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Kill 'Em All and the Origins of Thrash

Not some of them... ALL of them.
Not some of them... ALL of them.

Twenty-nine years ago today, Metallica released their debut album on Megaforce Records, Kill 'Em All. It wasn't a smash success initially--Mötley Crüe were the reigning kings of metal on the West Coast in 1983, and Kill 'Em All wouldn't go gold for another six years. By that time, of course, Metallica had proven to be just as influential as the glam godfathers in the Crüe, spearheading a worldwide metal movement known as thrash or speed metal.

Kill 'Em All was basically the first thrash album that everyone agrees is a thrash album. Songs like "Whiplash" and "Phantom Lord" featured hyperspeed riffs and solos that blew people's hair back, inspiring an entire subgenre of copycats. Bands like Exodus, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax were soon pulling the Kill 'Em All formula in all directions, leading to a competitive atmosphere that produced some of the decade's best music.

That's not to say Kill 'Em All was totally revolutionary, however. It was merely the culmination of a trend toward increasingly extreme explorations of volume and fury in underground rock. In fact, the roots of thrash date back much further, to 1974.

To celebrate the birth of the headbanging-est strain of heavy metal, Rocks Off has prepared a look back at the tunes that inspired a bunch of addled California teenagers to pick up a guitar and shred. None of these songs are thrash, exactly --They're more like the first mutant fish to grow legs and crawl out of the ocean and into the mosh pit. The influence of each can be heard on Kill 'Em All and the early thrash records to follow.

Bass drum-roll, please...

10. Queen, "Stone Cold Crazy" November 1974

Never afraid to explore new musical territory, Queen recorded a few songs in their career that seemed to spin off entirely new rock genres. "Stone Cold Crazy" was one of them. The song lacks the hyper-aggressive attitude on display on early thrash releases, but the rest of the formula is here: The rapidfire riffing, the dramatic dynamics and the crashing drums. Pretty heavy for the guys that wrote "Radio Ga Ga."

9. Motorhead, "Overkill" March 1979

Motorhead were primary innovators of a style soon to be known as speed-metal, and few of their songs had more impact on what was to come as "Overkill." Drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor pioneered a pummeling new drumbeat on the track, blasting out sixteenth notes on his kick drums that sounded like a heavy-metal Gatling gun.

Within five years, every thrash drummer on the planet was practicing the beat in a quest to be the fastest. For our money, the title was eventually claimed by Slayer's Dave Lombardo, who took double-bass drumming to brutal new heights.

8. Misfits, "Bullet" January 1980

The Misfits wouldn't fully develop their speedy crossover sound until late 1982, the relentless riffing on earlier tracks like "Bullet" had already pricked up the ears of metal dudes from coast to coast. It wasn't just the band's ferocious speed that inspired the thrash bands to come, however. Their shock-rock imagery and unfiltered lyrics helped push a young generation of headbangers in extreme new directions.

 

7. Raven, "Wiped Out" March 1980

The thrash movement was heavily influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal happening across the pond, and Raven was one of the hottest NWOBHM bands to cross the Atlantic. Eventually relocating to New York to share both the stage and a label with Metallica, in 1980, the band was best known for its Don't Need Your Money 7", which was widely bootlegged on the U.S. tape-trading circuit. By the time the band got its long-sought major label deal in 1985, the thrash revolution it helped to spark was already underway, and Raven was suddenly behind the times.

6. Angel Witch, "Angel Witch" March 1980

Angel Witch was another missing-link band bridging the gap between Judas Priest-style classic metal and early thrash. Speed-metal groups like Metallica and Megadeth largely abandoned the trappings that Angel Witch wrapped themselves in, from the stage clothes to the falsetto wailing. What they kept was the dexterous riffage and soloing that made pointy-stocked electric guitars the undistputed stars of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

5. Diamond Head, "The Prince" October 1980

No NWOBHM group was more influential to the sound on Kill 'Em All than Diamond Head. "The Prince" typifies the band's sound on its 1980 debut, Lightning to the Nations: lots of histrionic guitar riffing over a quasi-punk drumbeat. A cover version of the song was released as the B-side of Metallica's "One" single in 1989.

 

4. Venom, "Witching Hour" December 1981

Perhaps no NWOBHM act edged closer to pure thrash than Venom, a nasty little trio from Newcastle with a serious Satan fetish. Venom's music was faster, wilder and looser than their contemporaries, and their shock-rock affectations not only inspired thrash titans Slayer, but paved the way for death and black metal, too.

3. Black Flag, "Spray Paint" December 1981

In the late '70s, metalheads wanted nothing to do with the lo-fi sound and snotty nihilism of punk rock. It wasn't until speedy hardcore punk arrived in the early '80s, dripping with righteous aggression, that a few banging heads were turned.

Hardcore icons Black Flag were the most intense band of their era, and the buzzsaw ferocity of tracks like "Spray Paint" would soon find its way into mainstream metal. Somewhat ironically, Flag responded by growing out their hair and inserting slowed, Sabbath-style heaviness into their recordings, irritating virtually their entire fanbase in the process.

2. Overkill, "Unleash the Beast (Within)" 1981

While Metallica beat them to the punch in releasing an album, a case can be made that Overkill was writing and performing the first thrash originals months before Metallica began jamming on "Hit the Lights." "Unleash the Beast (Within)" is one of these early thrash tunes, a staple of the tape-trading circuit and an important milestone in the evolution of thrash metal.

 

1. Discharge, "Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing" 1982

Discharge was an important band in the formation of extreme music. The British group was one of the first bands to mix metal elements into the UK '82 style of hardcore punk, creating an altogether meaner sound. Their lyrics emphasized the horrors of nuclear warfare and amoral capitalism, two themes that would be richly mined by the coming wave of thrash acts.

After helping to create thrash metal from the punk side of the equation, Discharge eventually grew their hair out, glammed up and collapsed in on themselves. Metallica went on to cover a couple of their D-beat classics on Garage, Inc..


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