Both 'Kill 'Em All' and 'Ride the Lightning' were reissued last week
Credit: Fin Costello/Redferns

Thirty-three years ago, Metallica released their game-changing debut album, Kill ‘Em All. In 51 minutes, the album exploded notions of what heavy metal was capable of and almost singlehandedly created a new sub-genre: thrash metal.

“The record companies and the radio stations were sort of controlling everything,” drummer Lars Ulrich tells EW when discussing the music landscape Metallica emerged from. “Anytime that there’s that kind of monopoly on something there’s always an alternative of some option. You could just feel that there was a group of people that were embracing the other options.”

Compared to the group’s 1991 hit “Enter Sandman” — or even its epochal third album, Master of Puppets, which turned 30 last month — Kill ‘Em All and the 1984’s Ride the Lightning can seem startlingly simple. “It sounds impulsive,” Ulrich says. “It sounds like a bunch of dudes who were totally riding on pure, momentary, alcohol-fueled energy. It sounds like a bunch of guys trying to figure it all out and not get too serious or deep or too contemplative.”

But even if the band hadn’t yet realized its grand ambitions, their first two albums remain as vital as ever, despite selling modestly upon their initial release. (Kill ‘Em All was certified triple-platinum in 1999, more than a decade after selling a paltry 17,000 copies when it first hit shelves in 1983.) Metallica kicked off a catalog-spanning reissue project when they released deluxe versions of Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning last week. Packed with DVDs, live sets, demos, and old photographs, the reissues contextualize just how earth-shattering the albums really were.

To an extent, it’s impressive that Kill ‘Em All even exists. Despite releasing their successful demo, No Life ’til Leather, in 1982, creative differences forced Ulrich and co-founder James Hetfield to fire guitarist Dave Mustaine just a month before the Kill ‘Em All sessions. (The ex-Metallica member would soon found metal powerhouse Megadeth.) And while Ulrich jokes about how great it was that Metallica “didn’t have to slug it out in clubs for five years playing Styx and R.E.O. Speedwagon covers,” the challenges didn’t end when the group traveled to Rochester, New York to record their debut.

Money became a problem for the budding rock band and, as Ulrich recalls, prevented him and Hetfield from completing Kill ‘Em All exactly as they would’ve wanted. “We literally stood outside the studio where they were mixing our record and basically camped out there because they wouldn’t f–king let us in to sit there and go ‘That sounds good,'” he says. “That was a mindf–k, but in our own perverse way we sort of accepted that. Not necessarily willingly, but there was no other way. It wasn’t like, here’s another $1,000 that’s going to buy us another day of studio time. It didn’t exist. So much of stuff that was going on at the time was basically based on economics.”

But the album’s 10 tracks made a lasting impact on rock music anyway. Tunes like “Seek & Destroy” and “Whiplash” remain foundational texts in the thrash metal canon, while the instrumental “(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth” demonstrated Metallica’s willingness to venture beyond their pulverizing, riff-heavy formula. So although record executives stymied Ulrich’s attempts to finesse Kill ‘Em All, today he says he wouldn’t change a thing. “It’s like, don’t even go there,” he reflects. “It’s the best you could do in whatever time period, in whatever budgets there were, in whatever tools you had handy at the time.”

Metallica released its seminal second album, Ride the Lightning, in July 1984, almost a year to the day after Kill ‘Em All. With its symphonic flourishes (“Fade to Black”) and literary allusions (the Hemingway-referencing “For Whom the Bell Tolls”), Lightning marked a stylistic quantum leap from Kill ‘Em All that in many ways stemmed from a change in scenery. The group had decamped to Ulrich’s home country of Denmark to record in Copenhagen, where a burgeoning metal scene was happening, studio costs were cheap, and the Metallica fanbase was stronger than in the states.

“At that time so much of that stuff was about sounds,” Ulrich says. “And there was an engineer [named Flemming Rasmussen] up there who got these great sounds.” The Danish sound fundamentally shaped Metallica’s aesthetic — to the point that the band would return less than two years later to record Master of Puppets with Rasmussen — but living in Europe also helped the band grow in non-musical ways.

“There was a significant transformation, especially in James Hetfield, who was very, very shy and very awkward in the first couple of years in America,” says Ulrich, who credits the larger European crowds with helping Hetfield find his now-legendary stage presence.

The band made minor adjustments, too. “One super American thing at the time was the fact that you could get breakfast 24 hours a day,” Ulrich says. “Touring around and eating at s–tty diners s–tty truck stops, you could always get f–kin’ two eggs over easy at any time of the day. But that wasn’t necessarily the case in London, Copenhagen, or any of the other European cities. It was like, breakfast ends at 10, end of story.”

At the end of the day, the reality that “financially there was rarely the option of a second take” is part of what makes Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning metal masterpieces. “It sounds like youth and spunk and fire and not giving a damn and figuring it out as we’re playing it,” Ulrich says. “Which is pretty much how it was, because there was no other way.”