Sunday, October 24, 2010

Metallica - Kill 'Em All (1983)

One would be hard-pressed to find any Metal fan that is not aware of the story behind this classic album. Metallica spent a couple years making a name for themselves, playing live and releasing demo tapes, joining bands such as Exodus and Overkill in creating the sub-genre known as Thrash Metal. Released in July 1983, on Megaforce Records, Kill 'Em All was the first full-length album to emerge from the new Thrash scene. And while the band would later go on down a path that most true Metal fans found disgusting and horrible, it would be unwise to discount their early accomplishments. Many seem to forget that, when Kill 'Em All was released, it was considered quite fast and aggressive, even surpassing the mighty Venom.

The original title was to be Metal Up Your Ass, with ridiculous artwork to accompany this concept. This was shot down by the record label, thinking that it may cause problems with distribution, as far as I recall. In the end, it turned out to be a positive thing as the aesthetics of an album aid the music in creating the atmosphere. The artwork for Kill 'Em All was, definitely, more striking and appeared more serious than the proposed cover image.

This record was a very important part of my early musical development. Despite growing up with Rock and Metal, I didn't begin working on my own music collection until around 1989, and this band was the catalyst for that. In the beginning of my search for similar music, terms like "Thrash Metal" didn't mean very much to me. All I knew was that I had to find more music like this, which eventually led me to discover bands like Anthrax, Overkill, Megadeth and, of course, Slayer. Metallica was responsible for me seeking out more Thrash Metal which, in turn, would take me on to discover Death and Black Metal; as well, it was because of Kill 'Em All that I desired to look into the bands that had influenced them in the first place, opening up the gates to the NWOBHM bands and so on.

For those who were in the underground scene back then, these songs were already quite familiar, due to the number of demos that were released. However, the versions found on Kill 'Em All possess a decidedly harder edge, and a lot of this can be attributed to the vocals. Prior to this, James Hetfield utilized a style very reminiscent of Sean Harris, which was most evident on the various Diamond Head songs that they covered. In my opinion, the weaker vocal approach was one of the things that really killed some of the NWOBHM bands, or at least made a few of them take a little longer to get used to. Thankfully, here we find that Hetfield was discovering his own voice, developing a more aggressive sound. While he didn't stray into Cronos territory, his approach was more raw than melodic and this helped the overall feeling of the album.

For the most part, Kill 'Em All is much tighter and more vicious than what was heard on the No Life 'Til Leather tape. The sound quality isn't as much of a jump as one might expect, but that's actually a good thing. They retained the dingy and raw sound from the demos, while simply improving the execution. It's interesting to follow the development of these songs, from the early demo stages to the L.P. The arrangements are, more or less, the same. Obvious differences would include the extra parts added to "The Four Horsemen" (originally known as "The Mechanix") and the intro bit to "Phantom Lord". Some lyrics have been changed as well, which only benefits the band. Still, some ridiculous lyrics remain. "Hit the Lights" is an example of this. Listening back to the version that appeared on the Metal Massacre compilation, it's amazing how the song had evolved by the time they recorded Kill 'Em All. Hetfield's more aggressive vocals definitely save this song from ruining the album, as it's earlier incarnations would not have suited the record at all.

The general atmosphere of the album is more energetic than anything else. Despite some of the lyrics possessing a darker tone, there's never really a feeling of darkness or dread to be found here. Of course, the band were certainly never attempting to create a dark atmosphere, so this is only detrimental in the minds of those who would prefer this. The record is filled with great songwriting, with the fast riffs that get your adrenaline pumping and the more mid-paced riffs that still manage to embed themselves in your brain. Even though they surpass Venom when it comes to speed and even had an influence on Slayer, there's a somewhat upbeat feeling that permeates this album. In particular, the bass solo "Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)" gives it almost a rehearsal/jam vibe. And that's not, necessarily, a bad thing. It adds a level of intimacy between the band and its audience, in a strange way.

When analyzing this album and its impact on the Metal world, one has to acknowledge the contributions of Dave Mustaine. Some would say that, since he wasn't even in the band for a full two years, that he can be relegated to being a mere footnote. This asinine opinion is actually very aggravating, as it shows a lack of understanding that Mustaine was a very crucial part of this band at a critical juncture in its development. It was in those earliest stages that things could have gone down a variety of paths and had they chosen a different guitarist, they might have ended up being yet another dead end band that only hardcore collectors ever heard of. Not only did Mustaine co-write several songs on the album, but his skilled playing helped bring those songs to life, in their earlier versions. In my opinion, regardless of any personal issues, he should have been allowed to play on Kill 'Em All. Those were his songs too, and his efforts helped lead them to the point where they could even record an L.P. If they wanted to eject him from the band as soon as they exited the studio, that was up to Hetfield and Ulrich. But it seemed wrong to go ahead and use his songs, without allowing him to take part in recording the album.

Kill 'Em All is, essentially, NWOBHM on steroids. It's heavier, faster and a little nastier than most of the bands that had influenced them. The same type of melodies are still to be heard, but with a sharper edge. The album is not one-dimensional, in any way. The pace varies throughout and the more atmospheric bits are already there, just not as prominent. Just listen to the middle section of "The Four Horsemen" for an example. And, for perhaps the most vicious-sounding song on the album, one need look no further than "Metal Militia", which I've always viewed as Metallica's own "Witching Hour" and one of the true highlights of the record.

Needless to say, this album comes highly recommended. If their later atrocities have kept you from exploring the old stuff, you're certainly missing out on a true classic.