Heavy metal giants Metallica released their debut album ‘Kill ‘Em All’ on 25 July 1983 via independent label Megaforce Records, marking 40 years of a headbanging classic.
Wielding an arsenal of pummelling riffs deployed at high velocity, Metallica were among the primary players of the new breed of heavy metal that emerged in the early ‘80s – thrash. The rebellious offspring of NWOBHM, thrash grew in resistance against the hyper stylised posturing of glam and hair metal. Metallica’s first full-length offering ‘Kill ‘Em All’ positioned them as the movement’s proverbial Four Horsemen.
Metallica had formed in 1981 in Los Angeles, founded by drummer and band mouthpiece Lars Ulrich with vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Ron McGovney. The band spent their early years building their name in the local underground metal scene with a number of live shows and demo releases while solidifying their line-up.
In late 1982, Ron McGovney was replaced by the late-great Cliff Burton, whose aggressive playing style and stage presence had impressed both Ulrich and Hetfield. Burton remains a dominant figure in Metallica lore after his tragic death in a bus accident in Sweden during the band’s 1986 ‘Master Of Puppets’ album tour.
By 1983, Metallica were preparing to record their debut album, which was originally titled ‘Metal Up Your Ass’. However, on the day of recording, Dave Mustaine was summarily fired from the band for drug and alcohol issues as well as violent behaviour, which had culminated in a fight with his bandmates. He was immediately replaced by Kirk Hammett, who remains in the lead role to this day.
Mustaine would of course go on to major success with his own band Megadeth and take a place of honour in the annals of heavy metal as part of thrash’s ‘Big Four’ alongside Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer, but he arguably played a vital role in Metallica’s formative years, co-writing four songs on ‘Kill ‘Em All’.
Cementing their definitive line-up, Metallica recorded ‘Kill ‘Em All’ over two weeks at Music America Studios in Rochester, New York with producer and studio owner Paul Curcio, who passed away in 2018. But Curcio was more familiar with recording folk and psychedelic rock acts like The Grateful Dead, and Megaforce Records owner Jon Zazula was unhappy with the initial mix. In an effort that almost bankrupted Zazula, the album was remixed by Chris Bubacz before being released in July.
‘Kill ‘Em All’ was a gamechanger upon release, receiving critical acclaim from the music press and heavy metal lovers alike. The speed and ferocity of Metallica was blasted forth, and though the term ‘thrash metal’ wouldn’t be fully defined until 1984 by ‘Kerrang!’ journalist Malcolm Dome, the groundwork for the sub-genre had been laid.
Album opener ‘Hit The Lights’ was first recorded for the ‘Metal Massacre I’ compilation by Metal Blade Records. A rising fury of guitar and drums heralds a relentless 51-minute onslaught that continues across ‘The Four Horsemen’ – a rework of Mustaine’s ‘The Mechanix’, ‘Motorbreath’ – penned by Hetfield in his previous band Leather Charm, and ‘Jump In The Fire’, one of Mustaine’s contributions.
On ‘(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth’, Cliff Burton takes the spotlight with his mastery of the bass in a thundering solo that exemplifies his distinctive style, accompanied by Ulrich on drums. The track features Burton’s signature use of a wah pedal and techniques such as tapping, which made him sound like a lead guitarist more than a bassist.
Act II of ‘Kill ‘Em All’ takes hold with ‘Whiplash’, a track that exemplifies the headbanging ethic as well as Hetfield’s rhythmic control often aspired to by guitarists, unleashing riffs with envious precision and speed.
Metallica show their NWOBHM roots on ‘Phantom Lord’, about a mystical and bloodthirsty demonic being. War is a recurring theme particularly in Metallica’s early work and ‘No Remorse’ is a savage portrayal of soldiers being desensitised to the traumas of sanctioned killing and gruesome death.
Penultimate track ‘Seek & Destroy’ has become a staple of Metallica’s live sets and was the first song recorded for ‘Kill ‘Em All’. The song was heavily influenced by ‘Dead Reckoning’ by NWOBHM band Diamond Head, with lyrics about the desire to kill and hunting prey in the night.
‘Kill ‘Em All’ ends with one of the album’s fastest tracks ‘Metal Militia’, a fitting bookend to the album that also serves as a call-to-arms for the burgeoning subculture of metalheads. Dave Mustaine wrote the main riff. The song’s closing war cry of ‘metal militia’ fades into marching boots and gunshots, seemingly announcing the coming of war.
The catalyst for a new generation of metal, ‘Kill ‘Em All’ is hugely significant as a defining heavy metal album and one of the greatest albums of all time. It’s also the official birth certificate for one of the biggest and beloved bands in the world.
After all the changes and challenges Metallica have encountered over the past 40 years, ‘Kill ‘Em All’ stands as a monument to four (five, if you count Mustaine) young musicians who changed the course of music history.