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Main Category: Heavy Metal
Also applicable: --------
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



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KILL 'EM ALL ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1983

Did Metallica invent thrash? I guess you could as well ask: did the Beatles invent rock music? To a certain extent, both of them did that, which doesn't necessarily mean that thrash or rock music didn't exist before Metallica or the Beatles. That's a paradox, but it's also the truth. Thrash may be traced back to Black Sabbath's 'Symptom Of The Universe', it may be seen in some of the classic Motorhead records, it was practiced by Venom, and let's not forget the German scene - if Accept's 'Fast As A Shark' isn't thrash metal, nothing is.

The thing is, Metallica made thrash a household name, and Kill 'Em All was the album that did it. Well, not exactly 'household', but let's just assume there was a reason why Metallica were singled out of all the innovative metal bands of the early Eighties. Part of that reason lay in the fact that Metallica were an American band, and one of the few American metal bands at the time not to suck walrus balls. But another part, and supposedly a bigger part, of that reason was that in 1983, almost nobody was as hardcore as Metallica. Pop-metal and power-metal seemed to be predominant, and while Motorhead were popular, I have to say that Motorhead seem like a pretty compromising band in comparison to Metallica's early stuff. (Actually, some people deny Motorhead the "metal" status at all, claiming they were really just overdriven overamped blues-rock, and these people might just be right).

So, of course, Kill 'Em All struck a hard and mean blow back in 1983. And the question is: does the album hold up just as well today as it did in 1983? Well... sort of. It is far removed from the 'classic' Metallica stuff, of course; at this point, the band was essentially just a bunch o' gritty ill-meaning kids that were far more interested in 'no life 'til leather, we're gonna kick some ass tonight' than in pushing the boundaries of metal towards 'artsier' territory. Besides, the early Metallica were very much dominated by the persona of Dave Mustaine, who already wasn't an active member of the band by the time of the album's release, but nevertheless contributed heavily to the songwriting on here - and Dave Mustaine exported a lot of that bashful "non-ambition" into his next band, Megadeth, leaving the other members of Metallica to pursue a wittier path.

Still, whoever said that a solid ass-kicking album is any worse than a solid 'art-metal' album? At least, when the riffs are good. Because, frankly, apart from the monumental riffage on the album, there's not much else to laud: Hetfield's vocals hadn't yet entirely formed, the guitar solos are dazzling and speedy but not much else, and the lyrics don't really amount to much besides the usual (a) apocalyptic imagery and (b) rock-and-party brawling. But when the riffs are good, and that happens on at least half of these songs, it immediately becomes clear how come these guys raised so much hell in 1983.

'The Four Horsemen' is, of course, a major major highlight, with its chugga-chugga-chugga riff and inescapable doomy atmosphere (funny tidbit - the song was originally written by Mustaine and was actually faster than that!). At seven minutes, it is the magnum opus of the album and seems a wee bit overlong to me, but it also points the way to the future with its time signature and tempo changes and multiple riffs and stuff. Another example of Metallica at their apocalyptic best is the ominous 'Seek & Destroy', with that shiver-sending chorus and Hetfield's scary hoarse yelp at the end of each 'searchiiiiing... seek and destrooooy!'. And really, not coincidentally these two are among the slowest tunes on the album.

These two are the ones which everybody seems to agree upon. Then there's the 'odd' track of the album, the instrumental 'Anaesthesia/Pulling Teeth', essentially just a Cliff Burton bass solo with Ulrich joining at the end to 'jam' a bit. Personally, I'm not all that impressed - I think that the gravelley distorted tone that Burton uses masks a strange unwillingness to display some actual technique, even if he finally picks it up towards the end. But it certainly acts as a massive 'diversifier' in among all the frantic foam-at-the-mouth headbanging. And it sure sounds like pulling teeth, too! Mine! I hate dentists!

Elsewhere, it's just one violent trash number after another, and there's ample ground here for picking out personal favourites on a relatively subjective scale. I would single out 'Jump In The Fire' because I really dig the chorus (very Deep Purple-ish to me!), but 'Hit The Lights', 'Whiplash', 'Phantom Lord' and 'Metal Militia' are pretty much all interchangeable. Interchangeable, but solid-sounding - like I said, when it comes to such an impeccable combination of speed with meticulous precision in playing, Accept are probably the only band I'd mention in the same breath. (Iron Maiden would come close, but they never really specialized in the lightning speed department). And heh, there's a song on here called 'Motorbreath'! How more obvious can you get while paying tribute to your idol?

So that's how it goes. If Metallica are the 'metal Beatles', then this is their Please Please Me: enjoyable fun, but rather lightweight compared to what would follow. Errr... would that mean that Load/Reload was their White Album, though?



Year Of Release: 1984

Unless you actually like Slayer more than Metallica, you're usually bound to rate this album higher than its predecessor - if only for the simple reason that it has everything that Kill 'Em All offers and much, much more. When faced with the inevitable choice, to stick to the original formula to death (not an unnatural selection for heavy metal artists), or to try and use it as the basis for something different, these guys, even if they might have been just a bunch o' dumb teenagers with a strong penchant for succumbing to life's temptations, chose the latter. And delivered!

Every single song on here is good. Every single song is imaginative, at least a little bit experimental, and let's not forget about the ass-kicking power. Yeah, Judas Priest might have invented that crunchy jaw-droppin' style; Iron Maiden might have tried to transform that style into 'art'; but Metallica managed to combine both the jaw-droppin' power (which is sorely lacked by the Maidens - sorry, but their compositions have always sounded a bit 'meek' to me) and the artsiness (which, for sure, was never the Priests' forte - nor was it intended to be). A simple test: switch on to 'For Whom The Bell Tolls', wait until 0:57 and prepare to be eaten alive by the previously unheard visceral power of that riff. Man! How did they manage to get that sound? So deep, so utterly primal, maybe technically not the heaviest ever, but certainly one of the most evil ever. And yet it's merely one of the four or five riffs used in that song, and all of them are great - at five minutes, it sounds like a minor metal symphony, one of the bleakest ever.

But this album deserves to be dissected track by track. First, after a brief deceptive acoustic introduction (obviously there to show you from the very beginning this is going to be a very different ride), 'Fight Fire With Fire' introduces probably the best thrash riff ever written. I mean, usually when you take in a super-speedy thrash riff, you don't bother to make it memorable - or even if you do, the speed factor itself predicts that it will most certainly not stick in the listener's head as a distinct entity. Not so with this song; from the very beginning, there's a very discernible chord structure which allows the riff to be as memorable as, say, 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' - and this considering it's at least five times faster!

Then, the title track crashes in, at a significantly slower tempo for sure, but with a killer riff anyway (or, better to say, a series of killer riffs - from now on, it's kinda dishonorable for a Metallica song to feature less than three riffs!), and it also shows how Hetfield has managed to mature as a vocalist: he actually sings this time around, not merely growls, and at times you can even discern sweet poppy overtones in his vocals, even if the song itself is about paranoia, death, and all the usual stuff. 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' switches maddenning despair for an even slower, more solemn groove, naturally punctuated by bells, but don't let the slowing down discourage you - this song might move along at more or less the same pace as 'Hell's Bells', but it packs in ten times as much intelligence. Perhaps the main riff of the song might be considered a bit generic, but don't cry, just choose another one - there's plenty to take.

'Fade To Black' is another big surprise - a song that begins as a friggin' country-western ballad? Come on, don't tell me that first bit doesn't sound like the Eagles, because it does. Fortunately, I don't really hold an anti-Eagles grudge, so if you're gonna do a good Eagles imitation, it's all right with me. Classy acoustic melody accompanied by excellent Hetfield singing and produced in a weird, weird way that's actually equally distant from both the "homely" country-western sound and the "distant" arena-rock power-ballad sound. From there, it slowly picks up steam with several heavy sections and an ecstatic Hammett solo towards the end. I don't find the song a major highlight of the album, though; many people have selected it as one of the top suicidal songs of all time, but it's actually one of the lighter songs on here as far as melody is concerned (and I don't pay too much attention to Metallica lyrics anyway). It's still pretty good.

'Trapped Under Ice' is pretty much the only weak link on the record, a tossed-off (in comparison) throwback to the no-brain-lots-a-guts headbanging on Kill 'Em All, but seeing as how Ride The Lightning isn't composed of exclusively similar numbers, it's not that hard to take it. Especially since next comes 'Escape', the album's funny pop-metal excursion, which contrasts a light, almost cheery chorus, with more of that death-don't-have-no-mercy thrash chugging in the verses, and after it comes the band's tribute to the Book of Exodus, the fascinating 'Creeping Death', with another set of thrash riffs to die for.

Which leaves us with a tribute to... to... to H. P. Lovecraft. The instrumental 'Call Of Ktulu' lasts nine minutes, and maybe if it lasted, say, seven, I would be more pleased, but let's not argue over such petty matters. They need all this time to build up the tension, from the song's innocent acoustic start to the midtempo chuggin' section (what are all those hellish noises in the background? sounds like they've been taking lessons from Current '93!) to the moment where Hammett finally takes off and the riffs are complemented by a set of speedy overdubbed solos, to the moment where they get tired of playing the old riff and transform it into a new one to the moment where they start to calm down and revert back to the acoustic, and then end it all with a big crashing power chord. To tell you the truth, the song sorely needs a faster section - if they wanted to have this major emotional crescendo, they might as well have carried it to a proud speedy conclusion. Even so, the number totally rules. It's not particularly complex, it's just, how do you say it, sonically adventurous. And loud. Very.

In short, Ride The Lightning, together with the album that would follow it, simply pushes "non-improvisatory" heavy metal as far as it would go. You could argue there's not much 'depth' to this album, and I agree - Metallica were "technical geniuses", the 'message' of their work was never really profound. But then again, I have yet to hear a metal band with a profound message, or a message that wouldn't just be pretending to be profound, so let's just take this album for what it is and not judge it upon criteria that really do not apply to the genre.


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