This week, Metallica's Kill 'Em All turns 30. I'm listening as I write this (yes, I can barely control my head enough to type), and it sounds just as great as I remembered. One of the best rock debuts and an all-time classic metal album. I'd even argue that it's one of the greatest punk albums ever. But one thing that always surprises me about Kill 'Em All is how modern it sounds.
Three decades have done nothing to wane Kill 'Em All's ferocity. If anything, it sounds even more brutal, now knowing how many thrash and metalcore bands couldn't emulate it without watering it down. The production is perfectly raw, the kind of sound that black metal bands consistently aim for and always fail at. Were the scowling, acne-faced boys of Metallica to support Kill 'Em All today, they could hop on a tour with anyone from Meshuggah to Kvelertak to the Dillinger Escape Plan to Immortal.
But why is this? Consider Venom's Black Metal, released a few seasons before Kill 'Em All. Its influence is all over Metallica--that hardcore-infected metal and basement production are just as discernible here, only Venom did it before Metallica. The lyrics aren't nearly as good as Metallica's, but no one listens to metal for the lyrics. The music on Black Metal is pretty great. So why does it sound enjoyably silly today, whereas Kill 'Em All sounds essential?
When music ages poorly, it has little to do with how influential it is, as Black Metal proves. It has even less to do with the way it sounded at the time. Giorgio Moroder's entire career feels buried in the '80s, yet Daft Punk just included him on their ultra-hip new album. What really matters is how the artists that emulate the sound compare to the originals. Countless bands have sounded like Metallica since 1983, including several great ones, but none of whom are as transcendent as Kill 'Em All. Shortly after Black Metal kicked off a musical renaissance, it was outclassed by Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and Testament. I'm impressed that Venom's influence has carried over to bands as varied as High on Fire and Behemoth, but I'm even less likely to play Black Metal when the best work of the latter two bands is available.
This year, Venom's influence turned up on the Melvins' excellent covers album Everybody Loves Sausages, which King Buzzo and the gang opened with their own version of Venom's "Warhead." It never stops being fun to watch a band as idiosyncratic as the Melvins constantly increase in stature. At least once a year, it seems like a great new band breaks through on the sounds that the Melvins defined--Sleep, Mastodon, Boris, Neurosis, Isis, Big Business, Made Out of Babies, Torche, Coliseum and East of the Wall all come to mind. All of these artists are honoring Houdini and Stoner Witch with their music, but none of them have been able to occupy that sound from the Melvins. One still can't get that unpredictable avant-sludge-stoner-doom-punk-grunge-metal anywhere else. Yet with more and more great bands working on those ideas, the Melvins matter more now than ever.
Think about the band that's generally considered the architect of heavy metal, Black Sabbath. Reasonable listeners still credit them with inventing and perfecting the genre. Their chief rival at the time was Deep Purple, a quintet of equally innovative Brits who basically popularized the idea of blues-based hard rock being played faster than Led Zeppelin. Purple easily outsold Sabbath, got more radio play, generally received better reviews and often played bigger venues. But Deep Purple couldn't survive the rise of AC/DC, Van Halen and Aerosmith, none of whom tried to compete with Sabbath's tuned-down doom rock and occult-inspired lyrics, but all of whom thoroughly trounced "Highway Star" several times over.
It's examples like this that remind us why originality in rock music, which infamously stole themes and progressions from the blues, is overrated. It's admirable to break ground, but it doesn't matter much if the ground that you break gets covered by someone who writes better songs than you.