Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is 'Kill ‘Em All' by Metallica.
Listening retrospectively to a group’s debut album is always an enlightening experience. There’s an underlying sense of do or die about a band’s first project, a justification of building hype and a claim to be staked into the musical environment.
There is no better example of this than Metallica’s debut album ‘Kill ‘Em All’. It’s hard to imagine a time when Trash Metal as we know it languished in obscurity, yet before the release of ‘Kill ‘Em All’ it did just that.
Very few albums have the accolade of having seriously helped in establishing the dominance of a genre, the beginning of a movement not just musical but far reaching into popular culture. Bearing that in mind, it’s worth exploring the content and context of the album in greater detail.
It’s fair to say that ‘Kill ‘Em All’ is a hybrid album of sorts. Music propelled with the energy of the punk rock movement and infused with the grandiose delivery of the mid ‘70s rock operas. The record showcases some impressive musical virtuosity; James Hetfield’s speed and accuracy were and are formidable. Lars Ulrich’s double time snare patterns defined what would be the industry standard for the Trash Metal to come.
Virtuosity aside, ‘Kill ‘Em All’ is the product of a sound not yet fully explored. At times Hetfield’s lyrical content verges a little too strongly on the adolescent; the lyrics from The Four Horsemen were traded from Dave Mustaine’s tale of a horny mechanic (thank god), are a prime example of this. Biblical content, with its apocalyptic themes, would go on to inspire and inform some of Hetfield’s most thought-provoking and interesting lyrics; Creeping Death, Blackened and For Whom The Bell Tolls to name a few. However, The Four Horsemen seems to have been written because it sounded cool as opposed to anything more profound.
It’s not just Hetflield who sounds a little unsure on this record. Kirk Hamlet’s solos on tracks like Seek & Destroy may be forever part of the metal canon, yet they’re composition was already well underway when he came aboard the project. It’s an astounding musical voice but compared to what was yet to come, it’s clear that it’s not fully his own.
You could argue that the group’s relative inexperience is a vital part of what makes ‘Kill ‘Em All’ such a compelling project. It’s the stuff the gods of metal made when they were mere humans and it’s hard for that humanity to not resonate with the listener.
Produced by Paul Curcio; who’d relatively little experience with Metal, ‘Kill ‘Em All’ feels gritty, almost unfinished. This may be due in large part to the demanding timeline awarded to the album’s recording – two whole weeks. It may also be largely down to Curcio himself, who had very little interest in the sound the band were pushing toward.
Infamously, Curcio would not allow the band in the room when he was mixing and Jon Zazula, the band’s record label head, thought the original mix was so poorly done that he had Chris Bubacz, a sound engineer, remix the entire record. It’s no surprise then that the finished product feels like the result of three or four competing visions, a beautiful mess.
Hit The lights immediately sets the tone the rest of the album will follow. The droning fade-in of distorted guitars and drums gives the impression the band are jumping straight into the song after the big finale of a previous one.
For listeners in 1983, a time where hair metal was king, the unrelenting aggression of Hetfield’s rhythm line must have been shocking. The same goes for his vocal delivery, with its rasping tonal quality.
The song comes in at just over four minutes but the speed and intensity at which it’s delivered makes it feel half that length. It’s a song with deadly intent, you can still hear the death cries of the early eighties metal scene throughout it.
If Hit The Lights can be considered the ending of one chapter, The Four Horsemen is the dawning of a new day. It offers the first real ideas that Metallica would expand upon throughout the rest of their career. Hamlet’s lead guitar is passionate, multiple hook ideas all blending into one beautiful whole. The solo is still arguably one of the best metal and indeed general guitar solos of all time. The inclusion of a ‘B’ section, a new idea in the music added well into the song, is a staple of Metallica’s oeuvre. It features for the first time on Horsemen.
Whiplash and Seek & Destroy stand as the other two highlights on the album. Whiplash sounds as punk as anything Metallica have done then or since. Seek & Destroy remains to this day an absolute crowd favourite at concerts, rightly so. Very few refrains are as recognizable or as iconic.
It may have been a case of the right people recording the right sound at the right time, but the lasting effects of ‘Kill ‘Em All’ on Metal music and popular culture cannot be understated. After its release, the idea of what music could be would never be the same.