Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Metallica - Kill 'em All

Some things you just shouldn't "grow out" of

While most of the stuff I review tends to be popular to some extent, I've still never tackled the metal band.  I mean, I've touched on Iron Maiden twice, but one of those was written when I was fifteen and it's really atrocious, and the other one I crapped out in half an hour and haven't read since I submit it initially five years ago.  But Iron Maiden is really only the co-biggest metal band ever, and we all know who the big dogs in this game are.  The most realistic estimate I've seen of Maiden's worldwide sales are something around 80 million albums, which is a monstrously huge number, especially for a heavy metal band.  And with that in mind, Metallica has roughly 100 million with a shorter career and less albums.  In terms of fans, influence, and continued relevance, I'd give the edge to Maiden as the biggest metal band of all time, but the numbers are certainly on Metallica's side.

And because they're the biggest, they're also the most visible and most controversial.  Everybody has an opinion on the great dramas of Metallica's career, like how Dave Mustaine is the only good thing that ever happened to them (saying their early era was only good because of his influence is like saying The Courtyard of the Old Residency, Munich is only good because Hitler painted it), or how the commercialization would have never happened if Cliff Burton hadn't tragically died in that bus crash (he was a huge REM fan and wrote many of the melodic parts on Master of Puppets, he would have had no problem with, and in fact probably would have encouraged, a new direction), or how Lars is a wretched fame whore and money snatching gremlin who is a smooth talker but a crappy drummer (well... that one's true).  The point is that no metal fan's development went by unblemished by the unmistakable scent of Metallica.  They're just ubiquitous and profoundly influential on the development of heavy metal as a whole, and unless you entered the scene via Brenoritvrezorkre and Enbilulugugal, you've heard the first four or five albums at least once.  

And with that, I need to do something strange and direct you to an Achewood strip:

You now have my official opinion on early Metallica.  This is how it is for me, and I know I'm not in the minority here.  If you can't go back to the days of your youth, put yourself back in that frame of mind, and appreciate the entry-level metal acts the same way you used to, you've become jaded.  I get it, your taste evolves, you grow away from what you once loved, but if you can't even spin Kill 'em All and wreck your neck to "The Four Horsemen" or "Metal Militia" on an even nostalgic level, then you need to reevaluate your life.  What you've got here is some of the most aggressive and innovative metal of the first third of the 80s, and even disregarding the historical significance of this album, it still holds up today as a showcase of melodic fury, the fast paced rage of youth, and the purest form of early thrash, when it was still just a mix of heavy metal and punk.  

You see, at this point in time, Kill 'em All was essentially in a league of its own.  There were demos of Overkill and Exodus floating around in the bits of time surrounding the release of this album, yeah, but the only other full length album to come out in 1983 that can really be considered a thrash metal album by any stretch was Slayer's phenomenal debut, Show No Mercy, and that was released six months after Metallica's debut.  Thrash at this time wasn't really a distinct entity yet, the sound we'd come to have solidified on later albums like Reign in Blood, Eternal Devastation, Bonded by Blood, Beneath the Remains, and other genre defining classics is nowhere to be found on Kill 'em All, but the groundwork is there.  There's no denying that the triplet break of "The Four Horsemen", or any given section of "Whiplash" and "Metal Militia" are anything other than some of the earliest thrash metal ever put to tape.  That fast, hard hitting grittiness of Discharge mixed with the riffing supremacy of Diamond Head and layered with the attitude of Motorhead; that is how thrash started, and it's a mindset that 97% of these newer "retro" bands need to get back to.  Before there was a template to ape, Metallica just set forth by blending the stuff they liked.  So what we're presented with is a little bit Saxon, little bit Ramones.  Little bit Mercyful Fate, little bit Misfits.  Little bit Venom, little bit Thin Lizzy. That alone makes this one of the purest tributes to that beloved style of music we all love.  Kill 'em All was basically a love letter to all of Metallica's early influences, and in their aim to pay homage to their idols while simultaneously pushing the envelope, they kind of accidentally invented an entirely new style and stumbled into history.  Even if they'd broken up or died after the release of this, I'm sure the benefit of hindsight, especially now with the internet, would have granted this album the notoriety it deserves.

And that's another thing people, especially younger folks, need to understand.  They weren't superstars in 1983.  Megaforce sure as hell wasn't Sony or EMG or anything like that, it really wasn't until after the two subsequent albums that they really reached the levels of success we normally attribute to them, and it was even more impressive back then, with how obnoxious and abrasive they were in comparison to everything else American audiences had access to.  This is really just me scratching an itch more than anything, but the amount of historical revisionists who go on about obvious ballyhoo like that just drive me up the wall.  Mustaine fanatics who get all butthurt about how they took all the success from Megadeth need to realize that they had just as much time to break out, the fact that Megadeth was always Metallica Jr. sure didn't help their perpetual shadow dancing, but that's another rant for another day.

But the main point here is the music itself, and as I've said dozens of times already, it's a stupendous blend of early rebellious music.  Tracks like "Motorbreath" really showcase the punk edge and rock 'n roll attitude gleaned from Motorhead (the title likely wasn't a coincidence), while "Hit the Lights" could be seen as a double-time reimagining of "Highway Star" or "Heavy Metal Thunder".  Pretty much everything here has something to enjoy, and nearly every song can be picked apart to discern all of the band's influences at the time.  But with all that said, I have to say the band's age really does show, mainly in James's vocal performance and lyrics.  The former is a positive quality, as there's such an inimitable charm to him shouting his adorable little peach fuzzed lungs out, giving it nothing less than 100%.  His squawky yelp is very earnest and resonates well with the spirit of youthful backlash against the establishment.  While on the other hand, the lyrics here are pretty inconsistent, and usually pretty bad.  "The Four Horsemen", apart from making the odd mistake of replacing "War" with "Time", is pretty solid in this respect, whereas "Seek and Destroy", "Metal Militia", "Phantom Lord" and others just fall completely flat from a lyrical standpoint.  Part of me wants to not hold this against them since lord knows I'm embarrassed about the lyrics I wrote when I was 17, but the fact of the matter is that they're here and they've been immortalized, as silly and stupid as they may be.

There are other kinks that really needed to be ironed out as well, like the painfully dull "Anesthesia".  Really, of all the cues you could have taken from Battle Hymns, you didn't take the irreverent attitude, hard rocking riffs, or big choruses, you chose the torturous extended bass solo?  Literally the only thing about Manowar's first album that I don't like and one of their most irritating trademarks throughout their career has always been that damn stupid, sloppy distorted bass solo that they always shoehorn in.  Thankfully Metallica kept it contained to just this first album, so the overall damage was reined in.  The track has taken on a life of its own after Burton's death and is often pointed to as evidence of his prowess, when really it's a pretty simple ditty that sounds like it was recorded impromptu in one take.  Cliff's strength lied in his melodic sensibilities ("Orion" was his baby, and the strange, noodly parts from later albums were his main contribution), not his boring bass jam.  I also can't help but dislike "Seek and Destroy".  I know it's become a concert staple but it just sounds so corny forced that I can't get behind it.  It works in a live setting, but here it sounds to me like a dirtier and heavier version of the glam rock bands that Metallica was rebelling against at the time.  The main riff lacks urgency and just kind of piddles along lazily.  And if I'm being excessively nitpicky (which I am), the first half of "No Remorse" feels kind of awkward and not entirely thought out.  The second half is strong as hell, with that primitive thrash sensibility shining through a truly venomous vocal performance, it just takes a while to get there.

With all that said, I have to admit I'm just being extra tough on this since it's such a major album.  It's legendary for both noobs and seasoned vets, so it really deserves to spend some extra time under the microscope.  Those small quibbles aside, Kill 'em All is a stellar record for pretty much any other reason you can think of.  Lars's drumming is technically mediocre, but his one-dimensional style works for what they're doing here.  They weren't attempting any long epics like "Call of Ktulu" or "Orion" yet, they were still just a band of kids, full of piss and vinegar and unleashing their frustration in the only way they knew how.  His signature style lends itself to the more punk rock attitude that's so prevalent on this album, and I wouldn't have it any other way.  But for my money, above even the great early trad metal riffs being played at blazing speeds, the absolute highlight is Kirk Hammet's soloing.  Man this album is just loaded with leads and solos at every possible opportunity, there isn't a single dead spot on the album.  And every time he lets loose, he lets loose the goddamn kracken.  Slow, emotional solos?  Fuck that with dynamite, the goal here is to go as over the top as possible, and holy lord do they succeed.  That outro solo to "Jump in the Fire" could well be the best one ever put to tape by the band, and the solo break in "Phantom Lord" (structured eerily similar to the famous section in "Hangar 18" seven years later, just let that swirl around in your heads for a bit, Megadeth loyalists) is fucking furious.  Pretty much any song can be pointed to as an example of the blistering leadwork that helped define the band in the early days.  Very fast, very melodic, very simple pentatonic flailing that sticks in your head and is instantly recognizable.  

Kill 'em All is just goddamn impressive, both for the time and today.  The hour long runtime (I'm assuming most of you are familiar with the CD version that I also grew up with, which features covers of Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" and Blitzkrieg's "Blitzkrieg", both of which are awesome) never drags and pretty much every song remains a classic.  Everything here is fun to sing along with, fun to air guitar, and just fun to headbang like a caveman to.  It's not a perfect album, to quote a much more recognized and influential writer than myself: "Even the first wheel was kinda squareish", but for what it is there isn't much else I could ask out of it.  Metallica clearly gave it their all on their first whack at a full length, and it shows.  It's primitive but it's clean, and the vibrant production helps the album shine brightly.  The fact that I and so many other people whose noses aren't turned up so high that they could drown in a rainstorm consider this timeless isn't an accident.  I'm not saying elitist snobbery is the only reason one could not enjoy this album, but chances are that you enjoyed this when you were young and first discovering heavy metal, and the fact that you've since collected every Vomit Sodomy tape and seen Njiqahdda play in a moldy basement in front of six people (including you and their parents) shouldn't stain your enjoyment of it now.  Go back and listen to this now, remember how you felt upon first hearing early Metallica for the first time.  You'll likely find that you can still find room in the shriveled black stalactite that was once your heart for a little bit of warmth and adoration for a timeless classic.

RATING - 88%


  1. Good Lord. I actually own an Enbilulugugal split. Can't believe someone else actually named them lol.

    1. That is awesome, haha. I've actually never heard them, they just have one of the most stereotypically hilarious black metal names out there, so they're a go-to punchline for me.

      Which split? I hope it's this one:

    2. I failed at linking on my own blog. How embarrassing...

  2. Hey mate, yeah they completely take the piss. I bought a release off them because they're so fantastically awful. Brilliant stuff.