The inspiration for Metallica’s first truly global anthem came from an unlikely source. Cecil B. DeMille was the director of some of the most opulent Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s. For his last film, the 1956 biblical epic The ten CommandmentsDeMille enlisted bevel-jawed superstar Charlton Heston to play Moses as he leads the enslaved Hebrew people out of Egypt into the Promised Land as a series of plagues befall their oppressors.
In a Danish household, this Old Testament extravaganza became essential viewing whenever it was repeated on television years later. “I was obsessed with The ten Commandments when I was a child,” explains Lars Ulrich. “If you watch the film, you can definitely see that it inspired terrifying death. There is a link.
This youthful obsession was one of the song’s sparks that helped take Metallica to the next level. terrifying death was six minutes of ambitious, hard-hitting greatness that proved there was more to these snarling street rats than booze-fueled speed. Almost 40 years later, it stands as one of the cornerstones of Metallica’s career – a title as monumental as any Hollywood blockbuster.
Kill them all had barely cooled on record store shelves, but Metallica were already striving to push the boundaries of the fledgling thrash scene they had helped define. terrifying death was one of the first songs they wrote specifically for the sequel, ride the lightning, and both its scale and the ease with which it came together indicated that they were a step ahead of their peers. “Musically, it was one of those songs that came on quickly and then became their own thing just as quickly,” Lars explains.
Like more than one of Metallica’s early songs, it was a bunch of different ideas mixed together. Arguably the most memorable part wasn’t even from a Metallica song. The breakdown chanted – ‘Die by my hand!’, which would soon become a staple of their live shows – was brought in by Kirk Hammett from his original band, Exodus.
“I was in high school when I wrote the riff,” Kirk explains. “I was trying to write something heavier than the bands I was listening to, and it was the first time I had done it. Like, like, ‘Wow, I’m onto something!'”
The guitarist and his bandmates in Exodus turned the crisp riff into a song, die by his hand, which featured on a 1983 two-track demo of the same name. A few months after joining Metallica, he was surprised to hear his new bandmates throwing out the same riff as part of one of the new songs they had written.
“James and Lars hammered terrifying death out in a day and then called me into the rehearsal room,” Kirk said. metal hammer in 2014. “They arrived at die by his hand riff and they started smiling at me and I laughed because I had that riff for so long, but it just worked in terrifying death so well.”
The guitarist suspected the pair received the tape from Exodus manager/Metallica sound engineer Mark Whittaker when they planned to poach it from their Bay Area rivals in early 1983 and loved it so much the song that they decided to reuse part of it themselves. Exodus guitarist Gary Holt was unimpressed. “I remember calling Kirk and causing him a lot of grief,” he later recalled. “He said, ‘Ah, I thought I asked you if it was OK.’ I’m like, ‘No, you didn’t.’
Lyrically, terrifying death is inspired by an even older source: the Hollywood blockbuster that Lars loved when he was younger. “Me and James and Cliff got a VHS of The ten Commandments and we went to Cliff’s parents to watch it, because we didn’t have a player ourselves,” Lars recalled.
The film provided ideas and imagery that carried over into the final song – including references to a series of plagues that struck ancient Egypt after the ruling pharaoh refused to release the Hebrews. The worst of them sees the angel of death slaying the firstborn son in every Egyptian household. “Then this fog appears from the moon and descends and starts crawling across the ground, like a smoke machine, and anyone caught in it falls down and dies on the spot,” Lars explains.
It was Cliff Burton who came up with the phrase ‘terrifying death‘ to describe this killer fog. “As was often the case in Metallica, it just sounded cool, it had no particular connotation or merit,” Lars says. “It was just two words that sounded cool.”
The completed song appeared as the penultimate track on ride the lightning, although in many ways it turned out to be the true highlight of the album. By then, it had already become a cornerstone of Metallica’s live set after the band premiered it at Keystone in Palo Alto, California on Halloween 1983, nine months before the album’s release. Over 30 years and over 1,500 live performances later, this biblical epic is a landmark for Metallica and for metal itself.