, and what that means when it all works together perfectly.
There is no point in breaking down Cliff Burton’s elegantly profound contribution to this piece. It’s legendary. If, somehow, you have picked up a bass and have not acquainted yourself with “Orion” and all the craft and creativity Cliff brought to it, whoever you are, please do that right now. It is a master-class, in every sense of the term. You really, really need to hear it.
For the rest of you, maybe from the more or less frenetic times you were raised in, “Orion” is still a must-hear. The Dillinger Escape Plan, Meshuggah, and Obscura fans might not think this is as necessary as I suggest, but it is. The Zeppelin, Ozzy-Sabbath, and Hendrix oldsters might also not believe me, but I am right. This is a magnificent hill to die on. “Orion” is not just the greatest metal song ever, it is one of the greatest pieces of art ever.
This letter would be remiss without mention of the final track on Master, itself containing one last ode to the baroque via Burton’s again pipe organtastic intro. “Damage Inc” finishes what “Battery” started, and after the orgasm of “Orion,” it is the perfect blood spritzer in the face, not only cementing the album as a classic, but leaving you hyped and breathless and ready to fight.
And so, dear “Orion,” this is my letter to you, my undying love for you. You are pure on an album of gorgeous filth. You are light on a dark journey. You are romance amid chaos. You are perfect, and you will shine, as the constellation that bears your name, until the universe cools and dies. I love you, inasmuch as I can truly love a piece of art. And I will always remember those who created you, living and dead, in that moment, with reverence.