Heavy metal should have called it a day after Master of Puppets. Not because it’s the best metal album, but because it’s a thorough mix of the metal music that came before it and because every subsequent innovation in heavy metal kind of sucked.
Heavy metal in general is resistant to innovation. You can only tinker with the formula so much before it stops being metal and becomes something else.
On MOP and Ride the Lightning, Metallica combines the earthy dirges of Black Sabbath with the operatic metal of Iron Maiden while selectively mixing in the speed and immediacy of punk rock. Their contemporaries, Slayer, Anthrax and others, attempted a similar mix, but Metallica did it with more epic ambition and success.
Every metal album since has stolen from that mix. Death metal, speed metal, dark metal, whatever metal: it’s mostly variations on out riffs and ideas from those two Metallica records, except for new and awful ingredients.
A quick rundown of the worst and most prominent post MOP innovations follow.
- Death Metal Voice. That awful cookie isn’t in every new metal song, it just feels like it. And it always sounds the same. I’d imagine that hardcore metal-heads are attuned to the nuances of different death growls. But I’d also imagine there’s a good chance they’re kidding themselves.
- Double bass drum. Every I guess this was Slayer’s fault. Maybe Metallica shares some of the blame for “One.” The bass drum is the loudest drum, and has the deepest pitch of all drums. Hitting it all the time seems like the fastest way to make a heavy sound. But it’s so fucking boring. Budda budda budda budda budda. As theoretically wild and abrasive as death metal is alleged to be, it’s incredibly formulaic.
- Rapping. Mixing rap and metal started so strong that it’ weird it went downhill. Run DMC, Faith No More, Public Enemy and Anthrax, the Beastie Boys and others mixed loud guitars with staccato vocals and came up with gold. But then Rap Metal became a thing and it was terrible. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe it was the caliber of the rappers involved. Maybe percussive music needs melody as a counterpoint to be interesting.
- Going Electronic. This is the only post-1986 metal innovation I have any optimism about. I didn’t realize it for a long time, but keyboards can be every bit as heavy as guitars. Drum machines aren’t just for dance music—they can be harsh and abrasive and otherwise perfect for heavy metal. The track record isn’t perfect—I think Korn falls into this category—and it’s easy to spill over into “not metal territory.” But if heavy metal ever decides it wants to evolve, this is where it’ll go.