All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler), with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.
*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD
Up This Week: Seek & Destroy by Metallica
Read Last Week’s Lecture on Passenger by Deftones here.
Your opinion on them is strong but either way, you know who they are; their albums, the hits, the members, the t-shirts, the drama. The band is a brand, and the brand is Metallica. But long before the widespread commercial success, the thronging crowds and Some Kind Of Monster (2004), a fledgling Bay Area thrash band had just thrown out their first album, Kill ‘Em All (1983).
Marrying the sounds of bands like Motörhead, Diamond Head and Blitzkreig to turbocharged tempo, Kill ‘Em All is widely regarded as a groundbreaking album for the thrash movement as one of the ‘Big Four’ bands along with Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer. That being said, Kill ‘Em All is not the first thrash album: that accolade is often given to Exciter‘s Heavy Metal Maniac released in January of the same year, whereas Kill ‘Em All came out in July 1983, nearly 35 years ago.
The groundbreaking sound is what set Metallica apart from their peers in the early eighties. Whilst an album like this is familiar to us now, there must have been nothing like this in 1983. This is the sort of album that is a watershed moment; there was music before Kill ‘Em All, and then there was music after Kill ‘Em All.
The whole album, as is standard with all pre-Black Album Metallica records, is a masterpiece from front to back. Arguably one of the best ways to raise the curtain on your recording career, Hit the Lights announces Metallica right off the bat, then you have Motorbreath, Whiplash, Metal Militia, Phantom Lord and of course the masterful Cliff Burton on Anaesthesia (Pulling Teeth). However, every crown must have its jewel, and the one song that stands taller than all its peers is the legendary Seek and Destroy.
The whole purpose of Riff University is to explore the writing, meanings and impacts of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, and in Seek and Destroy’s case, it’s a struggle to find a riff bigger, badder or bolder (please @ us if you think otherwise). Second only to Master of Puppets in terms of live play, having been played nearly, or just over 1,500 times to millions, upon millions of Metallica fans across the globe.
The opening riff is quite simply, iconic; with James Hetfield and Kirk Hammet crawling along the necks of their guitar in perfect harmony, before Cliff and Lars join in the fun. The verse is pretty simple, but to be honest, so is the riff. The real tasty bits of guitar work come into play during the three solos in the song, but the simplicity of the riff is what makes it work so well. Crowds can sing along to the riff as loud as they can the song, and THAT is what makes a riff iconic; if someone can sing the riff as well as they can sing the lyrics, you know you’ve got a major hit on your hands.
The riff, as Lars Ulrich will and has happily admitted, can be traced back to Dead Reckoning by Diamond Head, a New Wave of British Heavy Metal band that greatly inspired the young band, and you can absolutely hear the similarities between Seek and Destroy and Dead Reckoning. Of course, most of Kill ‘Em All was either written by NWOBHM bands, James Hetfield or Dave Mustaine, but bands in their early days should be allowed to write in the shadows of their inspirations, because that’s how we all learn, grow and do better, by borrowing from those who inspire us. Or massively fucking shaft their original guitarist who’s kind of a dick and cause them to start Megadeth, the edgy teenager’s choice of thrash band.
Seek and Destroy is a song that doesn’t run out of puff either, an absolute highlight of the song is right after a burning solo from a fresh-faced Kirk Hammet, and the song slows down, before bursting right back into that riff all over again for a second round.
Whilst not the original lyric, it’s hard not to resonate strongly with “Our brains are on fire with the feeling to kill // And it won’t go away ’til we drink all your beers” from the band’s 1989 performance of the song in Seattle. This video also captures the live power of Seek and Destroy, right at, arguably, the height of Metallica’s thrash metal assault; post …And Justice and pre-Black Album, the mix of a band at full tilt, capacity and power is something to truly behold. Late eighties Hetfield is beyond fucking frightening and has likely sent that ESP Explorer up someone’s arse, body first
That video just sums up Seek and Destroy: it’s a fan favorite, arguably more so than Master of Puppets, as it has closed out hundreds upon hundreds of sets; the song that allows everyone to go home happy, the song that everyone spends the whole gig excitedly bouncing around waiting for. Of course, Metallica offer a wide variety of fine thrash metal tunes that span nearly forty years, but nothing rouses the Metal Militia like the first few bars of Seek.
Lyrically, Seek and Destroy is overtly and unsubtly about wanting to kick the shit out of someone, but not actually doing it. It’s pretty obvious that the band are looking for a fight with “Scanning the scene in the city tonight // looking for you to start up a fight // there’s an evil feeling in our brains // but it’s nothing new, it drives us insane”. Which against why it makes it such a great live track, because “scanning the scene in [your city] tonight // looking for you to start up a fight” is enough to get the coldest of crowds warmed up.
Same goes for the chorus, with “Searchiiin’ // seek and destroy!” making for a fantastic call and response from Papa Het and the fans. Deliberately or totally by accident, Seek and Destroy was designed for the live Metallica show, especially with their fan-centric stage setups. Of course, the lyrics are second to the riff, but the simplicity of “Running, on our way // hiding, you will be // dying, a thousand deaths” just lets you scream it in a car, an arena or an interview, each with the same amount of aggression.
Metallica would go on to hone and develop their craft, especially with Ride the Lightning just one year later, and oh, we’ll get right into that album, but Seek and Destroy loudly heralded the arrival of your new metal overlords, and would go on to be a centrepiece of the Metallica stage show.