The isolated bass track from Metallica’s Orion proves that Cliff Burton was a master of his instrument

Cliff Burton of Metallica onstage in 1986
(Image credit: Ross Marino/Icon And Image/Getty Images)

38 years since his passing, Cliff Burton has become one of metal’s most mythologised figures. The majority of Metallica fans were either not born yet or not initiated yet when the bassist sadly passed, but he’s still idolised by everybody that’s heard his songs and performances since. That’s how remarkable he was.

Cliff joined Metallica in 1982, following the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tenure of predecessor Ron McGovney, when he wowed his future bandmates with his technical prowess and commanding presence during a Trauma concert. The bassist swiftly became a cornerstone of the band: not just an onstage hellraiser, but the only member of Metallica’s “classic” lineup – also composed of James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett – to have a genuine education in music.

As a result – especially on Metallica’s second and third albums, Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets – many of the songs with Cliff’s co-writing credit became sweeping, dynamic compositions. They include such intricate and emotional triumphs as Fade To Black, The Call Of Ktulu and, of course, Master Of Puppets’ title track. However, it’s Master… instrumental Orion that’s most frequently hailed as the red-haired headbanger’s magnum opus, and a listen to the suite’s isolated bass track (embedded below) makes a compelling case that the song deserves the honour.

The bass of Orion sounds like a graceful, eight-and-a-half-minute solo by itself. The track starts as a wash of rumbling noise, before Cliff bursts into a hefty rhythm riff, accompanying the one that guitarists James and Kirk played at the full thing’s outset. The bassist then leaps into a gritty lead line, distortion ramped up to 11 as he reaches for the higher end of his fretboard. It’s a ‘lead bass’ style that’s still hailed as innovative almost 40 years later, yet so few metal players over that time have convincingly recreated it and made it a part of their repertoire.

Midway through, Orion breaks apart, and Cliff flaunts a more evocative side with a downtrodden melody worthy of a funeral dirge. The riff gradually escalates, note after note slowly added in, until it reaches another grungy crescendo. Cliff smacks multiple strings, echoing heavy metal hero Lemmy Kilmister, then picks a squealing high note that, to this day, many mistake for a Kirk Hammett guitar solo on the track proper.

By the time Cliff hits Orion’s chunky closing part, it’s easy to understand why this song is hailed as the greatest achievement of the man’s all-too-brief life. Barely six months after Master Of Puppets was released and put the entire metal world on notice, the bassist died in a tragic bus crash mid-tour. Thus, metal lost one of its most gifted songwriters aged only 24, and – although Metallica continued with Jason Newsted, then Robert Trujillo – nobody’s quite been able fit in the shadow Cliff continues to cast.

Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.