Archives For metallica

I first started working on this series about four years ago. It has been through many revisions, rewrites, and re-visitations since then.

But here’s the thing: metal history doesn’t stop!

So let us consider this coverage of more “recent” events (since 2010 or so) as a bonus.

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After the 1990s, which saw the rise of experimentation away from thrash metal with varying degrees of success, the genre was due for another sea change. New sounds were cropping up everywhere in the music world (not all of them good by any means), and in the midst of it all the old guards felt compelled to rediscover their original brazen sound. Just as all good things must come to an end, so must all bad things as well.

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“The Big Four” is a name given to a group of four of the most popular and influential thrash metal groups, all of whom started in the United States in the 1980s: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. Between them, they have sold about 200 million albums worldwide, a true juggernaut. For many mainstream listeners, thrash metal performed by one of these groups is likely their first exposure to heavy metal of any kind. So many are their collective sales and accolades that some fans complain that they took attention away from other excellent, but lesser-known thrash bands (which is why I’m writing a separate section for those bands beyond the Big Four).

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While the rest of the world was embracing the party-hearty, big-hair image of glam metal, a whole nest of underground styles rose up against it for fans who wanted something different. These were fans who were tired and disaffected by bands like Whitesnake and Poison–in fact, didn’t even consider it real music (shocking to hear such language on the Internet, I know).

In some ways, it was similar to Black Sabbath’s original rejection of the late-60’s flower power movement, only updated for the 1980s. Remember that at this time the Cold War was in full swing, and it was the high-water mark of the Moral Majority and the religious right. The reaction against it went something like this:

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Metallica – Kill Em All (1983)

“Why don’t we just kill em all?” – Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, on obnoxious record distributors

“What’s the point of writing ten songs if they aren’t good enough to go on your debut album?” – Lars Ulrich

The journey of the world’s most successful metal band starts here, with a raised hammer against a classic black background and stark red logo.  A transparent hand clutches the weapon above a pool of blood, and bear in mind this is an EDITED album cover (originally it was supposed to be called “Metal Up Your Ass” with a more graphic cover involving a toilet and a knife.  No wonder Cliff was pissed at the distributors in the above quote).  Causing a stir in the underground upon release, Kill Em All is Metallica at its earliest, most untested stages, but the raw hunger and aggression are all present.

This was where thrash metal began to break free of its roots in hardcore/punk and started to come into its own.  Metallica went the majority of the way towards that end with “Kill Em All,” but not quite all the way; those pieces would all come together on the follow-up, 1984’s “Ride the Lightning.”

Metallica would never sound exactly like this again.

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

“But if they were aiming at becoming one of the most successful rock bands of all time, they sure were going about it in a kooky way,” Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea writes in Rolling Stone. “Maybe they were thinking they were going to break into Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown with their debut record…They were definitely going for a hit single with the song “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth.” A five-minute-long bass solo is a sure ticket to commercial success.”

Although the speed/thrash metal sound they came to embody wasn’t “all there” yet, seminal Metallica songs here still feature in the band’s live set.  “The Four Horsemen” and “Whiplash” are the most popular, but it is “No Remorse” that finds the rookie band’s best performance on the record.  A six-minute dose of proto-thrash with a big finish, the song has even been covered by Cannibal Corpse.

Cliff Burton’s bass heroics take center stage for an instrumental take on “Pulling Teeth” (yes, that is a bass guitar).  And “Seek and Destroy” stands as one of the top thrash metal songs ever recorded; I have a friend who insists he will die happy if the San Francisco 49ers used it as their entry music to take the field.  Its chugging groove is well suited to the purpose.

Metallica fans who are familiar with the band’s history also will note that 1983 was when Dave Mustaine was dismissed from the group, leading him to eventually form his own successful band, Megadeth.  Nevertheless, a few songs, including “The Four Horsemen” (originally titled “The Mechanix”) are properly credited to Mustaine, as well as a few solos.  Gotta give credit when credit is due.

Bursting with the raw energy of a new band eager to prove itself, Kill Em All is a very good (and very important) milestone in the history of metal. For all the intensity of opinion and navel-gazing about every single other decision Metallica has made over the years, I still don’t know anyone who dislikes Kill Em All.

There would be many, many more thrashterpieces–from Metallica and others!–to come. But this is the subgenre’s first great joy, and it could–and did–get even better.

James Hetfield

Kirk Hammett

Cliff Burton

Lars Ulrich



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