How nu-metal got everything right

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In 1994, a relatively unknown band from Bakersfield, CA released one of the most forward-thinking albums of the decade. While select critics would praise their combination of elements of hip-hop, grunge and metal, the Sunshine State quintet were on the verge of something that more closely resembled noise rock. The lyrics were raw and confessional in nature, addressing themes of child sexual abuse, violence and drug use. The guitars were mid-heavy, alternately squealing and pummeling with an aggression previously unmatched. The drums dominated the mix, complimented by the percussive throb of slap bass. And of course, there were the vocals — pained howls, growls and scatting that were at once disconcerting and catchy.

That band was Korn, perhaps the premiere nu-metal band, who sold over 35 million albums and are today routinely mocked as a stain upon metal’s legacy. The genre as a whole is often painted as a pursuit for JNCO-wearing loner teenagers with a distaste for authority, however abstract. A MetalSucks editorial from last year summarized the entire genre of nu-metal thusly: “Let’s never forget that nu-metal was primarily an annoying embarrassment that nearly ruined metal, and one which all your favorite bands fled from and decried the minute it became popular.”

Korn has been met with typically middling reviews since their self-titled debut. This is typical of most nu-metal bands. Slipknot, Mushroomhead, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Mudvayne and scores of others saw, and occasionally continue to see, towering album sales in spite of critical responses ranging from apathetic to revolted.

This is unfortunate, because across the board, nu-metal in its prime was more compelling than most modern heavy music. 

In order to better understand what makes nu-metal so compelling, we have to break it down to its components. The term itself can be somewhat misleading, and it’s perhaps more useful to think of it as a “scene” than a genre; bands that fell under the nu-metal umbrella had tremendous variation stylistically. Some, like Linkin Park and Powerman 5000, relied heavily on electronic elements, making heavy use of synthesizers and taking cues from industrial music. Others were significantly more aggressive — Slipknot and Mudvayne tended to lean much more heavily onto the “metal” end of the spectrum. But across the board, nu-metal mixed raw, unfettered aggression with hip-hop, funk and industrial elements.

A significant portion of the genre’s appeal was in the lyrics. Korn was far from the only band that dealt with transgressive themes (though they provided perhaps the most in-depth exploration). Linkin Park’s discography frankly addressed suicidal ideation and alienation in no-nonsense, direct language. Slipknot and Mudvayne’s were drenched in nihilistic rage, while System of a Down, something of an outlier, used their platform to address political themes, most notably the Turkish genocide of Armenians.

Nu-metal’s appeal was in its outsider status, catering toward an audience that identified with the genre’s unchanneled aggression and nihilistic outlook. It was a safe outlet to explore feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, rage and uncertainty. There was real catharsis in songs like “Surfacing” from Slipknot’s debut, with its on-the-nose chorus of “fuck it all, fuck this world, fuck everything that you stand for,” particularly if you were a disaffected teen with few friends and a lot of ill will for the world you inhabited.

But these were not merely provocations for the sake of. While there was plenty of juvenile humor to be found from nearly all nu-metal bands, this only served to make their forays into darker territory more impactful.

Nearly all prominent acts consisted entirely of men, but while there were certainly instances of hypermasculine posturing, the genre also had multiple moments of explicit honesty. This most notably came from Korn’s Jonathan Davis and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, both victims of childhood sexual abuse. Davis candidly discussed his abuse at the hands of a family friend on both Korn’s debut and follow-up Life is Peachy. Linkin Park’s lyrics tended to deal with emotions in the abstract, but Bennington was consistently open about his experiences in interviews.

And of course, there were the instrumentals. Metal purists would scoff at the costumes, face paint and billowy, cobbled-together fashion sensibilities of many nu-metal acts, but few heavy acts from the era could match the brutality of the scene at its best. Slipknot’s self-titled alone is an exercise in endurance, a pummelling, throat-shredding, enthralling hell-ride through frontman Corey Taylor’s id. It expertly blends noise and industrial with subtle hip-hop influences and absolutely bombastic riffs, a description that would almost certainly appeal to any Death Grips fan.

In a way, that’s precisely what made nu-metal so forward-thinking. The alien fashion, the mostly-successful fusion of disparate genres and uncompromising lyrics predated the modern experimental scene by almost two decades. And to call nu-metal anything other than experimental music would be a mistake. The world’s first taste of Slipknot, the track “742617000027” from their debut,  is essentially a sound collage, more Aaron Dilloway than Rob Zombie; Deftones are to this day basically an excellent shoegaze band; and System of a Down grew into some sort of progressive/nu-metal hybrid, embracing odd time signatures and world music influences. If any of these bands released their best material today on some cassette label with dressed-up album art, they would undoubtedly be hailed as some of the best new noise rock.

Yet middling critical acclaim and late gen-xers’ disdain for sincerity largely cemented nu-metal as a joke, a mistake of misspent youth, an embarrassment to be forgotten. But for the fanbase who found solidarity in the aggression, there was nothing quite like it. Nu-metal perfectly resisted the zeitgeist of its heyday, damning itself to mockery in the process. Certainly there were flaws; whole bands, like Sevendust, Papa Roach and Disturbed can be written off entirely. Even the ones that put out truly excellent material had plenty of dull spots (see Limp Bizkit and Korn crossover “All in the Family”).

But when discussing the music of the 1990s, it is difficult to recall anything with as much mainstream success that was this compelling. For all its flaws, nu-metal was more aggressive than grunge, more honest and fun than indie rock. We should not be so snobbish as to write off an entire genre for some occasionally groan-inducing lyrics — if we did that, we’ll also have to throw out Pavement, Guided by Voices and Nirvana. The times have finally caught up with nu-metal. It is a scene, a genre, a movement that deserves genuine reconsideration.

Editor’s Note: The “Sunshine State” is Florida, not California. We blame Tupac’s “California Love” for causing this error.

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  • “Michael Siebert is a journalist living Missoula, MT. She writes a lot
    about guns and hates Power Trip. Follow her on Twitter at
    @michaelcsiebert.”

    /rustled

    • Celtic Frosty

      Ouch, mah jimmies

    • Michael Siebert

      nothing to be done about it unfortunately

      • Really like that Slipknot self titled, though. The raw vocals do it for me!
        Also, welcome to the Toilet!

        • TheGranulatingDarkSatanicMilfs

          Their debut had an experimental Mr Bungle-esque spirit that sadly was lost on subsequent albums

    • The Tetrachord of Archytas

      /riledup

    • Sir Ukkometso The Based

      I can’t agree with the nu-metal part, but oh boy the part about Power Trip is true.

  • Janitor Jim Duggan

    This person gets it. Nu metal is very important for all the reasons said

  • Celtic Frosty

    Excuse me, sir. Sevendust was awesome.

  • Korn’s s/t is motherfucking solid (among other nu metal joints, most notably Roots). Listened to it two weeks ago on a plane, shit totally stands up. Raw production, on POINT! Dem 7-strings blew my mind back in the 9-4.

    “CLOWN YOU AIN’T SHIT, TURN AROUND GET YOUR FACE SPLIT!”

    • GoatForest

      I agree. Their first album does indeed still hold up pretty well.

    • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

      I think Korn’s debut is a fucking great album and I’m not ashamed.

      • TheGranulatingDarkSatanicMilfs

        Agree

    • I MAINTAIN THE FIRST TWO STATIC-X ALBUMS TOTALLY RIP ALSO

      • Retchin’ Rites ov Karhu

        *First Three

        • WHICH BAND

          • Retchin’ Rites ov Karhu

            Like there’s a chance I’ve heard three Static-X albums.

          • THEIR LATER ONES WERE LOW ON CHUNK

    • Warwick guitars

      /shudders

      • Howard Dean

        I love how that one dude apparently painted his face with baby shit.

        • It does look he took a recently soiled Pampers to the face and left it on.

        • The daughter had some loose bowels last week. We woke up Saturday to a crib full of shit. Like everywhere. On her face, hands, sheets, the walls, everywhere.

          All she could say was “Yuck, yuck, yuck, green, green”

          • Damn, I feel fortunate to have not been a recipient of diaper Dookie gone wrong. Mine’s still not potty trained, so I can’t rule it out yet.

          • She was in a whole body one-sie too. I have no idea how it escaped!
            Fucking wild!

          • Either my sense of smell is keen or her number 2s reek. At the first hint of stank, Dad takes action!

          • #dadtalk

          • GoatForest

            Keepin it real. Seriously, my duaghter has never quite done anything so… extreme, but she has definitely unleashed evil. I would use it as a reminder that she isn’t as cool as she thinks she is when the teenage years arrive.

          • GoatForest

            Oh, damn. That is harsh.

        • Celtic Frosty

          My son’s dirty diapers ruined all sorts of curries and sauces for me

          • You’ve gotta learn to separate the art from the artist man.

  • I feel like SOAD was conveniently lumped in with all the other Nu Metal. I view them as a punk band more than anything else. I still enjoy Korn and Slipknot’s debuts to this day, can’t touch those.

    • GoatForest

      Add in Deftones and you’ve metioned the only nu metal bands that most people wouldn’t be embarrassed to say they listen to occasionally. Although, I fucking loathe Slipknot.

      • Agree with you 100% on Deftones. I’ve liked just about everything they’ve put out.

      • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

        The reason why most aren’t embarrassed to say Deftones’ discography is the only thing coming out of the “nu metal” scene they like, is because it’s basically the only consistently good discography coming out of that scene. A very few nu metal bands had one, maybe two, good albums. Deftones on the other hand don’t even have one album I’d consider subpar.

        • Phartus

          Yeah, but after their first or maybe second album, they weren’t really nu-metal any more. Back to School is probably their last nu-metal song.

          • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

            True (and as much as I love the band, “Back to School” is completely godawful). I think from White Pony onwards, they can’t really be classified as “nu metal’ anymore as they kinda developed their own unique vision there with elements of alternative rock, post-rock, post-punk, groove metal, industrial…being molded into a signature sound while retaining the metallic edge. And even then, they were always quite a unique band, even dating back to Adrenaline (take a look at songs like “Fireal” or “Birthmark” for instance – love that album)

          • Depechemodeisgangsta

            I think White Phony, was one of the 1st album that completely kill the vibe of the nu-metal, just like you stated by being an unique sound with so many elements and making it unique.

        • Walter White

          I always viewed deftones as a post hardcore band in the old school sens3, they sound more like Hum, Far, Handsome,Quicksand, Glassjaw etcetc

          • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

            I can see where the post-hardcore connection is coming from, but I think riff-wise Deftones take a more (groove)metal-approach most of the time. Also, the compositions are way more “stretched” than the song writing of Glassjaw or Quicksand for instance. There’s a connection, but it’s a superficial one imho.

          • Walter White

            …but theyve toured with those bands in the early days. Even today they take out bands like thrice. I remember seeing them play w/ tfot. There’s more to it yeah, but come on.

          • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

            To be clear, I’m not attacking you or anything because I can definitely see the connection as well. And yes, they tour a lot with bands that fall right into the post-hardcore side of the fence. What I was just trying to say is that, despite the fact there are elements where Deftones’ sound and post-hardcore meet one another, there’s still a difference in the way Deftones’ sound is constructed (and despite the fact they’re not a 100% metal band, there are still clear traces to the genre which keeps them connected).
            No need to get defensive about this; just my 2 cents.

          • James

            A lot of the music I currently listen to. Far was touring buddies of theirs.

  • Celtic Frosty
    • Celtic Frosty

      This looks like something a cholo would paint on the side of his van.

  • Dr. K

    I understand that the purpose of a piece like this is to get people riled up, but, man, I would like it a lot better if it had a stronger, less vague thesis than “across the board, nu-metal in its prime was more compelling than most modern heavy music.” Especially since it never specifies what other styles it’s drawing comparisons with and only focuses on the bands that a lot of people still think put out at least one or two interesting albums while dismissing a broad swathe of the also-rans. The idea that “nu-metal perfectly resisted the zeitgeist of its heyday” runs counter to the reality that it was super-popular and built off of other kinds of music that were already popular. Plenty of other bands had also already embraced a lot of the genre fusions that are commended here, often with far superior results. Finally, I’m not the world’s biggest Power Trip fan, but they are definitely better than any nu metal band, except maybe System of a Down.

    • Howard Dean
    • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

      ANOTHER HOT TAKE:

      Power Trip isn’t any better than slightly above average (and their sound actually has tons less character than for instance Deftones’)

        • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

          And here’s a continuation of my hot take:
          Deftones’s music is creative, toys with moods, atmosphere and textures. Power Trip’s music on the other hand toys with a couple of rehashed riffs I’ve heard about a 500 times before. Is their music capable? Yes. Is it actually intriguing? Fuck no.

          • I DIDN’T EVEN READ YOUR COMMENT. SUCK IT, FRANK.

          • Dr. K

            Since this is apparently where we’re drawing the line, I would agree that Deftones have more individual sound than Power Trip. I’d still rather listen to Power Trip nine times out of ten. That part’s all subjective. However, Power Trip have gotten as far as they have by touring their asses off and putting on the best show they can, so I tend to respect that.

          • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

            Definitely a hard working band, I have no doubt they’re able to put on a great live show and I most definitely don’t disrespect them. BUT – and this is all subjective as well of course – “individuality” is something I highly value in music, not just in metal. When I’m talking about album material, I can get the “Power Trip effect” out of a dozen other bands – while there’s basically only one Deftones.

          • more beer

            They certainly have brought it live the few times I have seen them.

      • Same here, I checked out the album based on the love around here and it didn’t have much of an effect on ne.

      • Spear

        Have to agree with you here. I just recently revisited Nightmare Logic with the mindset that there must be something great about it I’ve been missing, but there just isn’t. The production and the vocals are really good, but the music itself is exactly the same as every other re-thrash band that’s come out in the last 10 years.

        • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

          They’re a solid band and I don’t wanna rip on a band that works their ass off like they do – but personally I want a bit more distinctiveness in my metal.

        • Retchin’ Rites ov Karhu

          A good bunch less thrashier, and more brimkicking hardcore-ier though. Which I guess, also draws people in.

    • Snooty McWords

      While the thesis is indeed a bit broad for an article of this length, I actually agree with a lot of its conclusions.
      I would characterize the zeitgeist of the 90s as one of “oblivious optimism”, wherein people were pushed and expected to work for and believe in a very ill-defined and unsubstantiated ‘bright future’. In that sense, I believe the 90s were the misdirected counterpoint to the “technology will solve everything” hope of the 80s, much like the disillusionment of the 70s compared to the bright social ideation of the 60s.
      With that in mind, I believe nu-metal did perhaps best capture the sense of frustration, self-doubt and disconnection experienced by young folks of that time.
      The lyrics are naked and generally free of poeticism in favor of attempting to pin down exactly what reality and concerns are truly taking place in their lives, and with the music similarly stripped down and straightforward.
      Stylistically, I would even say that nu-metal bands often thrive on being one large rhythm section, driving home on a single groove. And while that straightforward simplicity and lack of flashy technicality is usually cited as why extreme metal folks think nu-metal is ‘stupid’, that is exactly the purpose of the style, and it makes no attempt to be otherwise.
      That said, I do personally find its rhythm-heavy focus and lyrical honesty of the classic examples to be very appealing, oftentimes moreso than what constitute the current trends and social mores regarding modern heavy music.

  • tigeraid

    No.

  • Doc Torluv

    It IS provocative. I mean, even to this day, every time one of those bands’ songs comes on the radio or Pandora I’m provoked to turn to another fucking channel.

  • The Tetrachord of Archytas

    The imagery and aesthetics were always the turn off for me with nu metal. It just doesn’t take me anywhere. The constant carnival, graffiti, and possessed doll or teddy bear artwork just made the whole thing seem like redneck kids who liked rap but knew they shouldn’t make rap. In fact, speaking of Bakersfield, I feel like just saying hard rock from Bakersfield sums it up perfectly…that or juggalo metal

  • Hans

    *pushes glasses up* Urm, actually, Slipknot’s debut album was Mate Feed Kill Repeat, later completely disregarded by most everyone, including the band themselves. Look no further than two of the three tracks that were not re-recorded for the self-titled and Iowa for some weird-ass genre mixing. Boy did I jam the hell out of that self-titled though…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwDed5zAjE8

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0O6PyzalVtU

    • Howard Dean
    • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

      HOT TAKE (Pt. III):

      Slipknot’s debut is a good album and the band started to suck big time with Vol III.

      • Hans

        I still kinda dug that one, but yeah, they were nearing their expiration date by that point, and I checked out for good afterwards.

    • HessianHunter

      Holy shit, Slipknot was a death metal Mr. Bungle. This is surreal.

      • Dubby Fresh

        You never heard this, Babyman? Joe and I had a convo one day about how weird nu metal demos were. I’ll link you Mudvayne’s demo at some point.

        • Walter White

          I love demos. Do an article about nu metal demos. I was just going through deathcore demos for nostalgia sake. Br00tal

  • Lord of Bork

    I agree with all the sentiments expressed herein, with the exception of the bit about Disturbed. Their second album is actually pretty good.

  • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

    HOT TAKE:

    Mudvayne’s LD50 is a great, musically very accomplished album. The twists and turns a lot of the compositions on this album take actually impress me. If it can be described as “nu metal” (and in my opinion it actually is more of a math-metal record), I think it’s probably the best “nu metal” album. Man, do I fucking hate the band for dumbing down their sound to such miserable extent on the following albums.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXeLijmOA3k

    • That is a hot fucking take, bro.

    • Hans

      Hot take on top: This reminds me of Tool.

      edit: Like, A LOT.

      • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

        (True, it does sound kinda Tool-ish)

        ANOTHER HOT TAKE:
        90% of those who hate LD50 judge the entire album based on the one track they actually listened to: “Dig”

        • HOT TAKE: The video for “Dig” was the funniest vid of the nu metal era

          • Das a gud song, brah.

          • Hans

            muthafugga DIIIG!

          • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

            It’s also in the running for “most cringe vid of the nu metal era”. Though I feel Korn’s video for “Got the Life” (getchabootyon) might take that cake.

        • Hans

          Your takes are getting cooler I think. Do you mean they were disappointed that it didn’t sound much like that song? Cause that’s how I felt when I listened to a couple others (still have never heard the whole thing).

          • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

            I actually think it’s the other way around: most seem to hate “Dig” hahaha. And I actually think it’s one of the weaker songs on the album.

          • I cannot wait to think about Dig being a math-metal song from now on. God that is awesome.

          • Elizabeth Short

            “Nothing Left To Gein” is still the bee’s knees. A bit bloated, but still a very good album.

      • Dubby Fresh

        Triple Take: I still periodically listen to LD.50. Call the cops.

    • This album is dragged way down by the guitarist’s refusal and/or utter inability to play his instrument. Get a 6-string and learn some actual chords you dork.

  • more beer

    I was already way past teen angst when all of this crap came out. It wasn’t a consideration then and does not need to be reconsidered now.

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    For all that Deftones and System of a Down are great and some other bands are worthy of closer examination, as scenes and outputs in the 90’s go, alternative rock, black metal and death metal vaporise nu metal in my book.

  • Spear

    “We should not be so snobbish as to write off an entire genre for some occasionally groan-inducing lyrics…”

    For me, it has very little to do with the lyrics and everything to do with the music. With the exceptions of SoaD and Maximum the Hormone (which I’m still confused as to why they get called “nü-metal” and aren’t seen primarily as some weird offshoot of hardcore), these bands do nothing interesting musically. If I want super downtuned guitars, I’ll listen to djent, because at least they can work their way around a fretboard.

    • SoaD is so far from everything that made nu-metal nu that their constant inclusion under that umbrella makes me want to puke.

  • Michael. This is very well written and compelling and I disagree vehemently with just about every point you made. Cheerio.

  • Max

    Slipknot – no good songs except maybe the second one. (And I listened to it more than ten years after its release so I think I had critical distance.)

    Roots – Great opening track, the rest not, mostly.

    Life is Peachy – Three good songs. (Adidas, Good God and the last one where he’s crying.)

    Three Dollar Bill Y’all – First two songs good, as well as the George Michael cover; the rest crap.

    That’s the extent of my toe-dipping into the genre, as well as a few extra Korn tracks (I especially like the Cameo cover). But believe me, I heard enough of the rest of it on radio to know I wasn’t interested. And I got REALLY sick of the bounce riff. Somebody should do a YouTube montage of every band that used the bounce riff, starting with Fear Factory on “Scapegoat.” Slayer can even be in there with “Stain of Mind.”

    • Walter White

      Eyeless

    • Phartus

      Eh, I guess you had to be there.

  • Kyle Reese

    Hot take that is correct. Not all of us grew up in the 80s, and this genre was what got me into metal. We weren’t all slick willy, internetting hackers back in the day and you had to take what the radio would give you. Combine it with the prevalence of Sabbath, the Randy Rhoads band, and AC/DC, and once a mind is made up, you have a reason to go exploring for more.

    For those of you who, albeit rightly, know that metal is not some genre for the violent, lone gunmen type…I remember sitting on the patio having of my grandfather’s house in Cape Cod, enjoying a steak over a scenic outlook. And some guy who was there, middle aged, said that the band that scared him the most was Slipknot. I may have been sixteen and just laughed. I think I may have just discovered Slayer so I wasn’t even aware of the full depravity that some bands could imprint on the mind of the uninitiated. I would have forgotten that story if it wasn’t for this post.

    Also, tangent: Michael, there’s another journalist based out of Montana. Richard Spencer. I graduated from the same high school he did in Dallas. Did the Big Sky do it to him, the confederate love at UVA, or the rich, suburban upbringings of an all-boy school in a huge city?

    • Michael Siebert

      well, the flathead valley, comprised of the cities whitefish, kalispell and columbia falls, definitely has its fair share of racism. plenty of hate group activity coming out of kalispell, i believe because a contingent of them came up from coeur d’alene. (i could be wrong, though. in any case, they exist.) in spite of this, i think it’s more than likely the last one. nothin like private school to bring out the paleocon in you.

  • Óðinn

    I like Power Trip and hate guns. I’m pretty meh on Nu-Metal. Deftones and System of a Down have some good stuff though.

  • lagerbottoms

    Outside of Linkin Park, Deftones and System Of A Down I never really cared for Nu Metal …

    And nowadays nostalgia is the only thing binding me to Linkin Park….

  • OldMetalHead

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Korn, but I saw them live once, and they killed it. Avenged Sevenfold seems to be on of the more talented bands that fall under the Nu-Metal banner. What’s your opinion on Rage Against the Machine, Rap Metal / Nu-Metal?

  • TheGranulatingDarkSatanicMilfs

    ” A MetalSucks editorial from last year summarized the entire genre of nu-metal thusly”

    That’s your problem right there. Stop reading Metalsucks

  • Derek Douglas

    Write off Sevendust? Your credibility is gone with that statement. I’m not here to defend them or say they’re the best in the world – but really? 20+ years, over a dozen solid albums, relentless touring, so many many bands cite them as influences, etc.
    Useless opinionated article.

  • Bucwah

    And Death – Symbolic got everything Perfect, not Right