Monday, March 23, 2009

Metal Classics

Metallica - "Kill 'Em All"
(Ed. Note- This little section used to be called "Albums I Am Addicted To" but I'm changing it to the slightly less cumbersome "Metal Classics", sort of my version of Roger Ebert's Great Movies pieces, only written by me and about heavy metal albums. Enjoy)

Has there ever been a more metal song than "Seek And Destroy" off Metallica's debut album "Kill 'Em All"? Sure, there have been better metal songs - Metallica themselves have several - but as a pure, unadulterated expression of what "metal" is, as a summation of an entire musical philosophy, there isn't anything better.

I think part of the reason some people turned on Metallica a little bit in recent years was what some fans probably felt was a loss of this "Seek And Destroy" ethos. As early as the massive selling "Metallica" (aka "The Black Album") in 1991 people were yelling sellout. Oh sure, there were other things along the road: the haircuts for the "Load" album, the more blues based music of "Load" and "Reload," the Napster lawsuit, the sprawling mess that was "St. Anger" and the well-documented group therapy sessions.

The band came full circle though this year with "Death Magnetic," an album that was not just a return to form but also helped put the preceeding 17 years in perspective. As the band members got older, they didn't want to be limited by the manifesto they helped lay out. You can't be a raging beast forever. Certainly some bands have survived for 30 years by doing essentially the same thing - Slayer, AC/DC and Motorhead all come to mind. But even those groups experienced their share of lean years - Slayer in the 90s, AC/DC for most of the 80s and early 90s and Motorhead has never had much commercial success in America.

Metallica was never that sort of band anyway. As early as their second record, "Ride The Lightning," they had begun to branch out with elaborate instrumentals and even a ballad ("Fade To Black"). This was a band that has always been willing to stick their necks out there and try something different.

So having looked ahead, we can now look back on "Kill 'Em All." In hindsight, it really sounds like no other Metallica record. It's sort of like watching the James Bond film "Dr. No" again after having seen all the other Bond movies that came after it. There's a DIY, raw, hardcore feel to "Kill 'Em All." The sound of young band in their garage trying to piss off the neighbors. They looked like four guys that just emerged from a hail of pot smoke in a basement.

Metallica makes clear what they are all about from the very first lines of the very first song, "Hit The Lights" - "No life 'til leather/Gonna kick some ass tonight." Obviously, the first thing that jumps out is how high James Hetfield's voice was on this record. He sounds more like Mercyful Fate's King Diamond (an early influence on Metallica) than he ever would again.

"Hit The Lights" leads into the first huge Metallica anthem, "The Four Horsemen," a song which the band would keep in their live set fairly consistently ever since. The song was so popular amongst fans that band took on the title as a nickname. Interesting thing about "The Four Horsemen" is that it was originally written by the band's first lead guitarist Dave Mustaine under a different title( I won't rehash the band's history. If you don't know it, why are you reading this? But if you need a refresher, here's their Wikipedia page for quick reference.) When Kirk Hammett took over, he added probably the key part of the song - the slow bridge in the middle. It was the first hint of the more sophisticated arrangements the band would perfect in later years.

From there we get "Motorbreath," a song written by Hetfield before he started Metallica and is done in a style similar to Motorhead. It's a celebration of all things metal with its defiant chorus, "Motorbreath/It's how I live my life/I can't take it any other way." "Jump In The Fire" is next and almost certainly bears the influence of proto-black metal pioneers Mercyful Fate and Venom, both contemporaries of Metallica. Lyrically it's like nothing Hetfield would ever write again, with its narrative of going to hell, told from Satan's point of view.

That brings us to the most musically extraordinary track on the record, Cliff Burton's bass solo, "Anethesia (Pulling Teeth)." I listen to this now and still can't believe Burton used a bass guitar to make all those sounds. While Cliff just noodling around is a case of "how did he do that?" When Lars Ulrich's drums enter the picture the instrumental jam becomes a song and yet you still can't believe that its just drums and bass doing that. Burton and Ulrich alone could have been one of the heaviest bands on the planet if this song was any indication. It was unfortunate for Burton's successors (Jason Newstead and Robert Trujillo) that they had to follow this act. Besides being one of the unique bass players to ever walk the Earth, Cliff looked like he came out of heavy metal central casting. It must be like following Sean Connery as James Bond. No matter what his successors do, they will always be measured up to Burton.

After that is "Whiplash," which, along with Slayer's "Angel Of Death," can pretty much be called "Thrash Metal 101." You wanna know what thrash metal is? Listen to "Whiplash."

Following that, the album loses a little of its momentum with "Phantom Lord" and "No Remorse," two songs that aren't bad on their own but in the context of this album, seem like b-sides.

Then we come full circle to "Seek And Destroy," with one of the most famous opening riffs in all of heavy metal. But as opposed to Metallica's other famous opening riff, the one for "Enter Sandman," this one signals not the coming of some huge monster, but of the gunslingers riding into town. Of four punks storming into a bar full of rednecks, looking to raise hell ("We're scanning the scene/In the city tonight/We're looking for you/To start up a fight.") The song has a swagger to go with its heaviness. It all leads to the fist-pumping chorus, "Searching/Seek and destroy," that would remain a staple of the band's live set. It's "Seek And Destroy" where Metallica separated themselves from the Motley Crue's and Def Leppard's of the world. Those bands, while great in their own right, were always more about good times, good drugs and sexy women. Metallica made it clear their only goal was to be the biggest metal band the world has ever seen, "Our brains are on fire with the feeling to kill/And it won't go away until our dreams are fulfilled."

If "Seek And Destroy" is the battle call, then the closer, "Metal Militia," sets the troops in motion - "Oh through the mist and the madness/We're trying to get the message to you/Metal militia." However, the key verse in the song is the last one. It really sums up why people like myself love heavy metal, why millions of people throughout the world love this form of music. No matter what kind of people try to put down metal, whether it be parents, teachers, government officials or the religious right, it's this verse that explains why metal will never die. Why it unites people from Baltimore to Berlin, from Orlando to Oslo.

"We are as one, yes, we are all the same
Fighting for one cause
Leather and metal are our uniforms
Protecting what we are
Joining together to take on the world
With our heavy metal
Spreading the message to everyone here
Come let yourself go."

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