There’s a rumor (not much of a rumor) that this album was going to be called Metal Up Your Ass until their label’s legal team got a little concerned, and I wonder if Metallica would have become the era’s first and biggest thrash metal band if this record were not injected into every mall and record shop across the country. The four horsemen took a pile of NWOBHM metal influences from earlier European bands and mixed them with some early punk/hardcore and a dash of Motörhead to brew up these ten tracks of aggression that pretty much set the gold standard for all thrash and metal bands to follow.
You probably already own this album, and if you don’t, maybe you should steal a copy and piss off Lars. You also probably know the boring history of how Dave Mustaine got kicked out of the band and all of that, so I’ll leave that to the VH1 specials. I wouldn’t say this is their best album (it’s probably Master of Puppets), or their most important (…And Justice For All showed they could go on without Cliff. The black album showed that they could become art collectors and rich snobs), but it’s a good introduction, and it may be the most listenable of any of their stuff.
This album has been reissued at least three times, and that’s fitting, because there are essentially three groups of Metallica fan. There was an original release of the LP with just the ten basic tracks. If you are a die-hard, “go against the grain until the end” fan, as the song “Whiplash” might say, you’re going to have a tape that doesn’t have any bonus tracks. If you were a metalhead that got into the band in the first few years, you got this tape and played it until it fell apart. To you, Metallica meant raw aggression, total brutality, the loss of all control. Songs like “No Remorse,” “Seek & Destroy,” and “Metal Militia” were your way of life. You probably got started on Judas Priest and Motorhead, and needed to go that extra step. While you were banging your head to this album, all of the other dorks in your high school were listening to Stryper, or maybe Journey. You either thought that Ride the Lightning was the sell-out point for the band, or it’s possible you never heard any of the band’s later work because you were put in a Supermax prison for killing 14 cops while on angel dust.
The second release of Kill ‘Em All came with two bonus tracks, the covers “Blitzkrieg” and “Am I Evil?”. If your tape (or CD, if you were rich) had these songs, you probably got into the band later, but still in the late 80s, when they were little more than a minor phenomenon in the greater music world. That meant that you probably heard a lot of other thrash, some better than this, and some bands that were much sicker than Metallica. But you still had to listen to Metallica because they were the originals. They were the band that would never release a music video, never cut their hair, and never make the top of the music charts, but that’s what you liked. And maybe their later albums seemed a little plastic or conceptual, but you could always go back to that first album that contained the core of the band’s energy.
If you bought Kill ‘Em All in the late 90s or so and it didn’t have the bonus tracks (again), you got in after Metallica released the Garage, Inc. collection and decided to remove the bonus tracks from their albums so you’d have to buy more stuff. Metallica’s fan base obviously completely changed after the black album, when they switched to hard rock-oriented, mid-tempo ballads that were played at about every Midwestern prom in the mid-90s. What’s strange is that many of the fans of their later AOR bullshit phase still claim allegiance to the early albums, despite the fact that they are two kinds of music. It’s possible that people picked up a copy of Load, liked it so much that Metallica was their new favorite, and then went back to buy up all of their old stuff. Metallica still plays “Seek & Destroy” at their concerts, and people still love it. But it just doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, if you were a fan of Fleetwood Mac at the very peak of their Rumours, Stevie Nicks-with-poofy-hair era, would you seriously go back to their late 60s, blues-oriented records and truly “get” them as much as their sickly-sweet lite-rock radio-friendly stuff?
Okay, so I’ve rambled on too much about the socioeconomic whatsis without even mentioning how the album SOUNDS. First, it’s loud. It’s got this crushing guitar attack that has Marshall amp written all over it, with a chunky rhythm that fits behind these screaming leads. Kirk Hammett’s playing at this point was fast, but almost blues-oriented in his solos. Later, after spending time with Joe Satriani and working on a modal approach to his solos, they went from the screaming blast attacks to a more organized and complex approach, but that’s later. The album doesn’t have the production that the later ones do, but it’s acceptable enough. Cliff Burton’s bass playing is good, although it’s not as present as it could have been. The one obvious exception is “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth),” a three-and-a-half minute bass solo that pretty much started the notion (at least in the metal world) that a bass player wasn’t just a bar-per-measure guy that sat in the back and did little. Burton, although he was a late addition to the band’s existing lineup, pretty much had the most musical chops in the group, and would show this later as the band wrote more material.
The thing that surprises me about this album is how listenable many of the songs are. Some of them, like “The Four Horsemen” and “Phantom Lord” seem a little goofy after all of these years, like they were trying too hard. But songs like “No Remorse” and “Seek & Destroy” have such perfect riffs, and an incredible wall of sound to them, the chunkiness that makes it possible to put tracks 8 and 9 on repeat for a day at a time with no problems.
I’m going to say something that will piss off all die-hard Metallica fans, and it’s the reason I don’t give this a higher rating, but I think it’s true. Overall, the album is very uneven, which isn’t surprising; half of the tracks were written by Mustaine before he got the boot, and Burton’s genius doesn’t really show up across the whole album. This album is not a start-to-finish player, and what’s weird is, it never was for me. One of the advantages of having the tape way back when is that I always listened to “Whiplash,” then flipped it over, fast-forwarded a bit, and skipped “Phantom Lord.” I also used to hate “Jump in the Fire,” although it grew on me. And I almost always skipped “Metal Militia.” Now, coming back to it, some of the songs are total classics, and a few are a bit goofy. That said, this album is not perfect, but it’s still great.