Classic Album Review : Metallica - Kill 'Em All (1983)
Metallica is not just an important rock n' roll band. I believe they were the most important rock band that existed between John Lennon's death and the release of Radiohead's iconic album OK Computer. Their sound defined not one, but two eras of mainstream rock music while remaining commercially edgy. And this odyssey of cultural dominance began in 1983 with the release of Kill 'Em All, an album that change everything for pretty much everybody. Today, we're going to try and comprehend why it is such an influential record and evaluate where it stands in Metallica's complicated legacy.
The majority of people know Kill 'Em All for the song Seek n' Destroy. It stands out for two reasons : first, it's played at a slightly slower pace than the other (which doesn't say much because Kill 'Em All is played balls-to-the-wall fast) and it has this absolute face shredder of a guitar riff. Even if you don't know Metallica at all, I'm sure you've heard your drunken uncle mutter that riff in a family reunion while awkwardly playing air guitar. This is one of the things that made Metallica so insanely successful over the years: their ability to write guitar riffs that are both catchy and low key sophisticated. I mean, see for yourselves.
Structurally speaking, Seek n' Destroy is not that different from the other songs on the album, though. There's a clear modus operandi on Kill 'Em All. They're angry, straightforward anthemic songs that make very simple claims: Hit the Lights (we're gonna play some metal), Jump in the Fire (and start worshiping Satan), Seek n' Destroy (let's start some shit). Kill 'Em All is the only Metallica album I would qualify of straightforward thrash metal. The only song that is more complex on the record and would allude to things to come is the 7 minutes-long The Four Horsemen, which I believe they still play live, from time to time.
They are simple, angry songs with a punk rock ethos, which is not uncommon for thrash metal. Why did they tap into the zeitgeist so hard, thought? Why did the disenfranchised gen Xers had such a visceral reaction to Kill 'Em All and turned to Metallica like demin-clad saviors? It's because the lyrics don't speak to complex, wordless emotion, but the guitar does. Guitar has always been a primary weapon for Metallica and it already takes a lot of air time on this album.
The real "voice" on Kill 'Em All is the angry, powerful and hyperactive guitar of Kirk Hammett. Before you ask, Dave Mustaine co-wrote some of the songs, but he was fired a month before the recording started. Kill 'Em All is a treasure chest of awe inspiring guitar solos that both show unbridled anger and exquisite control. There's an instrumental song on the record titled (Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth where Hammett's guitar is almost like the hum of an electronic voice. The opener Hit the Lights is another example where like, half of the song is constructed with solos.
For young and angry teenagers that don't care or simply don't know how to express their feelings, it was a new way to live out their anger. Nobody before Metallica had built these monuments to the noxious feelings that consumed them. They mixed the darkness of early heavy metal (Black Sabbath, Motörhead) with the speed and sophistication of NWOBHM and created something entirely new. It didn't need words to be efficient, but the simple and angry anthems worked in their favor and rallied the troops.
And it spoke volumes to angry young people.
Kill 'Em All didn't exactly made Metallica famous. It sold 60 000 copies in a year and made them a quite successful for a metal band, but it was a mere stepping stone for things to come. It laid the foundation for an identity that would become richer and more nuanced for every album until ...And Justice for All. So, Metallica didn't suffer from the aura of their first album the way bands like Guns N' Roses did. Kill 'Em All has a special place in their legacy, but if they hadn't gradually evolved out of it, they would've become Slayer or Testament. They would've been fine, but wouldn't have become the juggernaut they have been for two decades.
That is why Kill 'Em All is not Metallica's best album. It's one of their best, easily top 5, but the best was yet to come for the band that would engineer the sound of a generation.