For Whom The Bell Tolls: Metallica and Hemingway


In 1984, Metallica released their best work in Ride The Lightning, a heavy/speed metal colossus till then unparalleled in mood and ambition. Within a year of a classic, genre-setting but somewhat precocious debut, genuinely awesome inspiration tapped the band on its collective backs, and as is often the case with young talent, intuition, untainted with experience, leaped excitedly at the chance, funneling it direct into a crucible of metal for all posterity. There has always been something quasi-mythological about hearing this album through the years, but this feeling becomes even stronger after a reasonable gap between listens. Beyond truly great songs and performances, Ride The Lightning carries with it the dread approach of inevitable calamity, of affairs that lie outside the sphere of human influence, at least on the individual level.

Fittingly, then, one of the attractions on this album is For Whom The Bell Tolls, inspired by a small passage in Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the same name. It is easy to overlook the brilliance of this song on account of just how much has changed in the years since it was first heard. Metallica have gone on to become a parody of their former selves, and even this song, genuinely out-of-the-box for its time, has become a casual fan-favourite because of its easy refrains and the band’s superstardom.

For Whom The Bell Tolls, however, is a great song first and foremost because of how it develops a narrative that mimics its source material over a short running time. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, the book For Whom The Bell Tolls ranks among the great war novels, alongside War And Peace, Catch-22, and Hemingway’s own A Farewell To Arms, published some ten years prior. The book recounts four days in the life of an American partisan aiding a band of mountain guerillas in their fight against Franco’s nationalist forces. Written with the author’s trademark descriptive flair and using a quaint mixture of dosts and thous and thuses to mimic the pidgin Spanish in which almost all the action takes place, the book frequently lapses into a stream-of-consciousness style to communicate the futility of the enterprise and the turmoil roiling inside these doomed men.

War, in Hemingway’s view, is a strange confluence of dichotomies; of ignorance and knowledge, of cowardice and heroism, of cruelty and generosity of spirit. The soldier in the trenches is unaware of high-level machinations and generally has the vaguest idea of why he is fighting in the first place. Conscripted in the old days, volunteering in the present age as a way out of poverty, he essentially remains a play-puppet in the hands of higher-ups, cast this way and that, participating in acts that fall outside his purview. But only he in his hapless state, and not his superiors, can comment with any manner of distinction on the nature and the smell of war as intimate companion. The protagonist, Robert Jordan, is brimming with enthusiastic belief in the brotherhood of man, but to his handlers he still is the college instructor from Montana, of slight political development, albeit possessing some skill with dynamite.

Hemingway imbued his novel with a moral ambiguity, without completely destroying the notion of heroism. The instinct to flee in the face of peril is a perfectly natural survival mechanism and it is only our then-dormant framework of values that presents this in an unfavourable light at a later date. Having said that, history is strewn with heroic acts performed in the moment, when this same framework kicks in with far greater alacrity, performing its intricate calculations in line with a cause greater than the self. For Whom The Bell Tolls has characters both mean and mighty yet they are almost always presented in a semi-sympathetic light as victims of circumstance and of the human condition.

The relativity of time in the context of an imminent end to life is yet another theme that the book keeps returning to. When the mind has bought into inevitable destruction in the very near future, short periods of time are distended beyond accepted logic and emotions distilled to their rarest essence. Fear, exhilaration, hope, and despair, all achieve much-magnified proportions when faced with ultimate cessation, each moment spent in the lead-up to be invested with every last iota of being. It is perhaps no cliche then to say that one is never more alive than in the shadow of death.

Metallica crafted their epic with the same delicate understanding of what it means to be in conflict, not adopting a morally indignant stance against war, but instead meditating on the role of man caught in an insurmountable swell. The two verses bring these ideas to life in startling relief, but on either side of these is a progression like a funeral march with only one destination in sight. There is irrepressible drive here at the miracle and the resilience of life but there also is a profound sadness at its wasteful termination, both channelized through the young James Hetfield’s breaking voice. Hetfield would go on to “develop” his voice in time, but on the first two albums, and especially on this song, his just-breaking vocal cords were able to relate the lot of the many young men used as cannon-fodder through history.

For all intents and purposes, the album version of For whom The Bell Tolls, devoid of the rock star trappings of the band’s later renditions, is the definitive version of this great song, and an achievement for metal to rival what the book means to literature.

Make his fight on the hill in the early day
Constant chill deep inside
Shouting gun, on they run through the endless grey
On they fight, for they are right, yes, by who’s to say?
For a hill men would kill, why? They do not know
Stiffened wounds test there their pride
Men of five, still alive through the raging glow
Gone insane from the pain that they surely know

For whom the bell tolls
Time marches on
For whom the bell tolls

Take a look to the sky just before you die
It is the last time you will
Blackened roar massive roar fills the crumbling sky
Shattered goal fills his soul with a ruthless cry
Stranger now, are his eyes, to this mystery
He hears the silence so loud
Crack of dawn, all is gone except the will to be
Now they see what will be, blinded eyes to see

For whom the bell tolls
Time marches on
For whom the bell tolls

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1 Response to For Whom The Bell Tolls: Metallica and Hemingway

  1. deckard cain says:

    Truly my friend these are the kind of articles I miss these days. Brilliant read as always my friend. This is probably the only Metallica album I really do connect with and you picked my favorite song off it. Looking forward to more pieces where metal and literature embrace each other.

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