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On its second album San Francisco thrash upstarts Metallica show what they were truly capable of. It was the first of two albums that the band would record at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark with famed producer Flemming Rasmussen. Interestingly, it was the last album to feature writing contributions from early guitarist Dave Mustaine (who had formed his own band Megadeth in the interim). On the whole it has Metallica at its peak in terms of speed, songwriting and production. For good reason this is universally considered to be a Bay Area thrash metal classic, and rightly so. “Ride the Lightning” sees a hungry band growing in leaps and bounds – and it is testament to what this band could have been wouldn’t they have strayed from the path they laid out.

Where the band formerly was little more than a more muscular Venom, Motörhead and Diamond Head clone on this second album they break out of their creatively stifled shell. Gone are the embarrassing youthful tributes to metal culture and its lifestyle and instead we get interesting dissections of socio-political topics and classic literary subjects. The band was at a crucial juncture in its career. They had to choose between remaining a novelty act that just played groovy heavy music, or tackle more serious and mature subjects and actually become a veritable creative force in a more accomplished sense. As the band was evolving musically at a steep level the lyrics had to fit the more ambitious and involving songwriting. Lest the band become a Manowar they had to adapt or perish – thankfully, the band choose to abandon its goofy beginnings and wrote something they themselves were passionate about. Music and lyrics work in perfect harmony here.

Metallica-1984The album opens with ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ and the track itself starts out with a fragile acoustic piece. The contrast of the acoustic opening section and what is to come greatly emphasizes the strength of the band at this time. Everything is in service of the song, and where the band had previously not used any acoustic instruments here they do, to great effect, I might add. After the peaceful opening the first riff comes in and Metallica now plays faster than they ever did. The leads take a greater prominence in the songwriting, and their inclusion is a vital part of the songs. The songs themselves are more open in terms of composition, and far more melodic. The amount of riffs per song has increased, and each of these riffs flows naturally from the next. Nothing is forced, and one can only imagine what this band could have been had they had a more versatile drummer. There is a greater reliance on recognizable hooks within each song and the album as a whole flows better than the debut. It has the same storytelling qualities, and richness of composition that wouldn’t feel out of place on an early Iron Maiden record. Safe to say Metallica only take songwriting cues from that pivotal British heavy metal bastion, and weave those into its own brand of fast-paced but still fairly melodic thrash metal.

The songs cover a wide variety of subjects. ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ is, as its title cleverly suggests, about revenge, Armageddon and the end of the world. The title track details the misery of the criminal justice system. In fact, it is written from the perspective of a deathrow inmate awaiting electrocution. Apparently, the faults of the criminal justice system was a topic near and dear to the band’s heart at the time as they would eventually base an entire album around its premise. ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ concerns the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, and talks about the horror and dishonor of modern warfare. ‘Fade to Black’, once again introduced by a 12 string acoustic guitar opening, is the band’s first power ballad. ‘Trapped Under Ice’ is based upon a demo track named ‘Impaler’ that Kirk Hammett wrote for his former band Exodus.

‘Escape’ is another power ballad of sorts with angsty, angry-at-the-world adolescent lyrics that every teenager can relate to. ’Creeping Death’ describes the Plague of the Death of the Firstborn (Exodus 12:29), written from the perspective of the angel of death as summoned by Moses. The middle-section of the song was originally written by Hammett while he was in Exodus. It is based on a song called ‘Die By His Hand’ which was a staple in the Exodus setlist, but the track (like ‘Impaler’ before it) never made it on to any official Exodus recordings, and was thus re-used here. Last but not least, the ambitious and highly atmospheric closing instrumental piece ‘The Call Of Ktulu’, co-written by former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, is based on the H.P. Lovecraft story “Shadow Over Innsmouth”, which Burton introduced to the band.

The cover artwork perfectly fits the thematic of the album. Each member is on top of his game instrumentally, and the warm analog production emphasizes the strength of each individual player and the band as a whole. The entire band poured blood, sweat and tears into this record – and frankly, it shows.

Produced in a time of difficulty and strife by a young and hungry American band that were road dogs if nothing else, it is where the stars aligned for Metallica. The songs have near storyteller qualities and the pacing makes it a pleasure to listen to. The lyrics, while angry and frustrated, are far more mature, intelligent and interesting on their own. Recorded on borrowed amps and instrumentation in a brief month and a half at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark “Ride the Lightning” has all the hallmarks of a classic. Everything fits and the record sounds as fresh and invigorating now as it did when it was originally released.

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Once upon a time Metallica were just a bunch of zitty, angry adolescents in leather jacks with bad breaths cranking out heavy tunes they loved themselves. In that time they were hungry for success and would stop at nothing to achieve their goals. As much as anything the band was the life’s work of Danish émigré Lars Ulrich, a self-confessed New Wave Of British Heavy Metal fan, who was looking to put a heavy metal band together. It was with the arrival of one James Hetfield (rhythm guitar) that drummer Ulrich was truly able to bond, and this axis continues to define the band’s creative direction to this day, for better or worse (mostly worse). “Kill Em All” is an anomaly of sorts in the band’s classic metal era as it is a mish-mash of holdovers from the members’ previous engagements, a number of songs co-written by a member no longer in their ranks and what is there of original material gets by mostly on attitude than actual songwriting.

What sets “Kill ‘Em All” apart from the rest of Metallica’s early catalog is how obvious it is about its influences. It doesn’t take a whole of imagination to picture that everybody in the band at the time were fanatics of the likes of UK proto-metallers Venom and Motörhead. The latter becomes especially clear in how much Metallica directly lift from its infamous UK forbears: the riff construction, the simple but aggressive drumming, the raw punk energy, the lyrical subjects and the construction/rhyme schemes of said lyrics, etc – just to mention the most obvious characteristics. On all other fronts it sounds like a band trying it darndest to outdo its regional competition in terms of speed, heaviness and overall extremity. The album represents Metallica at its most youthful, it is the first out of four records of the band’s classic metal era, and it is a mandatory purchase for anybody that considers him/herself a serious fan of the genre. It is crude, it is juvenile but it also is the most brash, honest and straightforward album this band would ever write.

metallica-metallica-32495881-950-928There is a very “rehearsal” quality to this material as it mostly feels like an actual gig captured and cleaned up roughly in the studio. “Kill ‘Em All” for the most part is a band still in search of what works and what doesn’t. As a result a lot of the songs pile up on the riffs but also tend to sound anticlimactic and unfinished. This is a young, eager and enthusiastic heavy metal band banging out whatever song material met their initial criteria but the debut has little of value to offer otherwise. Already on the first record Castro Valley-born bassist Cliff Burton is the most musically gifted and technically accomplished member of the unit with lead guitarist Kirk Hammett not close behind. The young James Hetfield still reluctant in his position as vocalist, and drummer Lars Ulrich actually sounds as if he could surprise the listener had he kept honing his percussive skills along with the other musicians. The album is a dusty relic of a more innocent time in the underground metal scene. Forging together elements of hardcore, punk and NWOBHM along with a healthy dose of bravado Metallica delivered their first studio record with “Kill ‘Em All, one that helped birth a new subgenre of metal along the way. By many “Kill ‘Em All” is considered to be the first genuine thrash metal record.

Originally based in Los Angeles, Metallica relocated to San Francisco at behest of Cliff Burton who was still in the band Trauma. Taking a look at the tracklist at least a third of the album was culled from the members’ previous engagements. ‘Hit the Lights’ was a song Hetfield carried over from his previous band Leather Charm. Infamously, early lead guitarist Dave Mustaine was fired in April 1983 for his drug and alcohol problems, overly aggressive behavior and clashes with bandmates. He received co-writing credits on four of the songs on “Kill 'Em All”. The songs ‘The Four Horsemen’ (originally titled ‘The Mechanix’), ‘Jump in the Fire’, ‘Phantom Lord’ and ‘Metal Militia’ were primarily written by Mustaine, most of ‘The Four Horsemen’ was written by Dave Mustaine when he was in his previous band Panic. Two other Leather Charm songs 'Let's Go Rock n' Roll' and 'Handsome Ransom' would be disassembled only to become 'No Remorse'. ‘(Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth’ is a bass solo by Burton, with some accompaniment on drums by Ulrich. A song he carried over from his prior band Trauma. Much of the lyrics revolve around metal fandom, the culture and band life. They aren’t exactly good, and only ‘The Four Horsemen’, ‘Jump In the Fire’ and ‘Phantom Lord’ deviate from the form.

If anything “Kill ‘Em All” is a powerhouse of raw energy and reckless abandon. Never again would the band sound as enthusiastic as they do here. All songs rip into the listener without much hesitation, and while the writing hadn’t yet stabilized there is a swagger and a “je m’en fou” mindset never again seen on the records that would follow. This was a young band, hellbent on making it big and not giving one iota about what anybody thought. On later records Metallica formulized their songwriting, working on a better pace and structuring its records in similar formats. On “Kill ‘Em All” they wrote songs like each one could be their last. Granted, the lyrics are juvenile and a lot of the times the songs go nowhere in particular, but the infectious delivery and breakneck rhythm sections redeem of what in essence a rehearsal put to tape. This record is the very anthesis of that the self-titled record they would release a mere eight years later. Like Slayer’s “Show No Mercy” (that was released five months after this) it is a lovenote to all of the band’s various inspirations. It’s crude, it’s silly but it also one of their best.

Metallica recruited Kirk Hammett, a self-professed Motörhead fan and a one-time student of Joe Satriani, who previously played for Exodus. Hammett, whose guitar solos on the album were partially based on Mustaine's original solos (the first four bars of most solos were written by Mustaine) really excels here, and only partially shows his finesse and emotion that would surface in later records. Truthfully, it are the three members other than Ulrich that steal the show on this brazen and often silly excursion into proto-thrash metal. The most obvious showstealer is bass guitarist Cliff Burton who pops and throbs away audibly both supporting and oozing around what the guitarists throw at him. Hetfield's highly technical rhythm guitar style stands out, along with his somewhat comical vocals. For a record highly inspired by hardcore and punk in both energy and riffing it are the leads and solos co-written by Mustaine and finetuned/performed by Kirk Hammett that deliver the true fireworks. They stand in stark contrast to the brazen, forward style of the riffing and show a keen musician that understands his craft. As suggested earlier the weakspot is, and always will be, drummer Lars Ulrich. His performance on “Kill ‘Em All” isn’t especially varied, but his style is laid bare are – and despite the band’s strong songwriting evolution on records to come his technique would never drastically improve. Everybody was getting better at their instruments, but for some reason Ulrich never quite catched on to the instrumental prowess of his partners. It is an ailment that would continue to haunt Metallica long after they abandoned metal for a more alternative rock style and mainstream stardom.

Recorded in less than three weeks in May 1983 at Music America Studios in Rochester, New York with producer Paul Curcio the debut is the result of years toiling away in the underground. In the next few years Metallica would have short writing - and studio sessions that surprisingly led to incredibly honest and poignant music. Unabashedly cheesy, criminally underdeveloped and hopelessly juvenile by today’s standards “Kill ‘Em All” sees Metallica at its most eager and hungry. It would merely form the template for the three more critically acclaimed records that followed it, yet it remains a curious anomaly in the early catalog of San Francisco’s most enduring heavy rock act. That the band continues to play songs live from this album to this day is testament to the everlasting legacy and importance of this underappreciated and often overlooked debut. “Kill ‘Em All” might not be a pretty record, or a sophisticated one – but what it misses in subtlety and nuance, it more than compensates in sheer raw energy and endearing honesty. For these reasons “Kill ‘Em All” is an important stepping stone in Metallica’s early history as one of San Francisco’s most lauded early thrash metal acts.