Metallica Kill 'Em All Album Cover

Debut Album Review: Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone, not already in the know, to identify the band that released Kill ‘Em All as the same band that released Hardwired…To Self-Destruct.

The fast-paced speed metal of Metallica’s debut album Kill ‘Em All introduced a whole new genre of music quickly separating itself from the heavy metal of the day. But, Metallica embraced more of a harder edge to hard rock not too many years later as singer James Hetfield replaced the almost screamo style  vocals on Kill ‘Em All and several follow-up albums, for the tone and range displayed on 1991’s eponymous Black Album  that carries through to this day. Though his vocals did begin a noticeable change for 1988’s …And Justice for All from the higher pitched spit on prior albums.

Though age would have prevented Hetfield from keeping up with his earlier style anyway, he took vocal lessons after experiencing issues during a performance of the cover song “So What?” during the Black Album tour which the timeline indicates he had already started the vocal change prior to the eponymous Metallica album that coincidentally brought the band fully out of the garage and into the mainstream.

(Whew, now that’s a long sentence!)

Kill ‘Em All remains a landmark album for thrash metal music and while many old school fans lament over the band’s departure from the genre, the music of Metallica arguably hasn’t drifted too far from those early head-banging years. Granted, some hits played on radio today bear little in common with the speed and dynamics spilled out on Kill ‘Em All.

Much of Metallica from 1983 remains in the band 40 years later. Hetfield holds down the mic, Lars Ulrich works behind the kit and Kirk Hammet leads on guitar.  Cliff Burton was tragically lost in a bus accident in 1986 while the band was on tour in Sweden. Dave Mustaine, the original guitarist for Metallica until he was kicked out for drug and alcohol abuse and replaced by Hammett,  wrote three of the songs on Kill ‘Em All. Mustaine went on to sobriety and founded  competing metal band Megadeth.

The ambitiousness of Kill ‘Em All cannot be understated. Unlike the quick and fast tempos of hardcore punk that used relatively simple chords with songs barely hitting the three minute mark, Metallica took this a few steps further by building on those fast and aggressive tempos with more complex playing, time signature changes and adding length. Well, at least Metallica did. The 10-song Kill ‘Em All stretches more than 50 minutes with every song, except one, exceeding more than four minutes, two passing the six minute mark and one seven minutes.  This long form approach to songwriting did not change all that much as Metallica gained mainstream success, either.

Metallica Kill ‘Em All Album Review

Hang on for the ride because if you want heavy, hard and fast, Kill ‘Em All delivers the goods. It all sounds the same – something your mom and dad might say – and though the head-banging riffs no doubt use similar chords as a driving back drop, you get a lot more intricacies in this album than you might think.

Kill ‘Em All drops the gate with an open throttle on “Hit the Lights” right after the opening bars that sound more like the wrap-up of a concert. An interesting approach to the start but once Hammett rails the guitar he doesn’t let up. A rocker for sure as Hetfield adds to the high energy octane on the mic.

What you hear is what you get for the next 45 minutes.

The seven minute “The Four Horseman” follows with even more going on musically and in many respects offers an outline of how Metallica would tackle future masterpieces. Hard hitting, long jams, varying guitar solos, and well-done tempo changes that don’t interrupt the flow keep this one in the hearts and minds of the Metallica faithful, and Mustaine who co-wrote.

“Motorbreath” the shortest song on the album counters the rest with a bit less intensity and a more straight forward beat. “Jump in the Fire,” the second co-written by Mustaine, moves along tirelessly with Hammett throwing down two solos, the second a more thorough contribution. The only oddball of the bunch comes with Burton’s bass instrumental for “(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth” though Ulrich joins on drums about midway. A unique sound for sure, reportedly recorded in one take, and Burton employs a variety of effects. “Whiplash” closes the first side of the album with an opening minute that should help explain the essence of heavy metal. That salvo could go on for a while and not get old.

Well, the second half of Kill ‘Em All loses some luster, illustrating the “it all sounds the same” mantra. Each song does have its own overall melody but you can probably take a short section of every track and find a similar pattern and rhythm.

“Phantom Lord” opens in typical pace but Metallica hits the breaks midway through, similar to the slow build up on future classic “Master of Puppets,” but without the same result. Hammett lays down some solid solos for “No Remorse” but like “Phantom Lord” follows a similar guitar riff throughout before picking up an even faster pace to close the final minute or so.

“Seek and Destroy” holds its own a bit from the rest starting with a Hammett solo before settling in with the recurrent heavy metal riff but another breakout solo halfway suspends the repetitiousness.  The last Mustaine contribution in “Metal Militia” closes the album with some clear attempts to mix things up as the first half starts much like the others before Hammett drops a solo that catches you off guard then Burton takes the lead on bass before Metallica resumes control.

Heavy, repeating chords abound on Kill ‘Em All in an absorbing and damn near hypnotic head-bangers delight yet with enough transitions and progressions to prevent 50 minutes of uniformity. The breathless energy raises your pulse but you also lose the sophisticated melodies and harmonies associated with classic hard and progressive rock. No doubt, playing at this level requires some serious dexterity and endurance.

The first half of Kill ‘Em All showed a finesse to thrash metal proving the validity of the genre but the second half relied too much on the usual form while trying to show otherwise as Metallica almost seemed to realize this song sounds a bit like this one, and that one, so let’s try this.

Debut Album Grade: A-
Overall Grade: B

Metallica Kill ‘Em All Songs:

  1. Hit the Lights
  2. The Four Horsemen
  3. Motorbreath
  4. Jump In the Fire
  5. (Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth
  6. Whiplash
  7. Phantom Lord
  8. No Remorse
  9. Seek & Destroy
  10. Metal Militia

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7 thoughts on “Debut Album Review: Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

  1. Cool write up on this debut. Almost a game changer to a certain extent. Hetfield really honed his chops in the lyrical side of things after this album. When I need a good boost of adrenalin when I’m out biking this thrash Tallica does the trick.

    1. your not alone. I think there are two camps pre Black and black album forward with …and justice for all blurring the lines. ride the lightning and Master were my favorites of their first three.

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