There's not much to say about Rage Against the Machine's first album that hasn't been committed to print already. Everything about the album from the provocative artwork, to the brutal riffing and politically charged lyrics, possesses a vital energy and draws a hard-rock marker in the sand that no band except Rage Against the Machine themselves have ever really been able to match. It's perhaps for this reason that 20 years on the deluxe reissue XX sounds as fresh and necessary now as when it first tore a hole in the airwaves back in 1992. But reissues can be a difficult beast, at the their best they can open an artist to a new audience and remind older fans why they fell in love with them in the first place, at their worst, they can be a cash cow littered with pointless b-sides and studio outtakes that have never been heard for a reason. So it's important for the legacy of a band and the album that they're treated with the care and respect they deserve.
It seems on this occasion the treatment of the album has been both reverential and comprehensive, with three different flavours ranging from a single disc remaster with bonus live tracks, to an uber-deluxe CD & DVD box-set that covers all aspects of the band's formative years, both audio & visual, as well as live cuts ranging from previously unreleased footage from the band's first public performance to the 2010 Finsbury Park free-concert held to celebrate the most unlikely Christmas number one in history.
The best place to start however, is with remastered original 10 tracks, which explode out of the speakers as if they could have been laid down last week, nevermind last-century. Zeppelin soaked guitar lines fuse effortlessly with caustic hip-hop vocals and a telepathically tight rhythm section, ensuring that from the incendiary intro to 'Bombtrack' to the bitter irony of the screamed outro to 'Freedom', the album is a perfectly formed missile that takes only the most essential components of its wide range of musical and stylistic influences and grinds them together into a statement that's still impossible to ignore.
But coming back to the De La Rocha & Co.'s first release this time around, there's also some extremely deft instrumentalism beneath the surface on this album, 'Township Rebellion' shifts seamlessly between punk-jazz and juggernaut riffage, whilst 'Take the Power Back' is an almost dance-able funk workout. The first chapter of XX is then rounded off with three live cuts, previously b-sides from the original single releases from the album, the pick of which is a jagged version of 'Bullet in the Head' where Tom Morello manages to make his guitar sound horrific, unpalatable and yet majestic at the time.
So the original album still seems to be in fantastic shape after 20 years, but it's the second disc of the expanded edition of XX that starts serving up some rare gems in the form of the original demos that represent the band's first commercial release. Sold in limited numbers exclusively at live shows they are striking for two reasons; firstly that it's exciting to hear these songs in a more embryonic and lo-fi way, complete with echoing vocals and snare drum rattles. However, the performance is still sharp as a razor and the band sound as strong and assured as they did when they walked out onstage at their reunion shows. Secondly, these demos are a chance to showcase lost gems that didn't make it onto the major label debut. 'The Narrows' fires through with hyperspeed lyrical delivery and a crunching guitar stabs, whilst a previously unreleased version of 'Darkness of Greed' serves up an intriguing see-saw between improv lounge-music and hard rock. When faced with an album loaded with so many iconic and well known tracks, it's great to hear rarities that can sit so comfortably next to original core of the set instead of seeming like a token gesture.
But then Rage Against the Machine were never a band based on compromise, either in their musical or political ideals. Everything they do is delivered with power and conviction, and XX is a striking testament to their music and their values, as it manages to kick hard and sound fresh, whilst still offering a thorough and worthy celebration of one of the greatest debut albums of all time.