Kill 'Em All
Chronological adherence dictates I begin with Metallica, and that is fitting. Of the Big 4, they are the most beloved in terms of record sales, ticket sales, and overall media coverage worldwide. Their debut is either the first-ever thrash metal album or the first-ever thrash album to sell a significant amount of copies (sorry, Venom). Either way, it's hard to believe anyone outside of Megaforce Records and the band themselves believed this was merely step one in a journey that would culminate with (relative) world domination.
"Hit the Lights"--Prior to the murder of everybody, Metallica released a now-legendary demo tape titled No Life Till Leather, comprised of seven songs which later saw light on Kill 'Em All (including "The Mechanix," which would later morph into "The Four Horsemen"). All serious Metallica fans should have by now heard this rough rider. It's important not just for being an extensive glimpse at early Metallica, we're talking early Metallica: joining vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich is lead guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Ron McGovney, both of whom would be dismissed brusquely by the time the band were ready to hit the studio and bring these songs to screaming filthy life.
Enter former Exodus guitarist (and future target of Mustaine derision) Kirk Hammett and former Trauma bassist Cliff Burton. With those four men in place, Metallica truly began.
Mind you, they could have kicked off Kill 'Em All with a more captivating song. It's basically any loud unfocused song any metal band in any area of California would have written in hopes of getting a label to take a chance on them. Aural heat lightning.
"The Four Horsemen"--Right out of the castle gate, into the pitch. The king's song rings; the populace goes pale. They are coming.
They are here.
The Bible is a handy source of fantastical fanatical shenanigans and future God-boy Dave Mustaine left behind a riff for the ages. The galloping verses, searing chorus, and blood-bunching everything else signal greatness in potentia.
Mind you, while drunk horndog metal dudes may deign to pick up a Bible they nicked from a hotel room, it's no guarantee that they'll read it too intently. The Book of Revelation (AKA This Book: Everybody Dies) mentions the horsemen as Conquest, War, Famine and Death. Hetfield reeds on about Time, Pestilence, Famine and Death. Eh! Different sources, different horses.*
"Motorbreath"--An ode to life in the fast lane that would gladly blow a red light just to mow down Don Henley, I've never been able to resist the raucous simple-mindedness that virtually pushes everyone--band, listeners--to the finish line. But if you can track down the unofficially-released demo Power Metal, see if you agree with my preference for Hetfield's vocal take thereon. On the KEA version, he comes off like an overly-confident baseball catcher, while on the demo he knows enough to wrap his still-limited voice around the word he's accenting. A small thing, but still a thing.
Mind you, Mr. Rhyming Dictionary fails the boy hard on every version.
"Jump in the Fire"--An instantly memorable circular riff that disappoints only in reminding me how boss it would have sounded with some production that had hair on its chest. And goddamn, that final solo volley leaves me with the lemon juice face.
Here, "Jump" is a borderline-bouncy song that the minions of el diablo croak to entice souls into the wretched bowels of Hell. But in demo form…
See, Mustaine not only crafted semi-majestic riffs and solos, he wrote lyrics too! And before "Jump in the Fire" was evil it was sexual.
Moving my hips in a circular way
Just forward a bit
Pull your body into my waist
And feel how good it fits
That ain't sexy, not even a little bit. (Having baby James Hetfield bark those words out does not help. It's much more palatable hearing him talk about running around "with hell in my eyes/And with death in my veins.") And exactly what, in this here sordid context, is the song supposed to mean? Was Dave equating the vagina with a pit of flame? That's a tenuous metaphor, son. Were you saying the snatch is VG or VD?
Given this choice between a few minutes fucking stinky drunk metal dudes or an eternity in agony…might as well jump.
"Anasthesia/Pulling Teeth"--This track is separated into the numbing process and the surgical extraction process. Going under is the best; you get to hear a thick chunky fuzzy bass guitar running through classical scales lined up on the chopping block.
Cliff Burton was never a precise, clean fingerpicking wizard ala Steve Harris of Iron Maiden. He was a California gargoyle who absorbed the works of the great composers and radiated onto the standard influences of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, galvanizing his bandmates as well as an entire generation of fledgling bassists. He looked like he did nearly everything out of a bowl--but the man was all about his craft. Technique plus emotion equals fuckin' metal.
It might seem odd that the bassist would get a centerpiece on the debut, but consider that when approached by James and Lars to join Metallica, he agreed with the caveat that the band uproot and relocate to San Francisco. They did so without hesitation.
"Whiplash"--Emphatic! Mission! Statement!
This is "Hit the Lights" letting its nuts hang. A bacchanalian endurance test, meant to separate the pretty boys from the gnarly freaks. Welcome to Metallica Fan Appreciation Night, where everyone who pays to get in is the bobblehead.
(Points awarded for dropping the word "thrash" in the chorus, as well.)
"Phantom Lord"--A frenetic and febrile tale of a malevolent dictator ('cause the benevolent ones are boring and die of old age), told over the sound of machete swaths and organ perforation. I've found myself humming the chorus a time or two, but that might have been due to my lungs filling with various fluids at the time. Gears of war, shifts of gear.
"No Remorse"--A lesser bloodthirsty beast. The chorus is an even peskier bastard than its predecessor, but otherwise this is six and a half minutes that could have been cut in half and been much mightier. Or it could have just been the last 200 seconds. In the words of Fred Schneider III, Esq.: "LET'S ROCK!"
"Seek and Destroy"--This charmingly laid-back ode to fucking shit up down and all hell 'round is a sonic vagary contrasted with the other "invading army seeks to conquer villages/vines/vaginas" offerings which explode all around it with vehement vim. Less a break in the action, or a deference to the weary ear, this is quiet confidence.
Is it also utter wank? Of course it's utter wank! Guys, something isn't only accurately described as "wank" when you don't like it!
"Metal Militia"--We've had songs about martial lawlessness, gory battlefield tableus, and how totally fucking heavy metal Metallica is. So let's just end the album by putting every song into this one song! Hey, when the distributors refuse to let you call your record "Metal Up Your Ass," you gotta get all the aggression out somewhere. So you shove the hammer so far up their butt it exits their mouth looking like a screwdriver.
"Metal Militia" is nothing shocking, with a main riff that could benefit from an extra bolt and James Hetfield not sounding off like a drowning Jewish grandmother at the start of every line.
Kill 'Em All is worth owning not just as an artifact, but as proof that Metallica were not expelled unto the world as avaricious, pandering rock stars. They were starving and growing and seeking just like so many other bands of their ilk. Just had the right amount of extra skill, luck, and determination, is all.
It's also evidence that Lars Ulrich was, once upon a time, a powerful drummer. His parts throughout give off the unmistakable vibe of an ascended fanboy who is not going to let his shot at glory turn out to be an impotent blank. No doubt he had dreams of headlining Donington with every fill.
*As evidence that the Big 4 are not interchangeable in either sound or spirit, please consider that Slayer would not have switched out the war horseman. They would made the entire song about him, other three be damned even more than they already are.