In my lifetime, Metallica have gone from a niche band for the worst kind of meat heads, to the biggest band in the world, to maligned sell outs, to rock and roll elder statesmen. I’ve agreed with public opinion at some of those times, and differed from it at others. But at this stage, Metallica have been around too long, and had too much of an impact on pop culture for them to be dismissed, whether you like them or not. I like them enough to have seen them live and have an interest whenever something new comes out. But I‘ve never gone back and got properly stuck into the early years. It’s long overdue, but I finally listened to Metallica’s debut, Kill ‘Em All.
A lot faster and more aggressive than their chart topping, mainstream early 90s, Hit the Lights is such a great way for a band to announce themselves. Cliff Burton’s bass work is so much more melodious than you’d expect from a metal band, and Kirk Hammett’s wailing solo is the kind of thing that helped define what heavy music could and would be.
With a similar breakneck pace and crunching, palm muted chords, The Four Horseman has James Hetfield pushing his voice to dangerous levels that give the song an edge that feels like these young head bangers could fly out of control at any second. And at over seven minutes, it’s relentless drive is pretty impressive. Playing so fast for so long shows how great the musicianship within the band really is.
I don’t know if it was the case in 1983, but to my modern ears, the over serious, attempted darkly sincere lyrics of old school metal are pretty corny and funny today. I mean, “Living and dying laughing and crying. Once you have seen it you will never be the same. Life in the fast lane is just how it seems. Hard and it’s heavy, it’s dirty and mean”, is something James Hetfield wrioe and recorded. And he did it with a straight face. And the resulting Motorbreath is amazingly camp and awesome for it.
I’ve always been aware of the reverence Metallica fans have for original bass player Cliff Burton. But I’ve never fully understood it until I heard (Anesthesia)–Pulling Teeth. I never would have thought a solo bass instrumental could be riveting as this song is. And when Lars Ulrich joins in on the drums at the halfway point, it only gets better. Burton’s reputation has now been officially justified.
While it’s built on pretty much the exact same components as Kill ‘Em All’s opening pair, Whiplash somehow manages to bring even more kinetic energy to proceedings. Ulrich’s drumming sounds like his kit could crumble under the machine gun like attack with every hit.
On an album of pretty much non stop ass kickers, it’s impressive that Kill ‘Em All saves the best for last. After being thoroughly rocked for the best part of 40 minutes, Seek & Destroy and Metal Militia kick it up yet another notch. Far from the polished hit makers they would become, this early version of Metallica was more of blunt instrument than a precise tool. But they were a blunt instrument that well and truly got the job done.