Was Cliff really the keeper of “thrashy” Metallica?

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I often come across comments like “If Cliff survived, Metallica would’ve never betrayed thrash metal”. Is this truth? (btw, here’s my take on “What if Cliff survived” speculatioln)

In short: rather no, than yes. Now in short: bear with me for the next few minutes.

I don’t know why people think Cliff was the one who kept Metallica music fast and reckless. Perhaps, that’s because they think that Metallica had changed their sound right after Cliff’s death… except they had not.

“…And Justice for All” is the most complex and least “poppy” album the band have ever made. It’s full of anger and emotions, which might’ve come from the loss of Cliff. Thus, if he survived, the album could be not that extreme without the emotional push, being something in between “Master of Puppets” and the actual “Justice”.

The following drop in complexity of songs was logical. Simply put, Metallica had reached the edge of their thrash metal touch, and it didn’t seem fun to make the same record again nor to push the style further (otherwise, what the next stage could be – a death metal album?!

But lets focus more on what kind of musician Burton was. Let’s have a look at Cliff’s songwriting credits. If he was the keeper of thrashy Metallica, the riffs must showcase it, right?

  1. Anesthesia – full solo
  2. Fight Fire with Fire – acoustic intro (based on “Minuet in G” from XVII)
  3. Fade to Black – harmony
  4. For Whom the Bell Tolls – intro
  5. Ride the Lightning – intro (harmony)
  6. Creeping Death – harmony
  7. The Call of Ktulu – leading bass (or some of riffs)
  8. Master of Puppets – bridge after solo (inspired by David Bowie’s “Andy Warhol”)
  9. Orion – song’s skeleton and guitar harmonies
  10. Damage Inc – intro (inspired by Bach’s “Sweet Death”)
  11. To Live Is To Die – song built on Cliff’s sketches, exact riffs unknown

Among all the ideas that Cliff had contributed to Metallica or songs that were based on his riffs (Anesthesia, Orion, Bell Tolls), just a couple are fast. Basically, it’s only the second part of “Anesthesia” and the tremolo riff in “Orion”.

The rest are mostly melodic harmonies and variations on classical pieces. Harmonies in general could be considered the most significant musical aspect Metallica inherited from Cliff.

Basically, all the thrashy stuff was written by guitar players: James, Dave, Kirk. Fun fact that Blackened main riff, one of exemplary thrash metal licks, belongs to Cliff’s successor Jason Newsted, with whom Metallica later recorded the “poppy” albums.

If those arguments seem not too persuasive for you, let’s give the floor to a guy who had been in one boat with Burton for 3 years.

Lasr Ulrich: “…Cliff loved the energy, he loved the aggression, but I don’t think he was a big fan of like, Iron Maiden… His whole net was just really wide and really unencumbered by how it was supposed to be if you were in a metal band…” (full interview here)

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