“Don't belong! Don't exist!
Don't give a sh*t! Don't ever judge me!”
Okay, so technically, Surfacing, the fifth track on Slipknot’s eponymous album, was released on 29 June, 1999 but the words above are the best encapsulation of the aggression, attitude, simplicity and indeed, the spirit of nü metal. The movement – I use the word very intentionally to differentiate it from a mere genre – was arguably the most exciting, brutal, visceral, fascinating and yet, jarring, infantile and admittedly frustrating one to emerge in this century.
Depending on whom you ask, nü metal – later simplified/dumbed-down, once again depending on whom you ask, to nu metal – originated either in 1994 with the release of KoRn’s self-titled album; or 1999 when the world’s nu metal forces came together at the most un-Woodstock Woodstock imaginable – one that was tarnished by rioting, arson and rape; or even earlier in 1971, when Tony Iommi tuned down his guitar by three semitones; or the start of the century, as I shall argue, when it became a credible, formidable, and perhaps most pertinently, sellable movement.
But let’s slow down for a minute.
Just what is/was nu metal?
A bough on the multi-branched tree that is metal music, nu metal was a largely guitar-driven form of music that relied on down-tuned (often seven-stringed) guitars and channelled influences from various non-traditional sources, like rap, punk, hardcore and funk.
This, after all, wasn’t your daddy’s metal, as some of the protagonists of the movement repeatedly reminded us.
The guitar solos had made an exit. Yes, the winding solos – sometimes screaming, sometimes whining, sometimes reminiscent of the sounds of an encounter between an amorous but myopic rhinoceros and a Jeep – were history. In their stead were electric saw guitars buzzing like angry hornets.
Solos and guitar runs that made use of the upper end of the fret board and the higher strings were far too pretentious for the world of nu metal – case in point, Soulfly (and former Sepultura) guitarist Max Cavalera whose Gibson SG had its two highest strings removed for no reason apart from the fact that they were redundant.
But apart from the music, the scene also sported a new vibe.
Glam and hair metal (late 1970s to 1980s) was typified by the idea that ‘everybody loves me or wants to be me’.
Grunge (late 1980s to 1990s) carried the notion that ‘everybody hates me and that makes me sad’.
Nu metal, then, was represented by the feeling that ‘everybody hates me and I hate them all right back’.
And it wasn’t just the attitude, it was the approach: Gone was the lead guitarist as the focal point of the band and so too were the heroic gunslingers. No longer was the lead guitarist the biggest draw, the one who would step into the spotlight every night to conjure a thrilling masterpiece for an adoring crowd.
Gone too were the traditional guitarist poses – whether leaning back with eyes looking at the sky; or with eyes shut and head perched over a shoulder, while soulfully playing the part. What nu metal brought were guitarists with their eyes pinned to their shoes – the 21st Century shoegazers – and knees together, doubled over with a low-slung guitar just about hovering above the floor, almost hiding their faces as they bobbed up and down furiously. The pioneers of this style were arguably James ‘Munky’ Shaffer and Brian ‘Head’ Welch from KoRn, one of the most important progenitors of the scene.
Drummers infused their fills with beats inspired by funk, hip hop and even drum-n-bass. However, despite most nu metal drummers sitting behind bungalow-sized drumkits – often with double bass drums or double bass pedals at the very least, hardly any of them played blast beats. Fear Factory’s Raymond Herrera was an exception to that rule.
Another thing that changed was the subject matter. Songs rarely delved into history, mystery, heroism, villainy, magic and fantasy, or even that quintessential ingredient to metal in years gone by: The Devil. Lyrics were now replete with feelings:
“Suffocation, no breathing; don’t give a f*ck if I cut my arm bleeding”
- Last Resort by Papa Roach off the album Infest
“I am a little bit of loneliness, a little bit of disregard”
- Faint by Linkin Park off the album Meteora
“I can feel the subliminal need to be one with the voice and make everything alright”
- Voices by Disturbed off the album The Sickness
And finally, the look changed. Long hair became rarer, hairspray was an absolute no-no. Gelled shorter hair was the norm.
Skin-hugging denim trousers: Out.
Loose baggy cargo pants: In.
Loose worn-out sweaters: Out
Tech vests and tracksuits: In
The biggest sartorial change, however, came in the form of hooded sweatshirts or hoodies – previously the clothing choice of rappers and a small handful of punk bands. Black shirts with band names emblazoned across them would always be popular, but giving them stiff competition were the hoodies – usually black – with band names across them. Slipknot and KoRn were popular names across hoodies, but not too far behind were Soulfly, Coal Chamber and Marilyn Manson.
How a genre began evolving into a scene
What KoRn and Fear Factory began in the 1990s was being fine-tuned into a legitimate genre by the end of the last century with such bands as Coal Chamber, Limp Bizkit and Sevendust among those carrying the flag for nu metal. Amid all this was producer Ross Robinson, the ‘Godfather of nu metal’, who had not only produced albums by KoRn, Sepultura, Limp Bizkit, Amen, Cold and... (the list truly is endless), but is also widely credited for having created the sound that would define the scene... and ultimately, come back to haunt it.
By the dawn of the 21st Century, not only had the genre gained momentum but its flag-bearers were headlining arenas across Europe, the US and Latin America. KoRn and Limp Bizkit had steamrolled through the US on the Family Values tour; Tattoo The Earth and the Ozzfest were rival travelling circuses (or exhibitions if you prefer) of nu metal that went across the US and – in the case of the former, it was the one-off Tattoo The Planet tour – arrived on European shores.
Accessibility was certainly a factor in the success of the medium of nu metal: Simpler song structures than traditional metal, thrash, black, death metal or any other variant was one aspect. Simpler lyrical themes was another: After all, themes of bullying, emotional torture, abandonment, betrayal, lost childhoods and broken homes were themes that people could more easily identify with than Auschwitz, murderer and body-snatcher Ed Gein, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the prickly issue of euthanasia or even The Lord of the Rings (pre-Peter Jackson treatment and global sensation era).
Both these factors translated into nu metal’s massive commercial value. Record labels couldn’t sign ‘hot new rising stars’ quickly enough. Roadrunner Records, the home of producer Robinson, became the de facto home of nu metal. Sure, among purists, this form of music was too unsophisticated, too dumbed-down and too whiny (some outside the scene took to calling it ‘mean mom metal’, considering the perception that nu metal was all about tortured childhoods).
But others saw it as a potential goldmine to open the doors of metal to a whole new generation of demographic of music listeners. In time, nu metal was even seen as the ‘training bra’ of metal, in terms of almost preparing listeners for the real thing. And that wasn’t lost on the musicians either.
In Britain, nu metal bands were popping up at a record pace with the likes of Defenestration, earthtone9, Sugarcoma, Raging Speedhorn et al packing clubs and bigger venues with a growing fanbase.
Across the pond, and after working with Robinson in 1999, Machine Head put out a nu metal record in 2001 (Supercharger). Sepultura former frontman Cavalera – having worked with Robinson in 1996 on Roots – took his band Soulfly down a distinctly nu metal path. And it wasn’t just the thrash metal guys getting in on the nu metal gravy train.
Following the acrimonious split of Pantera, guitarist Dimebag Darrel Abbot and drummer Vinnie Paul Abbot started Damageplan, their own nu metal venture. Metallica (more on the band in a moment) after downing tools for all sorts of issues in the late 1990s, returned to the studio and put out 2003’s St Anger – an album that was lyrically and structurally as nu metal as it could possibly get.
Vanilla Ice – you remember him – put out a nu metal album of his own. WWE events and wrestlers traded in the rap and hip hop theme music of the 1990s (which had replaced the glam and AOR-style themes from the 1980s) for nu metal with the likes of Saliva, Kid Rock, Stereomud, Powerman 5000 and Rob Zombie lending their music.
The world had been conquered... well, almost.
What do Lars Ulrich and Osama bin Laden have in common?
Not a lot, you’re probably thinking. Read on.
There was anger, there was commercial acclaim and there was a fanbase. But would these be viable enough to keep the scene going? We’ll never know, because two independent events would change the fortunes of nu metal.
The first was Napster, or more specifically, Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich taking a list of names of nearly 350,000 Napster users – accused of having illegally downloaded the then-unreleased track I Disappear – to court in 2000. Metallica et al versus Napster, Inc saw plenty of other artistes including Dr Dre suing their own fans.
This almost instantly turned nu metal fans – for whom P2P sharing was the quickest and cheapest way to find out about bands that would become their new favourites – against Lars and company. In a pre-YouTube world, this meant war. After all, MTV was on its way to transitioning into a general entertainment channel and dedicated music channels only had small slots for this brand of music — not to mention that not all the bands in this genre could afford to make videos.
Accordingly, numerous nu metal bands, most prominent of which was Limp Bizkit, lined up in support of Napster, even as fans began exploring new internet-based ways of getting their hands on new music.
Metallica would try to win over the nu metal audience with St Anger three years later. But the lukewarm response to that record probably had something to do with lingering resentment at Napstergate – even though the Metallica of 2003 was embracing internet-based methods of music distribution like never before.
But that dose of galvanisation of the nu metal militia was nothing compared to what would happen after one of the biggest tragedies to hit the Western world – the 11 September, 2001 attacks. The collective anger of the scene poured into the shock, fear and anxiety that the Western world was no longer immune from Islamic terrorism.
Bands came together under the banners of ‘defiance’, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, and rolled out pan-US tours that were rather grandiosely named: The Pledge of Allegiance tour anyone? They made their support to US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq known and in turn, the troops used nu metal to fire them up before raids. According to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Drowning Pool’s Bodies was a particular favourite.
And while punk bands, notable NOFX were bemoaning George W Bush and his warmongering, “F*ck Osama” became a popular rallying call at nu metal shows. And this wave would continue for a few more years until disillusionment brought it crashing to a halt. Disillusionment with both the ‘Global War on Terror’ and the music itself.
The end of an era
Seeing the writing on the wall, some bands had woken to the realisation that nu metal as it stood could only be stretched so far, and some practitioners of the art — Robinson included — felt complacency had crept in to the genre.
As a result, artistes began to look beyond the world of nu metal. There would be more enterprise on the guitar, some (like Killswitch Engage) would adopt the ‘good cop-bad cop’ dual vocal attack and song structures would become more complex.
The birth of metalcore (an explanation of which would take up another article) in the mid-to-late 2000s either represented a departure or broadening of nu metal — depending on which side of the fence you stood.
Champions of the movement like KoRn and Slipknot moved in new directions — the former embracing dubstep and the latter focussing on more eclectic song-writing and guitar parts. Limp Bizkit pretty much did the same thing as always, but even Fred Durst was willing to allow an infusion of more complex guitar parts.
And in 2016, most bands have either shrugged off the nu metal tag or embraced it retrospectively. Regardless, the movement has fizzled out.
Was it truly a movement or simply a fad? You decide.
But its spirit, influence and perhaps more importantly to some, lessons in marketability will long live on!