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Metallica’s ‘Kill ‘Em All,’ the Album to Credit and/or Blame for ‘Extreme Metal’ Mania, Turns 30

Darlings, don't you go and cut your hair: A younger, less litigious Metallica

In 1983’s International Encyclopedia of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, Tony Jasper and Derek Oliver make the claim that two different California bands put out debut ’83 albums that sounded like Motörhead. The entry for Bitch (led by “ex-Ska band vocalist Betsy ‘more than ample’ Weiss”) is longer than Metallica’s, but they’re both pretty short. If anything, the authors seem more excited by Ottawa’s “very wild, furious” Exciter, whose thrashing debut Heavy Metal Maniac apparently preceded Metallica’s freshman album by at least a month: If Kill ‘Em All was “Rapper’s Delight,” Exciter’s debut might be “King Tim III.”

Kill ‘Em All, which came out 30 years ago today, didn’t chart in the U.S. until 1986, in the spring wake of a 250,000-strong first-week sales eruption by Metallica’s third album, Master of Puppets; even in 1988, when the big guns at Elektra tacked on two covers of songs by New Wave of British Heavy Metal cult acts Blitzkrieg and Diamond Head to Kill ‘Em All‘s original Megaforce Records configuration, it never charted higher than No. 120 on Billboard. Critics widely ignored it too, and not just the 99 percent of metal-oblivious ones — even NWOBHM-loving Brit hard-rock mag Kerrang! didn’t put a Metallica album on its year-end list until Puppets. (Their top 1983 pick? Def Leppard’s Pyromania.)

In 1984, the year Kerrang!‘s Malcolm Dome is said to have coined the genre name “thrash metal” — though, like “grunge,” “rap,” “punk,” and so forth, “thrash” itself had been used as a descriptive term long before defining a style — I published a metal essay in which I lumped Metallica into a “genuine independent-label heavy metal underground…from out of nowhere” with not only Slayer (debut album December 1983) and Anthrax (debut album February 1984), but also the more trad Manowar, Armored Saint, and (them again!) Bitch. My primary knowledge of Metallica at the time, as far as I remember, consisted of marveling suspiciously at the hideous, orange-horned, shirtless, cheese-demon ogre on the cover of their “Jump Into the Fire” 12-inch, which seemed to be constantly eyeing me from Frankfurt, Germany record-store shelves on days off from my Signal Corps lieutenant duties. (Wonder if anybody’s ever written an appreciation of the disco-indebted, ’80s-vinyl glory days of metal “maxi-singles”?)

So anyway, what all this is leading up to: Kill ‘Em All did not crash the gate and immediately change the game, and didn’t necessarily blow many minds beyond the demo-tape-trading fanatics who already worshipped the band. Regardless, it has accumulated cachet over time as one of those music-would-never-be-the-same records, in this case, the one that decided once and for all that the powerlifting pomposity of metal could co-exist with the amphetamine velocity of punk rock. Metallica, whose members were all between 19 and 21 when they recorded the album, and sure looked it on the zitted-and-peach-fuzzy back-cover photo, were praised (by me a couple years later, for one) for presenting themselves not as rock-star icons, but as regular denim-and-leather dudes just like their fans. Problem with that formulation: The NWOBHM bands that drummer Lars Ulrich was so obsessed with were already doing it, and not just the ones that only record-collector geeks like him knew about. Motörhead most obviously, but even Def Leppard — in the same age range as Metallica circa their 1980 debut — could’ve been the heshers next door, at first.

Metal tempos had been speeding up steadily, too (or speeding back up, since lots of early-’70s metal was fast in the first place). But Kill ‘Em All synthesized a bestiary of high-decibel influences — mostly British ones, from Iron Maiden to Saxon to Venom to Discharge — and Americanized them by making them even faster, even rougher, even less polite, thus contrasting with the intentionally less-serious party metal from lipstickier Californians like Ratt and Mötley Crüe (both indie-label graduates themselves, by the way) that was making girls dance. So in other words, Metallica didn’t merely recharge metal’s battery and open doors for hacks like Anthrax — they also upped the ante, and thereby established “upping the ante” as a thing metal should do.

Consequently, metal — black, death, grind, nü — has been trying to top itself, raise the bar, get nastier and more truly “metal” (what at least three Kill ‘Em All songs are about) ever since. Which may be a diverting iparlor game for children, but unfortunately is no guarantee of music actually worth listening to. And which, in turn, might explain why several smart young metal bands in recent years (Toronto’s Cauldron, who sound like early Metallica crossed with early Def Leppard; Virginia’s Corsair, who list as one of their influences ’80s Metallica instrumentals) have decided the genre was more fun before all this “extreme,” “brutal” horseshit, which is at least in part Metallica’s fault, got so out of hand.

So okay: Now that credit and blame have been assigned, how does the LP formerly known as Metal Up Your Ass (at least in its creators’ banging heads) actually, you know, hold up? Well, it depends. Metallica got both more and less pretentious later (also better, for two or three albums), but especially with James Hetfield still squealing like a teenager, Kill ‘Em All‘s ridiculous war-violence-hell-metal-metal-metal lyrics have a naïve charm: The atypically lustful “Your bodies waiting for his whips / The taste of leather on your lips” (were they Accept fans?) wins the gold ribbon, though “Stabbing the harlot to pay for her sins / Leaving the virgin” certainly deserves a mention, given the dearth of female protagonists in Metallica’s later oeuvre (at least ’til their Lou Reed collaboration, anyway). The International Encyclopedia of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal to the contrary, only the instructively titled “Motorbreath” (still Metallica’s shortest original ever at 3:08) absolutely “sounds like Motörhead,” though others sort of do for a balls-to-the-wall riff or two, and Lemmy must’ve thought highly of the record, seeing how he repurposed the title “No Remorse” for a best-of album a year later and eventually covered “Whiplash.”

“No Remorse” might also start with ex-Exoduser Kirk Hammett’s best guitar solo on the album, but there’s lots of competition, including a covert Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute in “The Four Horsemen” — and who cares if the blistering leads were allegedly all swiped from Dave Mustaine, who’d been kicked out just weeks before and co-wrote four songs? Not-dead-yet Cliff Burton is ace as well, and the time-changes already sound plenty prog even if Burton hasn’t quite figured how to get his Gothic Ice Age drama together like on 1984’s Ride the Lightning. Some people complain that his four-minute-plus bass solo for “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” drags on forever and perhaps rips off Manowar’s ’82 Loan Ranger ripoff “William Tales” in the process, but I’ve always appreciated the onomatopoeic way he yanks those molars at the end. “Hit the Lights” (the most raging, early-’80s metal-punker about conserving electricity this side of the Angry Samoans’ “Lights Out”), “Whiplash,” and crusty boot-march “Metal Militia” totally burn down the Christmas tree farm, too; “Seek and Destroy” is a chugging melodic fight song that swings enough to suggest Metallica hadn’t quite settled on being rhythm-impaired yet.

They went on to be a lot of other things, too, of course: rock-star icons, Napster haters, group-therapy patients, makers of lousy albums, curators of hobby-showcasing music festivals. Whether that’s more marks for their plus or minus column is above my pay grade. So instead, how ’bout we do for Metallica what Kill ‘Em All‘s title implies? Let God sort ’em out.