When 1984 rolled around, it was less Orwellian than some had predicted. Far from being a time of media censorship and cultural repression, there was an outburst of aural productivity, and it was an exciting time to be a metal-head. In many ways, 1984 was a pivotal year in the genre. Some of the more established bands enjoyed career-high success, while new acts—including Metallica—were trying to crash the party. Iron Maiden, the most successful act to hail from the NWOBHM that Lars loved so much, released their mighty Egyptian-themed Powerslave that year, while Judas Priest—that other force of British metal—were flying high with Defenders of the Faith. Both bands continued to tour and release quality material for another twenty-five–plus years, but this was one of several peaks for both bands, particularly Iron Maiden. Their vast stage sets and ambitious visual production set the standard for any rock band to follow. The Swiss band Celtic Frost—who influenced a slew of black metal and death metal bands with their off-kilter and avant-garde debut, Morbid Tales—were another young act trying to break into the market with a much darker and extreme sound. With a growing number of likeminded followers in Europe, if ever there was an opportunity for Metallica to establish themselves at the forefront of a transient metal scene, 1984 was it.
Another of the important figures in Hetfield's early life left the story. As with Hugh Tanner before him, life in a metal band wasn't the right career path. Marrs, like Tanner and McGovney, was a key link back to the early days in Downey and his departure left Hetfield on his own with the band. Just as they had on the US tour with Venom the previous year, Metallica went "fuckin' nuts on the first night," as Venom guitarist Jeff Dunn bluntly described it. The two bands had serious chemistry, and that led to debauched drinking and chaos that continued until the tour finale at the Aardschock Festival in Holland on February 12. In the festival crowd that day was German metal fan Mille Petrozza, who went on to form an uncompromising thrash band called Kreator. They would become one of Europe's premier thrash flag-bearers during the 1980s and refused to change their style in the lean days of the 1990s, when thrash was driven largely underground.
Petrozza remembered being inspired by Hetfield and Metallica even before that Aardschock appearance: "When Kill 'Em All came out, it was like some kind of sonic revolution. There were bands out there like Venom and Accept that played fast, but Metallica took this style to a level of perfection." When discussing that day in Holland, Petrozza was equally reverential: "We were excited when we heard that they would open for Venom and everyone went there to see Metallica. It was an experience I'll never forget." Dunn acknowledged the success of the tour and recalled how the bands interacted: "Lars was always the spokesperson and always had the most to say. James was always down-to-earth, just a genuinely nice guy who seemed to be pleased to be there and was there for the love of it." Metallica, Hooker and Music for Nations gave serious thought to the second Metallica album. They released "Jump in the Fire" from Kill 'Em All as a single, along with live versions of "Seek and Destroy" and "Phantom Lord." It was a stopgap release, but one that sustained fans' attention until new material was ready. Instead of returning to America to record, the band remained in Europe—in Lars's home country of Denmark.
According to Marrs, after the Venom tour ended in February, the band drove to Sweet Silence, which had recently been used by Mercyful Fate and their charismatic singer, King Diamond. Album number two was called Ride the Lightning, and the road to making it happen began and ended at Sweet Silence. Rasmussen recalled, "The first time I met [Hetfield] was in the studio, and he's got a pretty strong mind about what he wants from a sound perspective." There was an immediate problem: Hetfield's favourite guitar amp had disappeared at that Boston show. Hetfield and Rasmussen had to put their heads together to arrive at a solution, as Rasmussen recalled: "We started out playing some Kill 'Em All tracks so I could hear what he was talking about, and we started testing guitar amps, which took a couple of days." The original amp had been modified, which meant, as Rasmussen bluntly stated: "Nobody remembered what the fuck had gone on, so we were all kind of lost. What we ended up with was something very different, which from my point of view was brilliant because I could then work on getting the sounds I wanted."
Even at this early stage, Hetfield had developed a unique guitar sound, and it took Rasmussen to make the best of James's newfound need to sound like nobody else on the planet. Rasmussen explained, "He liked the fact that he had his own sound and wasn't trying to copy someone else's. I think we took most of the recording process to pretty much get his thing. So we ended up looking for something that was new but also sounded something like his own stolen amp." But what did the Dane make of the man on a personal level? "I always considered James to be an angry young man. He had a great attitude I thought, though." Rasmussen was the perfect foil for the opinionated Hetfield back in1984. He tempered Hetfield's angst and channelled those feelings down a creative route. The Ride the Lightning sessions under Rasmussen's care might have been the beginning of a more musically mature James Hetfield. The business acumen of Hetfield was also put to the test, as Rasmussen noticed: "They were negotiating a new deal because they were on that independent [Megaforce] label. They had different conversations with various labels and he was a big part of that. He's a smart guy."
The recording process was split into two chunks: February/March and part of June. During the break in between, the band headed to London to play two shows at the renowned Marquee Club. This kept the pot boiling for a UK audience, who were well aware that a new record was imminent. Originally, Metallica were scheduled to tour Europe with two other Megaforce acts, The Rods and Exciter, but the Hell on Earth Tour had to be scrapped—rumoured to be due to poor ticket sales. Dan Beehler, the drummer and vocalist with Canadian thrashers Exciter, recalled an encounter with James in London around that time. "Music for Nations rented two apartments in Baker Street; Metallica were in the basement and we were above," Beehler said. "I would go down and hang out with James and the boys, and we'd party large." Beehler recalled being somewhat surprised by Hetfield's stature: "When I first saw the back of the Kill 'Em All album cover, I thought he was a little guy. Then when I met him he was pretty tall. He's a super guy and was totally happy-go-lucky and loved to have a good time back then."
Metallica returned to Copenhagen and put the album to bed. Afterwards they went on a brief four-date tour with New York greasepaint rockers Twisted Sister, finishing on June 10. On June 27, Ride the Lightning landed with an almighty thud. Zazula released it on Megaforce in the US, had Music for Nations do the honours in the UK and negotiated for a label called Roadrunner to handle it in Holland. The response across the board was one of open-mouthed disbelief. Kill 'Em All was an aggressive, heavy affair and a fabulous debut, but Ride the Lightning was a huge step forward . The growth in both sound and songwriting was so marked that one could be forgiven for questioning if this was the same band. Hetfield's contribution had morphed from being, in retrospect, an awkward debut into a far more dominant role, in terms of both his vocals and his rhythm guitar precision. Rasmussen captured the band's heaviness yet found a way to give that sound space to breathe—all with devastating effect. When asked in 1988 about the way Ride the Lightning sounded, Hetfield bluntly stated, "Flemming was in a reverb daze." The album did have a lot of reverb, but nobody could question the songs. Even the front cover—which depicted an electric chair suspended in what looked like a night sky, beneath that now familiar logo—was a more mature statement of the band's rapid growth.
As opening tracks go, "Fight Fire with Fire" was one of Metallica's most telling compositions ever. Note the word "composition" because one of Ride the Lightning's most impressive features was its implacable will to create complex yet powerful songs. Previous material had been delivered much more crudely. Starting with a delicate but highly ominous acoustic intro, the track festers into a terrifying fade-in that in turn heralds a riff of warp-speed brutality. The song signs off with the sound of a nuclear explosion that leads directly into the title track, with no discernable pause for breath. Its whining dual guitar intro settles into a mid-tempo chug, with Hetfield taking on the role of a condemned man awaiting his electric chair fate. The music is complex, taking in a progressive midsection and a stirring Hammett guitar solo, before returning to where it began. For many, the focal point of Ride the Lightning is the penultimate track, the unforgettable "Creeping Death." Kicking in with a monstrous, repeated guitar salvo, it eases into a fluidly effective riff. The lyrics deal with "The Tale of the Firstborn" from the Book of Exodus. "Creeping Death" encompasses everything that the band was about at the time, and it became the most frequently played live song in the band's career.
While the excitement about the album release was raging, there was a management issue to resolve and a tour to embark on. Metallica's relationship with the enthusiastic and extremely generous Zazulas and Megaforce was running out of time. Without them the band might not have ever released an album, but Metallica had outgrown Megaforce. The band needed the support of a big label to make good on the huge potential suggested by Ride the Lightning.