All during Music Week at Deadspin, I'll be writing about great asskicking songs of yore. Today, it's "Orion" by Metallica.
One of my favorite things to do while doing nothing is to peruse the write-ups over at allmusic.com, which reviews virtually every album ever made and does so without the disaffected hipster bullshit of a site like Pitchfork. Embedded in some of the album reviews are subreviews of individual songs, so you can read a review of "Exile on Main St." and then also be treated to a little mini-analysis of "Rocks Off," which is awesome. They don't talk about every song ever recorded though, so let's consider this week a chance to fill in the blanks.
I got into heavy metal music when I was a kid because I had an older brother who was into it. He used to buy albums by Megadeth or Iron Maiden or Shotgun Messiah because the cover art was fucking awesome, and then he'd leave the tapes lying around his room and I'd waltz in and go through them, giggling at the skeletons on the album sleeve and all the goofy song titles: "Killed by Death" by Motorhead, etc. That shit is funny when you're a kid. It's only after spending time with the music that you begin to take it more seriously. I spent the majority of my early adolescence laying face down on my brother's bed, my head and shoulders hanging off the side while I fiddled with his boom box and reread the liner notes to every album he owned. This was how I got into Metallica. And this is how I was introduced to "Master of Puppets," which is my favorite heavy metal album of all time. I don't think I'm alone in feeling this way.
I was too young to drink or do drugs back then. I was too afraid of my parents to go raiding their booze cabinet, and I didn't know anyone who could hook me up with beer or pot. I was 11. Those things don't happen for you when you're 11, and I wasn't generally looking for that sort of action at that age anyway. I had only one way of achieving some kind of altered state of mind, and that involved listening to Metallica while hanging out in my brother's room, studying the lyrics to the "Puppets" album, which were all economically packed into a single fold of the liner notes.
Great music makes you see shit. Even if you aren't drunk or stoned, a great song can form images in your head. You don't know how those images got there, or what they mean, but that's kind of the point. A great song can unlock something from deep inside your head and bring it to the fore. And that image can stay with you for the rest of your life, as real as any actual memory.
"Orion" did that for me. I remember hearing Cliff Burton's opening bassline for the first time, and then rewinding it to listen again before I even bothered getting myself familiar with the rest of that song. It's a great bass line. Burton made it sound almost motorized. I love songs with long, drawnout, kick-ass intros and I always will. "Puppets" has three of the all-time greats: "Battery," "Damage, Inc.," and this song. That bassline to "Orion" came in from what seemed like miles away, and I just remember picturing myself on a black motorcycle, barreling toward a giant glass tower in the center of a barren desert, like the music was producing some kind of waking dream. And when I listen to it now, decades later, I still see the same thing. I still see the footprint it left in my head, which is fucking crazy.
I don't need to hear the song anymore to hear it, if that makes sense. I know it so well after all these years, that actually listening to the thing feels redundant. I remember exactly where the main riff comes in and sweeps me up for the ride. I remember the second main riff coming in around 1:42 and sounding like a landing helicopter. And I remember the song taking a breather halfway through to bring in Burton's second unreal bassline. When I was a kid, I didn't even know the bass made a sound. I thought it was just something bands tossed in so they could look busy. Then I heard Burton LEAD the second half of this song with a bass riff and had my mind blown. It's unbelievable. Once this song hits the sixth minute, it's a symphony. It's PERFECT. There are two guitars and one bass and one set of drums and no one is singing because no one NEEDS to. I swear, sometimes I felt like I was levitating off the bed when I heard this song. I remember hearing the end of this song, as the music fades away, and picturing myself looking over my shoulder and seeing that same glass tower from the beginning now rapidly disintegrating into the opposite horizon.
I listen to "Orion" now and I still feel like a kid laying in my brother's room, someone at the beginning of his life discovering what music can do for your brain once you stumble upon just the right band or song, that one song that seems composed specifically for the inside of your brain and no one else's. I also listen to it now and try and will Cliff Burton back to life. God damn, he was brilliant. The band never sounded the same after he left, and they never will. I picture him up in Heaven now, getting Jesus stoned and walking out of a convenience store with a case of beer, never bothering to pay for it.