Happy 35th Anniversary to Metallica’s debut album Kill ‘Em All, originally released July 25, 1983.
Metallica is rock music. They’re more than just one of the most successful bands of all time, and more than just one of the most recognized and idolized metal acts. They’re the dream.
Starting as just another high school garage band, Metallica spent the mid ‘80s releasing an extraordinary string of albums with Ride The Lightning (1984), Master Of Puppets (1986), and …And Justice For All (1988). Complex yet accessible, these albums became timeless classics and essentially cemented what metal music sounds like today.
The band further became world-class rock stars with their second trilogy of landmark albums: The Black Album (1991), Load (1996) and Reload (1997). While the music became more radio-friendly, mega hits like “Enter Sandman” and “The Memory Remains” still had a good amount of venom to them and only fueled their popularity. Metallica became the benchmark of intense music with rewarding subtly and expert musicianship.
All of this started 35 years ago to this day with their debut album entitled Kill ‘Em All, an album with zero subtlety that was written to be the coolest and most intense collection of songs in the world. It was, to describe it using the original title, metal up your ass.
To me, the most important thing to consider when listening to Kill ‘Em All is that this wasn’t an album by world-class rock gods, but by boys who were metal nerds. The metal landscape was at its most fertile during the early ‘80s, with bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motörhead dominating the rock scene as part of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). This phenomenon became an obsession for all the members of Metallica who, at the time of recording this album, were in their early twneties and could not even legally purchase alcohol yet.
It is obvious that this youthful fanaticism is what led Metallica to record an album that was not only shunned by their heroes, but would be tougher than anything that they have recorded. This is especially apparent when you listen to their 1982 demo tape entitled No Life Till Leather, which contains early recordings of most of the Kill ‘Em All tracklist. The songs, which have a slightly different guitar sound to the versions on the forthcoming album, was the sound of British heavy metal played at a slightly faster speed. Adding to this is (lead singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield’s nearly unrecognizable vocals as he is essentially doing an impression of King Diamond from Mercyful Fate. These were boys demanding to show that they were cooler and tougher versions of their heroes.
Listening to the old demos gives a scenic trip though Metallica’s journey in establishing their sound, with Kill ‘Em All being the final destination. Kirk Hammett (lead guitarist) was added to the mix mere weeks before the album was recorded, and instantly contributed his fast and flourishing style of playing that seemed to have no speed limit. Hetfield and Lars Ulrich (drummer) provided rhythms that were more punishing and left the listener breathless. Even the bass playing was tougher than anything that came before it, with Cliff Burton (bassist) shredding to make sure the pace never slowed. It was the perfect debut for Metallica. An album of simple yet intense songs that showed off how each member was a genius in creating the most brutal music.
Songs showing off Hetfield’s micro-time guitar playing make your wrist sore from just listening. “Whiplash” and “No Remorse” feature rhythms that can be described as breakneck in the most literal sense, as trying to headbang to the beat is incredibly dangerous for your spinal column. “Hit The Lights” starts off this album just like on No Life Till Leather, but the voice we’re greeted with is his trademark desperate wolf growl as opposed to the vocal cosplay of King Diamond. Hammett’s guitar solos, especially on “Hit The Lights” and “Metal Militia,” are excessive explosions that travel up and down the fretboard and give off the image of a multi-stage firework. Metallica weren’t just playing tough on Kill ‘Em All, they were playing furious.
Small prophesies of the sounds to come are littered throughout the album. One of Metallica’s greatest strengths as a metal band was their ability to write multi-part compositions with wild pace changes at their fast speed. While there is nothing on this album that rivals “Master Of Puppets” or “One” in that respect, “Phantom Lord” shows off the band’s songwriting sensibilities in making something more than headbanging fuel. The riff-heavy “Seek & Destroy” and “Jump In The Fire” are catchy breaks from the album’s more extreme moments, and prove their ability to write rock songs that will one day dominate the radio.
Kill ‘Em All was a bit different in terms of lyrics than the rest of Metallica’s discography, which may have something to do with the fact that the band was in a transitional period when writing the album. A majority of the songs were written while a pre-Megadeth Dave Mustaine was a member of the band, and his presence seemed to have skewed the lyrics to make the band seem like posturing tough-guys. After Mustaine left, his song “The Mechanix” was rewritten as “The Four Horsemen” and had an extreme lyrical tonal shift from a tale of grungy sex to the Hetfield lyrical staple of exploring mythology and madness. “No Remorse” also showed an early version of a song about war horrors, another trademark Hetfield theme.
Much has been documented and written about Kill ‘Em All’s importance in the metal world, but I’d like to speak for a second on how this album influenced my tastes. As a dweeb middle schooler who always had headphones on and was hungry to know more about rock music, I always had my radio set to 92.3 K-ROCK and was desperate for something to really affect me. One fateful day, the opening riff of “Seek & Destroy” came on and an epiphany snapped into my brain: this is what “cool” sounds like. The loud siren lead guitar, the creeping & methodical rhythm, the deranged sounding vocals. It was tough, confident, and a little strange. Everything that I henceforth loved and aspired to be after that point.
Kill ‘Em All was such an impactful album that not only did it make Metallica instant stars, but it also spearheaded the entirely new direction of rock that would be known as trash metal. It’s an integral part of Metallica’s discography that contains some of their most crowd pleasing songs that are wall-to-wall fury and speed. It’s an efficiently engineered rage machine that inspired a generation of metal musicians and, even 35 years later, continues to kick the world’s ass.