DO YOU REMEMBER when Metallica were cool? The world’s most well-known metal band may fill out stadiums and play the world’s coldest gig, but this is despite the fact they’re fifty-something millionaires whose artistic zenith had already passed by the mid-90s. Frankly, it’s legitimately impressive they’re still going. Certainly their musicianship (for the most part) is respectable, and their longevity eclipses that of perhaps superior bands whose flame burned bright but briefly. Nevertheless, this is the same group that made Lulu. Lulu! Fuck.
For all my cynicism, however, there’s a reason they’ve been able to build up such an adoring fanbase. Much of that can be traced to the ferocious blast of Kill ‘Em All, a debut album that lit a fuse under the rock and roll industry and shoved thrash metal up its arse. Metal Up Your Ass was, indeed, the album’s original title, but shrewd executives wouldn’t let it stick. Kill ‘Em All conveys the same aggressive, riff-o-matic assault on the senses from a band who were still young and acne-ridden, whose primal need to shred superseded all other imperatives.
With this one, Metallica blended the elaborate riffing of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (e.g. Judas Priest, Saxon, Motorhead) with the sheer velocity of hardcore punk (e.g. Misfits), creating a potent melange for speed-freaks everywhere. Its lo-fi, kilowatt fury is pure in its filth, a grimy challenge to the peroxide mullets of glam metal that permeated the L.A. scene from which the band hailed.
It’s also brutally simple, with around 80% of the tracks sharing the same core structure: A dual guitar figure slicing through the onslaught of muted chugging; vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield yelping unintelligibly about supernatural/political hokum; drummer Lars Ulrich’s lumpen double bass pedal sprinting; lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s incendiary, Joe Satriani-inspired noodling, and bassist Cliff Burton’s inspired licks and runs.
‘Hit the Lights’, ‘Jump in the Fire’, ‘Motorbreath’ and ‘Whiplash’ all follow this mould, descending into a glorious mosh-out upon their divebomb endings. They’re visceral blasts of raw power, unrelenting in their force and impossible to resist, but they’re also – when listened to attentively – incredibly precise and exacting. The band may sound like they’re jamming with loose intent – an idea re-enforced by the crackly, distortion-heavy production – but their arrangements are as meticulous in tracks like ‘The Four Horsemen’ as they would be on tracks from Master of Puppets.
Even in these early days, where most bands might be taking tentative first steps, there’s nary a bum note to be found… excluding the seven-minute long ‘Seek and Destroy’, which features an errant string bend around the halfway mark. Still, it’s anthemic, joyous, and a salvo to those who questioned the legitimacy of heavy metal as a genre. As defences go it’s a fierce argument, its three mini-solos adding up to a brilliant surge of simple brutality.
And then there’s Cliff Burton. An immense talent that was tragically taken from us in 1986 at the age of 24, Burton was one of the finest bassists in rock history. ‘Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)’, an astonishing bass-lead instrumental, is the crystallisation of that classically-trained talent. Beginning with a simple arpeggio, Burton slowly starts to shred like a loon, Ulrich joining. Utilising a wah pedal, Burton summons wild, guttural noise as the shredding concludes. His arranging skills would see their peak with ‘Orion’, but ‘Anesthesia’ remains a testament to Burton’s superb, sorely missed prowess.
Hetfield’s intricate rhythm guitar can’t be underestimated either, providing a crucial underpinning to Hammett’s pyrotechnics. Ulrich’s drumming, while not exactly technically proficient, is metronomic, a headlong sprint that admirably keeps the pace. And the pace never lets up; ‘Anesthesia’ is the only pause for breath and even that descends into frantic shredding and a breakneck drum thump.
The truth is – even in the light of the more ambitious Ride the Lighting and Master of Puppets – that Kill ‘Em All is a monstrous slab of guitar-hero vitriol, a triumphant call-to-arms for metalheads everywhere. It’s loud, dumb and probably obnoxious, but it’s impossible to give a shit when the tracks are this heavy, this powerful and this fucking awesome. With Metallica slowly limping into irrelevance (if they hadn’t made it there already), there hasn’t been a better time to revisit just how great they could be.