Loud, noisy, and endearingly immature, Metallica’s first album is a winner, but why is it a classic? Why even mention it when Master of Puppets, ...And Justice For All and (for some) Black were such mind-numbingly good records? Why indeed.
The obvious answer is that it is the beginning, not just of Metallica, but of thrash metal as a distinct, powerful flavour in rock music. Thanks to Aerosmith and Van Halen, the story of hard rock in America, circa 1983, was covered in spandex and eye shadow. Metallica wanted to offer an alternative, a cure for glam rock hangover.
Straddling both punk and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Kill ‘Em All is about two things: speed & attitude.
Originally titled Metal Up Your Ass, with a cover depicting a dagger being thrust into the air from inside a toilet bowl*, Metallica’s debut typifies the “us versus them” so integral to heavy metal culture, even today. That culture, and all of its obsessions with death, violence and leather jackets, found a gritty home on tracks like “Hit The Lights”, “Metal Militia” and “Phantom Lord”. Unlike later albums, Kill ‘Em All is littered with self-references and nods to the scene of the time, warning that as “Sound is ripping through your ears / The deafening sound of metal nears”.
Before Metallica, Iron Maiden and Diamond Head had started to push the frontiers of metal towards heavier and more exciting territory. But classy Americans that they are, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich’s troop upped the ante by a factor of one hundred, by embracing raw aggression like very few before them.
“Bang your head against the stage / Like you never did before / Make it ring, make it bleed / Make it really sore”, Hetfield sings on the mosh anthem “Whiplash”. Violent, visceral lyrics, yes, but what really impresses is the pace his band is setting. It is one many listeners would not care to keep up with. But what if you were young, what if you were angry? What if you didn’t care if you banged your head against that stage? Like a race, Kill ‘Em All is meant for the quick and the strong. It is elitism among rock fans.
And even today it is a classic, classic album.
* The record company requested that the title and cover be changed and Metallica complied. They weren’t happy to do so, however, and decided that Kill ‘Em All, supposedly meaning Kill All Record Executives, was a good alternative.
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