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Metallica - Kill 'Em All CD (album) cover




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3.40 | 430 ratings

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4 stars Kill the Chicken, Kill the Egg - or simply Kill 'Em All?

Ever since its little brother, Prog Rock hit the spotlights, Heavy Metal has lived in the shade - has always aspired to the greatness of Prog, to the point that the term Progressive Metal has become a common currency to describe Heavy Metal that has such aspirations - but as anyone who has lived and breathed Classic Prog will tell you, the two are not the same thing, and never will be.

Heavy Metal emerged from the Progressive music scene back in 1967, with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Prog was generally a more serious affair - with many risible attempts to inject humour, such as Benny The Bouncer, and More Fool Me (well, I laughed at the latter - at first...).

Metal, however, sent itself up. It was a more Street level version of Prog - and continues to be that up to the current day. Everything is there - the theatricals, the virtuosic displays, nods and winks towards Jazz and Classical music - and even folk - and, in some cases, Rodney Matthews album covers.

OK, so Prog is about more than that little list, and Metallica's debut is more about Heavy Metal than anything else - in fact, it redefines what Heavy Metal was in the early 1980s, and gave the entire genre a kick... and you know where that kick landed.

For Kill 'Em All is a much undersung landmark.

All you need to do to realise its importance is to consider what came before;

Black Sabbath's use of tritones and improvisation in riff creation, Judas Priest's thrashing technique, later realised in potentia by Venom and Metal Church, Michael Schenker's precision metallic solo style, Motorhead's aggression, Randy Rhoades' Classical influences, Iron Maiden and Diamond Head's complex structures and Cliff Burton's own experimental free- jazz-metal stylisations.

That's quite a cocktail, and when you put it into the San Franciso metal smelting pot from which Metallica emerged, showering huge molten gobs of new sound over the Metal community, hotly persued by their competitive contemporaries, it becomes easier to hear how Kill 'Em All lived up to its title and changed the world of metal forever.

From the get-go, Kill Em All bludgeons you into submission with remorseless intent - but, like banging your head against the wall is at its best when you stop, when you stop cowering under the awesome might of the music, you suddenly realise that here is also music of craft and guile - music that twists and turns, that teases and tantalises - that feels improvised.

And here's where the Prog connections begin.

The first connection to make is easy, and only one step away from Motorhead. The intense whirlpool tunnels of Hawkwind are all over this album. The lack of wooey bleepy noises only serves to highlight the vortexes created by the riffs, as they create an almost tangible ball of spikes in which the unwary listener is smashed around.

We are spun into this vortex on the very first track - Hit The Lights, which is where you need to set the volume levels. If you can't hear every detail in the first second, the volume is not loud enough. Volume makes a difference to the experience - so go back, turn it up and start again.

Such a genre changing album deserves every second and them some of the introduction - and then the mayhem starts. The riffs fly off at tight tangents - but the thrash element (for which Metallica are often criticised) is used very sparingly and craftily, and the changes throughout are immaculately timed with, and this is important, Rock and Roll precision. Kirk's solos scream and soar like malignant birds of prey, creating the first of 10 classic tracks.

The Four Horsemen is a slight drop in standards from the opener - while the Hawkwind vortex is still present, it is weaked by repetition in the riffs - and this is part of why Megadeth could never be considered a Prog Metal band in the same way that Metallica can.

There are some wonderful devices - such as the exposed chug around 2:03, leading to a variation of the main riff, the walking phrase that links it to the first bridge at 2:37, linked in by this new walking idea, then on to a chugging variant. The walking phrase is then reused to connect to a new, slower tempo riff, another variant of the earlier material to support the first, guitar solo, but then a dual whammy-bar attack takes us into a new riff, the walking section, and back to a broken up version of the start before returning to the first riff.

This density of material and thematic development has far more in common with King Crimson than it does with Black Sabbath, Judas Priest or Venom - consider the song 21st Century Schizoid Man, which uses the same thematic developing technique (as well as the metallic riffs!). Go ahead - play the two back to back!

Motorbreath is a continuation of this pattern - the old song structure is given new life via riff development - real musical progression, which compares starkly with Mustaine's more tangential unrelated idea- threading technique, as showcased in Jump In The Fire. As with Iron Maiden and Sabbath, it's in the instrumental sections that the interest lies - although there's not so much in these short songs.

I tend to skip through Anesthesia - having heard what Cliff is capable of, this is not a particularly good representation - although it is a rare record of a very gifted musician, and a hugely important figure in the development of Progressive Metal. Finally, the bass is brought out from its supporting role and into the spotlight with the other instruments.

Whiplash rounds off side 1 of the vinyl with a tour-de-force landmark in thrash metal - at one and the same time redefining what thrash is (Thrash is an alternate picked rhythm guitar style that typically uses either the open E or A string, sometimes drop tuned, as a root, while other chords are accented over the top. This root note/changing chord technique is known as pedal points in Classical music), and setting an almost impossible benchmark - a song that is both catchy, and technically challenging (once you've got the hang of exactly where the accent occurs in the second riff, you have to cope with the double-speed Whole Lotta Love riff variant in the instrumental!), dispenses with the old Verse/Chorus format (the only chorus is a shout of the song title), has a multi- tempo, multi-style instrumental section, and the strongest sense of the Hawkwind vortex (as I like to think of it) on this entire side.

...and then we turn the record over!

Only 4 tracks on side 2 - but what monsters.

Phantom Lord exploits the same variation technique - and let's get this straight - the variation technique is hard - much harder than the Off-At-Tangents technique, which is a cop-out in comparison.

Listen to how Metallica spin the riffs around, literally turning them upside down, finding a more mellow, acoustic feel within them, building them up with metallic chunks, and literally throwing ideas around with masterfully timed precision - Lars switching from Hi Hat to ride cymbal for perfect punctuation.

And this is the weakest track on side 2.

No Remorse then proceeds to live up to its name - the riffs, the tempo changes, the searing solos, Kirk's lack of chops... never mind - you get the picture. The Heavy metal riffs continue relentlessly shifting like quicksand - once one hook has got into your head, another evilly replaces it until THAT instrumental - the thrash technique has been held off until precisely the right moment, and it's fed to us bit by bit, Cliff's bass propelling with perfection a riff with more gallop than the Four Horsemen, Lars feeding it hefty slabs of tom-tom - but Metallica save the best for the second instrumental at 4:45; a scream of Let's Goooo!!!! is followed by a riff that makes Whiplash feel slow, accents piercing and punctuating. This is taken down a few steps for the vocal sections, and returned to, never stopping the onslaught, merely changing the bludgeoning rate.

Sadly I've played Seek and Destroy to death, to the point that I can't listen to it any more - but it's chock full of the same sorts of twists, turns and Saxon riffs... yes, Metallica are frequently accused of plagiarism, particularly in their early work, but the reality is that they knew a good riff when they heard one, and, like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple before them, knew with an unerring instinct how to make it better.

Again, the real interest is in the instrumental section - but it's also worth noting that the Ball Of Spikes feeling I meantioned earlier is very strong here, despite this being a slower tempo song. Can't hear it? Turn it up!

The album closes with my favourite, Metal Militia.

The tempo here is quite literally breakneck thrasherama - but it is controlled. Metallica ride the tiger here, unleasing riff after riff, going off at tangents for once - but it works here, as a complete contrast to the naturally developing style of earlier, and proves that Metallica were able to work not only at different tempos but in completely different compositional styles within the fledgling genre that they helped to hatch.

The Ball of Spikes is at its strongest here - and just when you think it can't get any faster... it does. Kirk's solo is a complete revelation - the spikes becoming razor edged.

Then there are more riffs - oh, the riffs!

These are chucked around with devil-may-care alcarity, and only a couple of little fluffs - which we completely forgive the purveyors of the new order of metal.

This is NOT a heavy metal album.

Compare it with ANYTHING else released in or before 1983 and see what I mean.

The closest is Venom's Black Metal - but Venom didn't have Cliff, they had a guy who couldn't play bass. They also had a guy whose rhythmic ideas ran to Hit 'Em All. While the guitarist invented the thrash technique and successfully held the band together, everyone else got on with the business of raising hell and killing music (I refer to the label on the back of the original album).

Metallica, on the other hand, concentrated on the music - on creating new music that had never been heard before for a new world order in which Metallica would be top of the Metal heap - and so they are, for better or worse.

But Kill Em All is an album you MUST hear, if only to understand how Prog Metal came about, and to hear the things it could yet be. For Prog Metal seems to be slow or scared to catch up with the idea of using improvisation and variation in riffs - and until it does, it will never progress musically, just technically. Kill 'Em All is the beginning of BOTH sorts of musical progression, and hence is Progressive Metal in spirit, if not attitude.

Certif1ed | 4/5 |


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