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First in Line: Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

by Brett Stevens
July 27, 2013 –

metallica-kill_em_allThirty years ago, a struggling band from California unleashed their first album and changed the world of heavy metal forever. The genre that they may not have invented but certainly formalized was speed metal, and it represented the start of heavy metal’s journey away from verse-chorus rock into the dual worlds of hardcore punk intensity and progressive rock song structures.

At first, these changes were less obvious. Kill ‘Em All owes a huge debt to the heavy metal that came before it, and embraces many of the conventions of rock music as well, but it funneled them through a singular filter and achieved a uniformity of sound. In addition, this new style crept in with a number of innovations, like the use of introductions and instrumentals to change song structure, that presaged where this new subgenre would go.

From a casual observer’s position, the first Metallica album isn’t that far removed from its predecessors. The dual influences of UK heavy metal and hardcore punk are clear, as is the distinctive feature of speed metal: the muted strum that produces a choppy explosive sound from percussive lead rhythm guitar, allowing the construction of more complex riffs by making the power chord a building block instead of a place where the riff rests, as open chords are in rock.

Kill ‘Em All showed a new blueprint for metal that developed the extremity of Motorhead with the intricate riffery of Judas Priest and other NWOBHM bands, making for a brainy album that relied on speed to cram all of its power into songs of a normal length. In addition, the speed kicked it up to a new level of complexity in riffing. Speed reveals the sparseness of a riff, and so the one- and two-note riffs of the past would seem immensely repetitive at a faster pace. Thus the riff itself grew with speed metal.

Conceptually, metal grew up with Kill ‘Em All as well, at least partly. Yes, there were some embarrassing songs that sounded like West Side Story retrofitted for violent Northern California speed metal gangs. But more importantly, there was an epic view of existence. Songs about fate, about the fall of civilization, and dark lore that reveals the topics feared by daylight conversation all gave the album a weight beyond its (merely) heavy riffs. Like hardcore punk, this was the howling voice of the apocalypse at our door.

One of Metallica’s most important contributions was to liberate the riff from the drums, hence the “lead rhythm guitar” designation that appeared with many speed metal bands. Following the lead of UK crust punk bands like Discharge, Metallica viewed the drums as a background timekeeper which framed the riff loosely rather than accentuated it, and thus the riff could change without the drums changing. This allowed the riff to change more frequently without forcing tempo changes, although the band delighted in abrupt and surprising tempo changes as well.

Speed metal took this pattern and ran with it. While its antecedents are clear, such as the proto-speed metal of Satan/Blitzkrieg and Motorhead, and the fast-fingered intricate melodic riffs of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, the new speed metal band from California turned up the intensity and pushed aside conventional song structures. This set metal free from the world of rock, and laid the groundwork for the next generation, which would not only inherit the true lawlessness of hardcore punk, but build up complexity to be closer to the world of progressive rock.

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13 comments

  • Dan H.

    Interesting article. You have got to love the old school Metallica. My question is, isn’t Metallica considered thrash and not speed metal? At what point did they make the transition from speed to thrash? Thanks!
    -Dan H.

    Reply
    1. fallot

      This website holds the position that speed metal is the accurate descriptor for Metallica’s music, Thrash applying to crossover bands like DRI, Corrosion of Conformity etc.

      Reply
      1. Dominating Fucker

        It’s like the term “gay”. Originally it was used to describe a person being happy. Yet later on the term became synomym to male homosexual.
        -
        The original nomenclature for bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Exodus etc. was Speed Metal, and later in the 80s it switched to Thrash Metal (leaving speed metal to describe faster Heavy Metal bands as it is used to this day).
        -
        Thrash was originally used to refer to bands like DRI. COC, Cryptic Slaughter and later on the 80s it switched to Crossover Thrash, (leaving thrash to describe the bands as it is used to this day).
        -
        The website http://www.killfromtheheart.com possess an archive of album reviews that once were physically printed on magazines like Thrasher Mag and Maximum Rockn’Roll as early as 1981-82 and, give proof to the fact that Thrash was originally an exclusive Punk nomenclature before Metallica even released their debut album.

        Reply
        1. Brett Stevens Post author

          The original nomenclature for bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Exodus etc. was Speed Metal, and later in the 80s it switched to Thrash Metal (leaving speed metal to describe faster Heavy Metal bands as it is used to this day).

          Originally, the term “thrash metal” was used only by kiddie mags, but they found it sold better if it had a radical name. Speed metal sounded too much like “speed limit.”

          The website http://www.killfromtheheart.com possess an archive of album reviews that once were physically printed on magazines like Thrasher Mag and Maximum Rockn’Roll as early as 1981-82 and, give proof to the fact that Thrash was originally an exclusive Punk nomenclature before Metallica even released their debut album.

          Punks always loathed metal for a number of reasons, one of which was its entertainment value that appealed to the great herd. When that happens, terms get re-defined as everybody turns into a traitor at the sight of cold hard cash.

          Reply
  • wEEman33

    Can’t go wrong with the first two Metallica albums.

    But it all started to go downhill with “Master of Puppets.” At least that album has “Orion,” which is arguably their best song.

    Reply
    1. eman

      Justice for All was their apex. No intensity lost between Kill Em All and that album, the guys just played their instruments so much better. Under-appreciated, especially among Metallica fans!

      Reply
      1. fallot

        I always thought the fourth was the weakest of the pre-infection Metallica albums. It wasn’t full of conceptually dissimilar songs like MoP, and I do still enjoy parts of it to this day but most of the songs are just too long winded, pointless or steps back from RtL. It isnt a very fair comparison and I am sure it will be taken the wrong way but the album reminds me of Death Magnetic. Similar flaws, only much worse and compounded by other problems.

        Reply
        1. Brett Stevens Post author

          And Justice for All is weak in songwriting, but strong in melody and traditional musicianship. That’s what vaulted them into fame, even though it’s often cheesy and dramatic. “One” was really the announcement that it was too hard to make money as a speed metal band, so a heavy metal/alt-rock hybrid (remember, REM was huge at the time) was on the horizon. Later they mixed in the Anselmo-inspired Southern Fried elements to keep everyone guessing, but the decision was made long before to be a rock band. They just kept one metal riff per song to keep it “edgy.”

          Reply
    2. Brett Stevens Post author

      At least that album has “Orion,” which is arguably their best song.

      I agree here. “Orion” is clearly the definitive Metallica song. MOP just packaged their speed metal in a very digestible format. It’s a good book of technique for any upcoming speed metal band.

      Reply
  • deadite

    I like this album; though I think it’s a bit too self-referential at times, thus making it a bit too cheesy.

    Still, you can’t fuck with tracks like “The Four Horsemen” or “Phantom Lord”. Classic stuff.

    Reply

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