This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Decibel, available here.
The intro is long. Nearly 50 seconds without tipping its hand. A new band should be terrified to open a record like this, worried that potential listeners will get bored with a lone ride cymbal and high, jangly guitar chord. And it’s certainly not something a discerning producer is going to throw on the radio. But then comes that growl—Are you reeeeeaaaady?!—and you hear a musical revolution being born…
Which then died, less than a decade later.
Emerging with Korn’s “Blind” in 1994, and ending around the summer of 2003, when Limp Bizkit was forced from a stage in Chicago by an audience hurling garbage and chanting, “Fuck Fred Durst,” nü-metal remains one of the most maligned and despised genres since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Despite certain bands having weathered the backlash—Korn still headlines music festivals; Linkin Park’s The Hunting Party debuted at #3 on Billboard last year—the legacy of nü-metal is now considered a gimmicky fashion show, rife with faux aggression, simplistic songwriting and arrhythmic rapping.
Hatred for it grew far and wide enough to spawn a successful pop song mocking it, Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” but unsurprisingly, the most vitriolic rhetoric came from the metal community: musicians, label heads and fans who saw their beloved genre both overshadowed and perverted. Nü-metal not only usurped its predecessor in popularity, but it also began to corrupt some of their own; the DJ scratches were coming from inside the house.
This article began as a quest to look at nü-metal from the perspective of those who at least had one foot in the regular metal community; those who could tell us, now 20 years later, what the true impact had been. But I found out very quickly that opinions on nü-metal’s significance are far from universal and, aside from a few key players and elements, no one is quite sure why it started, how it gained traction so quickly, and what put the stake through its heart.
To be honest, we’re not even sure if it’s dead.
THE GODFATHERS OF NÜ-METAL
In 1993, Pearl Jam performed “Rockin’ in the Free World” with Neil Young at the MTV Music Awards. It was a tribute to their lineage, and Young still seems happy to accept his moniker as the Godfather of Grunge.
For the most part, those who most directly influenced nü-metal are far less enthusiastic to admit to any accountability. Such is the case with Helmet’s Page Hamilton and Faith No More’s Mike Patton; both bands are direct influences on the genre, but the frontmen have loudly pointed fingers away from themselves, as if the relationship will somehow tarnish their bands. (Faith No More’s Mike Bordin seems less concerned, as he has filled in as Korn’s drummer.)
One musician who has no desire to distance himself is Charlie Benante, the drummer for Anthrax who co-flowed with guitarist Scott Ian on what is arguably the first true mixture of metal and hip-hop, 1987’s “I’m the Man.”
“Some of us in the band took a liking to early rap music and the way Run-D.M.C. came out; they were like rock stars,” Benante says, and “I’m the Man” is indeed representative of that appreciation, including a sample from Run-D.M.C.’s King of Rock along with Metallica and the Beastie Boys. “My whole concept for the album cover of I’m The Man was to do a take-off of Run-D.M.C. Adidas gave us a whole bunch of clothing, and when I saw Korn come out in all Adidas, I thought that maybe we did do something.”
Benante still contends that Korn had “a sound” when they first came out, noting that he loved “Blind” (even mentioning its intro) and that Korn started out very organically. Then he adds, “I don’t think they knew they were opening the door for all these other shit bands to walk through.”
We’ll get back to that soon.
“Grunge was heavily influenced by heavy metal, but none of them could say it, because it wasn’t cool.” That’s from Brian Slagel, who started Metal Blade in 1982 and agreed to put out Metallica’s very first song before they were even a band yet. The man has more perspective than anyone else I spoke with, but everyone agrees with his main sentiment: In the ’90s, metal was in big trouble.
“Once grunge started taking over, instead of seeing Maiden on Headbangers Ball, you saw Nirvana or Pearl Jam,” Biohazard’s Billy Graziadei says. “It was obvious things were changing big time.”
Nevermind’s release in 1991 is often touted as the first marker of the sea change in metal’s popular derivatives, filling the void left by an impotent glam metal scene, but the scene that still had an underground audience was also feeling the strain.
“When people said ‘heavy metal,’ I cringed because I knew it had this negative connotation where it meant Trixter or Slaughter, something I did not identify with,” says band consultant Ula Gehret, who worked for Century Media at the time. “There was a lot of change in the air, and everyone was bailing on traditional metal as a valid style.”
One signal of its demise was, ironically, that it was getting too popular. “Every major label had to have an artist like that,” Slagel says, “which I think helped kill it in the first place.”
Monte Conner, formerly of Roadrunner, saw the same issue: “From the time I started in ’88 up through ’93, the death metal scene was getting super saturated. Every band and their mother was getting signed. We looked at it like a factory scene.”
But if grunge didn’t necessarily displace metal music, it clearly had a role in making the aesthetics of metal—from the long, styled hair to the meticulously band-patched jean jackets—seem theatrical and gaudy.
“Sub Pop was closer to Napalm Death in terms of ethos,” says Napalm Death’s Barney Greenway. “Heavy metal was so overclichéd, and the grunge scene was more real.”
Or, as producer Ross Robinson says, “Metal was silly.”
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE NÜ-METAL
Born in 1967, Ross Robinson is no metal outsider, despite his reputation. He was a serious thrash guitarist through the ’80s and early ’90s with bands like Detente (female-fronted speed metal signed to Metal Blade), Murdercar and Catalepsy. You can listen to all of this on YouTube: legit metal, no frills, no shtick. When he turned to production, recording his friends Fear Factory for their 1991 demo, it was only a step up in intensity.
“Ross had a certain thing about him,” Fear Factory guitarist Dino Cazares says. “A very motivating person. He put you in good places mentally or got you in a bad place mentally. He was able to inspire you, acting like a fifth member. Like a fan who’s rocking out in the studio with you.”
Despite this, Robinson and the band did not see eye to eye, and had a falling out, resulting in a court case that split ownership of the recording. And though the demo wasn’t officially released until 2002 (as the Concrete album), Robinson shopped it to other bands.
“He played it for local bands, saying, ‘I can do this for you,’” Cazares says. “And one band he showed it to was Korn.”
Cazares even point outs that the song “Scapegoat,” from their 1992 debut Soul of a New Machine, is nearly the same opening riff from Korn’s “Blind” (and includes the lyrics “You can’t see / too damn blind”).
“[Ross] developed their sound off the production he did with us,” says Fear Factory vocalist Burton C. Bell. “Making it groovier, not so aggressive. He slowed it down and just made it a little bit more accessible.
“And I thought,” Bell wonders with a laugh, “why couldn’t that have been us?”
Ross Robinson talks with the unassuming lilt of a surfer, or a Buddhist. Not someone who throws shit around a recording studio. Not someone who fucks with singers until they blow out their voices. Not the guy who purposefully tried to destroy the scene he was raised in.
“Metal was so silly lyrically, and it wasn’t completely open,” he says. “I wanted to work on something that was so deep and so real, you couldn’t deny it.”
Robinson’s metaphysical take on music, especially metal music, has only given his critics more ammo, but he has no compunction about couching songs in a much larger context than simply cool parts. “For me, the riffs were secondary to the feeling of the song,” he says. “I wanted that invisible essence that is so much bigger than we are at the forefront of music. And I felt that was all that was needed: that ghost in the music.”
Again, this was a thrash guitarist, and he knew as well as anyone that the riff, the virtuosity of the playing, was a fundamental part of metal. And he was over it, beginning with Korn’s 1993 demo, Neidermeyer’s Mind. “I think [Korn] was the first emotionally-driven subject matter expression with heavy sounds. The first of its kind in the history of metal to be open and honest and fearless with incredible amounts of vulnerability. Metal was never vulnerable.”
In today’s world, where vulnerability has become widely embraced and celebrated in many metal circles, it is important to stop and look at look at this integral aspect of Korn and what it meant in the scene. Anger, desolation, hopelessness—all were sung about endlessly by metal bands, but there were few if any bands before Korn who sang so openly about past trauma. Regardless of how truly autobiographical some of Korn’s lyrics were, they were graphic and direct. At best, earlier metal bands would wrap personal lyrics in allegory or create desolate fictional characters. But “Faget” was explicitly about frontman Jonathan Davis being savagely bullied at school. A tale of sexual abuse on “Daddy” ends with Davis sobbing uncontrollably.
There’s no doubt that screaming about any dark subject matter can be compelling and cathartic, but grunge had touched off something more personal, elevated by Kurt Cobain’s suicide, which would have been only six months before Korn was released. And Robinson understood that metal was held back by, well, the music.
“It’s basically all about dynamics,” he says. “[Metal] got so locked into being technical. When you’re being self-indulgent with your riffs, it’s about the guitar player and the drummer, and the vocal is just monotone and blasting through. The vocal needs to float over the top of the music.”
Lyrics may have given Korn a patina of authenticity, but what truly won them an audience was music that was easy as shit to play.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE NÜ-METAL
“We saved Los Angeles.”
Dez Fafara is arguably the only musician to have gained international fame with a nü-metal band, Coal Chamber, and then successfully move back to a more traditional metal band with DevilDriver. But Fafara is another nü-metal vet who openly flaunts his involvement as one of the genre’s pioneers.
“The Roxy, the Whiskey, those clubs were dead,” he says. “Korn was down in Huntington Beach putting people on busses to make sure there were people at their shows. People needed metal, and the only way for them to come out was with a newer style. Nobody was gonna go and be Judas Priest at that point. No one was going to be old Metallica.”
Fafara saw a scene that was thriving because, unlike its predecessors, there were openly eclectic tastes.
“You walk backstage then and you’d hear people playing Slayer and Public Enemy and Bauhaus and Black Flag,” he remembers. “It was a trip.”
And then, the labels were there.
“I saw them play in L.A., and they were incredible,” Slagel says of the early days of Korn. “It was new and different and interesting. We loved it. Then I see them a month or two later, and Monte Conner from Roadrunner is there as well. And we both met with them and made offers, but then they had another showcase and the buzz started to spread. Then every A&R guy from every major label was there, and I remember thinking, ‘This is not good.’”
Conner remembers it slightly differently, seeing Korn and Deftones at the same showcase, and even flying the latter’s Stephen Carpenter out to New York with their manager for a deal with Roadrunner; but he says they never tried to sign Korn. “We were a tiny little label then, and Immortal/Epic was offering them like 10 times more than I’d ever signed a band for.”
Korn’s debut was released in late ’94, and roughly a year later, Deftones followed with Adrenaline. Nü-metal as a new, distinct genre was by then solidified, but the sound itself was still only shared by a handful of bands, and it had made no inroads into traditional metal. But then Conner and Roadrunner became home to the most controversial nü-metal album of all.
“These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar?” —Bob Dylan
The “Dylan going electric” trope has been used countless times since he played with a rock band and became a traitor in the eyes of the folk community. We look back to that, 50 years ago, and don’t quite see what the fuss was about. But almost 20 years after the release of Sepultura’s Roots, there’s still plenty of raw emotion about what that record did to heavy music.
“He, more than anyone, has a lot to answer for,” says Greg Whalen, an assistant editor at Terrorizer, and the “he” that’s being referred to is Max Cavalera, former singer/guitarist of Sepultura. Whalen is just one of the many people who had strong words for the 1996 album that led to nü-metal infecting a community that—until then—had remained immune.
“I loved Sepultura,” Gehret says. “And when I heard Roots, it was like someone took a fish and slapped me across the face with it. It was the most reprehensible thing. They could write these amazing riffs and technical parts, and they just dumb it down to lowest common denominator status. And it almost physically hurt me.”
Cavalera was impressed by Korn’s debut, and Robinson’s production. Robinson was also someone who, during early talks, said that he “wanted to make a pyramid: something people can look at long after we’re dead and gone.” But even Sepultura’s label didn’t see the viability of the band shifting so radically.
“They sent me a demo of ‘Roots Bloody Roots’ and ‘Dusted,’ with Max just scatting lyrics,” Conner says. “And I remember hearing that, and it didn’t sound like the Sepultura I knew. I didn’t know what to make of it. I called up Max and said, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘You’re committing commercial suicide.’”
Conner’s thought process is understandable: This was a massive blow to metal purists, some of whom had already been disappointed by Sepultura moving away from thrash on their previous album, Chaos A.D. The smolder of Korn’s increasing popularity may have worried some, but Roots was like Nero downtuning while Rome burned.
Cavalera himself, though, sees it much differently. “We did what we wanted and what we thought was right, without fear,” he says. “We didn’t see the point in doing Chaos A.D. 2. We made a whole new record with whole new ideas, and it was killer. ‘Roots Bloody Roots’ is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever done. It’s so raw and primitive-sounding with one note. And we realized that we could have a really powerful song that didn’t need to be fast. As much as I love Arise, Roots is just as powerful without being fast.”
Also, despite Robinson’s production, guest appearances by Mike Patton and two Korn members, and turntabling from DJ Lethal, Cavalera doesn’t hear many similarities. “We come from the thrash world and don’t sound like Korn. The song is a thousand miles different than Korn. We didn’t really want to sound like Korn.”
Scoff at that last quote if you must, but whatever Roots sounded like, it wasn’t commercially suicidal. Conner says he quickly came to terms with the band’s shift, and soon after, nearly every label was listening: Roots went on to sell over two million copies.
ALL DAY I DREAM ABOUT SUCCESS
“It felt, to me, like a flip switched, and then all of a sudden there was a sea of nü-metal bands, and they were all just huge,” says Gordon Conrad, who has worked for Earache, Relapse and now Season of Mist. He also co-ran Escape Artist, a label which released the debuts by bands such as Isis and KEN mode.
Escape Artist was founded in 1997, the year when nü-metal truly broke. Korn’s follow-up, Life Is Peachy, dropped at the tail end of 1996, but they appeared on the cover of the vaunted Metal Maniacs next to Marilyn Manson in February, and released their first major single, “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” in March. Coal Chamber’s self-titled debut hit around then, and Deftones would release Around the Fur in the fall (featuring Max Cavalera on the album’s most nü-metal track, “Headup.”). Snot put out their debut, as did (hed) p.e. and Sevendust; Human Waste Project’s only album came out in 1997, and Powerman 5000’s indie debut was re-released by a major label as Mega!! Kung Fu Radio. As Brian Slagel said, every label needed a band like that.
The band that would end up typifying nü-metal even more than Korn, though, also released their debut in the summer of 1997.
“I remember Monte calling and saying, ‘Hey, there’s this band Limp Bizkit,’” Gehret says, “and they have this album Three Dollar Bill, Y’All. And I remember laughing my head off. He said that they were going to be huge and I thought, for my sake, I hope not.”
“I can understand if you’re a kid and you don’t have a gateway band and you hear Limp Bizkit—then it makes sense,” Conrad says, but the fact remains that nü-metal “blanketed everything. Ozzfest was the biggest tour, what everyone laid eyes on. And it was littered with nü-metal.”
Decibel scribe Kevin Stewart-Panko remembers when Coal Chamber made it up to Canada that year to promote their album with a free show and an ice cream truck handing out free soft serve cones. “I remember more than a few people proclaiming out loud, ‘Man, it’s pretty pathetic if this is the Toronto metal event of the summer.’”
By 1997, nü-metal had become a full-fledged arm of the metal community, its own subgenre with a style that could be described and cordoned off. 1997 in a bubble was simply nü-metal growing, unencumbered by any outside influence and shooting off in an independent direction. Roots may have been a success for Sepultura, but that was an isolated specimen.
But these interviews, this article, a historical look at nü-metal in any capacity would not be needed if it weren’t for what very well may be the worst year in extreme music since its inception.
HEAVY METAL, 1970-1988
“The late ’90s were one of the most barren musical times in my lifetime,” Gehret says. “As a metal fan, to me, everything that could go wrong did.”
Few could look at what happened in 1998 and not see it as the year that marked the nadir of metal. But where to begin?
Here are some examples of nü-metal’s dominance:
· Limp Bizkit’s “Faith” becomes a bona fide hit
· Limp Bizkit joins Coal Chamber, Sevendust, Incubus, Snot and Ultraspank on Ozzfest
· System of a Down, who also tour with Ozzfest, release their self-titled debut
· Kid Rock releases Devil Without a Cause
· Vanilla Ice releases his third album, the Ross Robinson-produced Hard to Swallow, which features him rapping through an entire albums of nü-metal riffs
· Slipknot signs a $500,000, seven-record deal with Roadrunner
· The first Family Values tour begins with Korn, Limp Bizkit, Ice Cube and, later, Incubus (as well as Orgy and Rammstein)
· And the biggest news that year: Korn release Follow the Leader, debuting at #1 on Billboard and spawning the massive hits “Got the Life” and “Freak on a Leash”
But even if all of this could be avoided, the metal scene itself was rotting from the inside, and no one was quite sure what was going to happen next.
“I’ll never forget this issue of Rock Hard,” Slagel says. “They had a tombstone on their cover with the dates of heavy metal, and I thought, ‘Wow, even Rock Hard is saying it might be over.’”
1998 was the year that Fear Factory had someone named DJ Zodiac scratching records on “Edgecrusher” from their album Obsolete. That was the year that Sepultura released their first album without Max Cavalera, Against, showing that even without him, they had no interest in going back to their classic sound. Cavalera himself released his debut Soulfly record, which, if Roots had been a dabbling with nü-metal, was a full immersion, even featuring Fred Durst on the song “Bleed.”
The metal community had already been trying to pick up the pieces left by Metallica’s Load and Reload, and Megadeth’s nearly thrashless Cryptic Writings. Anthrax were, according to Benante, stuck in an undertow from nü-metal and faced “many, many, many” meetings with their record label to discuss changing their sound. The metal-faithful Volume 8: The Threat Is Real was a commercial and critical misstep, though, leaving only one of the thrash’s Big Four to come through and show everyone that metal was still thriving in 1998.
But instead Slayer released Diabolus in Musica.
“Our Turbo,” Kerry King called the album on VH1, referencing the 1986 album by Judas Priest that replaced the traditional metal of their previous Defenders of the Faith with synthesizers and glammy elements on embarrassing tracks like “Turbo Lover.” Metallica cutting their hair and playing rock music felt like a betrayal, but it can’t be said that they were specifically aping some newfound trend, and the previous Black Album hinted at the direction they took. Slayer’s embrace of nü-metal signaled more than anything else that the standard of metal had declined.
As Gehret says, “I think some of the best records, the stuff that is really most interesting is when a band is playing just a little bit above their ability. And the problem with nü-metal is that there is nothing that’s above anyone’s ability.”
Even Relapse, which, according to Conrad, was “indie metal” at the time—“What we did was a footnote for most metal publications”—saw the genre seep into an established band. “We put out the last Mindrot record,” he says. “They were an Orange County band, and everything in their backyard was nü-metal. They went from a gothic death metal thing to something with definite nü-metal overtones. At the time, it shocked us, but in hindsight now, I know they were just a victim of their scene.”
Conrad extrapolates on this “victim of their scene” mentality by describing what he sees as an established band’s life during one of these genre sea changes. “You hear it 40 times in the press junket of a hundred interviews,” he says, “people talking about this great new band Korn. I have to think it’s just going to sink its way into your thought process. I can’t say for certain that anyone sat down and said, ‘Okay, we need to make a nü-metal record,’ but bands who are working really hard, they are all ultimately trying to do the same thing: help their band grow. And when everything in the top and middle levels are saturated with nü-metal, I just feel like it’s just going to seep its way in unless you put your foot down.”
“It’s hard to be a band in a time like that and not get caught up with it,” Conner sympathizes. “If a scene is happening, no one wants to be left behind. Look at the disco craze. You had legendary bands doing disco songs like KISS and the Rolling Stones. It’s kind of like taking a mistress. You get tired of your wife and want something fresh, but you get it out of your system and go back to your wife.”
And, like a mistress, nü-metal promised two things that metal bands were seeing slip away: fans and record sales.
“When [Roots] came out, festivals were amazing,” Cavalera says. “We had like a hundred thousand people jumping up and down. It was out of this world.” And he is incredibly proud of how well Soulfly’s debut sold, saying it was his first record at the time to go gold in America. Slayer and Mindrot and Vanilla Ice may have faltered, but nü-metal symbolized opportunity.
“You get frustrated when your music is only available to small groups of people based on what kind it is, and that handcuffs you as an artist,” Kelly Shaefer says. He speaks from experience, having been a founding member of the critically lauded and commercially ignored Atheist, formed in 1984. Progressive, pioneering and incredibly complex, the band has enjoyed a new level of recognition in the last decade, but after third album Elements was met with indifference in 1993, Shaefer started Neurotica, a rock-turned-nü-metal band that existed for eight years during the trend, releasing three records and playing the 2002 Ozzfest. “As a musician, you want an opportunity to go out and play for 50,000 people,” he admits “And that’s when people want to make a change. Not necessarily to fit in, but you want to get in front of as many people as possible. And when your music only draws 150 people, then you’re like, ‘Fuck this. How can we get out there and get more attention?’”
On the other side, traditional metal labels had found compelling reasons to release nü-metal albums alongside more underground fare.
“It was an adapt-or-die syndrome,” Gehret says of his time at Century Media, a label whose biggest selling record for years was the 1998 Stuck Mojo album Rising, a brazen rap metal album. “There is a machinery going, and you need to keep feeding the gears. I think when a label gets to about 10 employees, you have to start making concessions. You want to continue to do what you love doing, but need to play the electricity bills. So, you focus on bands that can take you into the future, but still with the goals you had in mind originally.”
If Rising’s popularity allowed for Century Media to put out Cryptopsy’s Whisper Supremacy the same year, that compromise does seem justifiable. In 1998, nü-metal moved units, and in a struggling scene, it became for many a necessary evil.
But that evil would soon become far less necessary.
EVERYTHING IS FUCKED, EVERYBODY SUCKS
Significant Other was huge. Massive. In 1999, Limp Bizkit’s second record would make them international superstars, going on to outsell Follow the Leader mostly due to their infamous Woodstock appearance and performance of what very well may be the number-one nü-metal song in history: “Break Stuff.” Kid Rock’s performance at Woodstock, strolling out in front of 200,000 people in a fur coat to perform “Bawitdaba,” was the other side of the coin, bringing nü-metal onto CNN and generating discussions in the New York Times.
But all of this, when looked at now, was good for metal. It is exactly what everyone needed.
“There was a lack of community, a lack of kinship,” Conrad says, pointing to one thing a genre needs to survive. “As a genre, people didn’t identify with nü-metal in a way where they thought, ‘That speaks to me, that is me, that is going to be me forever.’” And once bands like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock were finally able to wrestle themselves out from the community that inspired them in the first place, the wheels on nü-metal started to loosen. It became music for jocks, for the bullies at school who call kids faggots. Korn’s Issues, an attempt to shift the genre back towards metal, proved to be the beginning of their sales slump and the bridge between the two worlds evaporating.
Another example is Machine Head’s third album, The Burning Red, another record with Ross Robinson at the helm that showed how the genre had become a parody of itself. While it sold well, frontman Robb Flynn’s transformation, both vocally and aesthetically, was too radical to take seriously. His spiked hair, flamboyant jumpsuits and rapping at an underground rave wasn’t Roots or Diabolus in Musica, but one band’s overt capitulation to a mainstream fad.
Slipknot’s eruption, beginning in 1999, is largely irrelevant. The Iowa collective has simply been able to generate a cultish aura; that sense of kinship that nü-metal couldn’t sustain. To tie Slipknot’s success with any music trend is like trying to map Insane Clown Posse’s success by the state of hip-hop.
And aside from those, the true second- and third-stringers littered 1999. There was Kittie and Static-X, and Ozzfest was seeing the well run dry, putting never-was bands like Shuvel and Flashpoint on stage. The year ended with the December debut by Methods of Mayhem, Tommy Lee from Mötley Crüe’s rap-metal project. Not only did first single “Get Naked” (of course featuring Fred Durst) make the Vanilla Ice record seem legit, but it was a fitting end of the millennium—a former glam metal icon now taking the reins on another soon-to-be doomed scene.
BEHOLD A PALE HORSE, AND THE NAME OF HIM WHO SAT UPON IT WAS DEATH
If one record killed nü-metal, it was White Pony, released by Deftones in June of 2000. An all but complete detachment from the sound they co-pioneered, the record was seen by many as a sign that it was finally time to move on, or at least forever detach nü-metal from its big brother. Linkin Park’s mega-selling debut Hybrid Theory spoke loudly to a hard rock audience at their heaviest, as did Limp Bizkit’s successful and still infuriatingly titled Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water. (It didn’t help Limp Bizkit’s cred in the metal community when Durst did a duet with Christina Aguilera at the MTV Music Awards.) Ozzfest, though, was the best illustration of how irrelevant the genre had become: Apartment 25, Primer 55, the Deadlights and Slaves on Dope were some of the nü-metal bands the tour tried and failed miserably to promote.
“When enough people jump on a train, the train slows down,” Shaefer says. “And too many people jumped on the train, and it came to a halt.”
Stewart-Panko describes it a little more cynically. “One or two bands create a new sound, get big, and a few hundred more pretenders come along and milk everyone’s wallets and patience with their substandard shite. And considering how shitty the majority of nü-metal is/was to begin with, that’s some pretty sub-substandard shite.”
Fear Factory’s decision to double down on nü-metal, including guest vocalist B-Real from Cypress Hill, is what led to the band initially breaking up. “Back when we were working on Digimortal in 2000,” Cazares said, “the label was pushing us to write more radio singles, and members of the band wanted more hip-hop-influenced stuff. And this is what led me to get kicked out of the band. My opinion was, this trend is fucking dying.”
Even with veterans struggling to rectify their relationship with nü-metal, a whole new crop of kids going from zero to stardom never makes for a richly artistic scene. As Gehret says, “Who the fuck are you, and why do you feel that you’re able to do this? Even if Robb Flynn dressed up, at least he paid his dues for five years.”
And though he helped contribute to plenty of the scene’s watershed moments, Robinson sees clearly how things started to fall. “There was way too much money everywhere,” he says. “Managers that should be managing Paula Abdul are managing Slipknot. Guys walking around the studio with wads of cash to spend on anything they want. So, where’s the hunger? Extreme metal is about fucking unleashing, so if everything is hunky-dory and you start wondering about how you’re gonna keep your shit rather than ‘I need to eat,’ it’s a big difference.”
Looking back to the beginning of nü-metal, Robinson even has an anecdote about how everything resolved itself.
“I remember rehearsing for the second Korn record, and Gene Hoglan [Death, Testament, Strapping Young Lad] was next door rehearsing all alone, with no band, just practicing his double bass. And we were rolling in off a platinum debut, and it was such a drag to hear that. It was kind of a reflection of that world, which was in hibernation. But the dude did not stop and he’s doing great now.”
TIME IS A FLAT CIRCLE
“I remember a collective sigh of relief when people started to become tired of it,” Conner says. “People started to search for something new again, and something came along, in the form of Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall. That was the scene that came along afterwards and was seen as something more real and more traditional than nü-metal.”
What falls under the New Wave of American Heavy Metal is pretty much everything that isn’t nü-metal: nearly every band that has gained a fan base and can be considered a modern “heavy” band seems to be welcome inside the tent. What this really says is that, while bands like Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, Unearth and whoever else reached arena-sized levels of popularity may be considered the forerunners, this wave was just a return to the mean. The internet’s increasing ubiquity allowed for a far greater education on music, and computers were catching up to file-sharing demands in the wake of Napster’s demise. In other words, metal was cool again.
The last couple years of nü-metal exhibited the same death throes as any corporate trend: Korn released their hubristic Untouchables album in 2002 with lead single “Here to Stay,” selling a third of the copies they moved with Follow the Leader. Ozzfest began to mix the NWOAHM bands with their nü-metal crew, with Killswitch clearly having more staying power than Unloco, Endo, Twisted Method, Motograter and Depswa.
Then in 2003, a few months after that crowd chased Fred Durst off a stage in Chicago, Limp Bizkit put out Results May Vary, an album nearly universally maligned that has sold roughly 7.5 million records less than the one that came before it only three years prior. And, as Durst sings on the record’s final song “Drown,” “Disaster takes its toll / and now I’m left with only me.”
“Did nü-metal ever leave?”
Fafara, who was touring with a reformed Coal Chamber when we spoke, promoting their first record in 13 years, clearly believes that the genre not only thrives with the bands that were able to survive nü-metal’s demise, but is an integral influence on bands like Suicide Silence, Emmure and Five Finger Death Punch. “Some of the younger bands who point their fingers, I would love to show them how much the bands they love are influenced by nü-metal.”
Others are more skeptical. Conrad sees it as a moment in time and nothing more.
“I don’t see any of those bands looking back on those records they did that were heavily nü-metal influenced and saying, ‘I’m really proud of that record,’” he says. “And I just think that it just happened and people either found their way and righted the ship or things sunk.”
“I think time will heal it,” Robinson says. “But for someone like a black metal guy deciding to do it, I don’t think it’ll get to that level. And I don’t know if it will really get back to that dirty, hungry thing.”
Whalen has the most unforgiving outlook on nu-metal’s possible resurgence. “Only in the way that L.A. glam came back: a reanimated corpse held together with nostalgia and package tours. Fuck that.”
It can be argued that nü-metal lives in more explicit bands like Issues, with their DJ and rapped sections, but even listening for half a song betrays your everyday schizophrenic screamo band determined to fit into as many disparate genres as possible. Issues may sample from a nü-metal platter, but their music doesn’t hinge on its inclusion—the bulk of their output still falls in the current paradigm of breakdowns, emo choruses and techno elements. These are not bands hanging their hats on the genre, and they are certainly not bringing back any of the nü-metal culture. They’re happy to throw a rap verse into a song, but they still choose to dress like hardcore kid pretty boys. Even the most ridiculous fashions of today are eschewing Adidas tracksuits and JNCOs.
But whether or not it exists or will exist again, we are powerless to do anything—just like in 1994, back when we weren’t actually ready.
– What have you been doing all this time?
– Playing with a jigsaw puzzle.
“Everyone gets their day, and nu-metal had its day.”
Phil Anselmo had a number-one record in 1994, the same year that Korn’s debut was released. Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven was the first extreme metal record to reach that level of popularity and, in maybe a more perfect world, would have opened the doors for other extreme bands to gain a foothold. Eyehategod, Crowbar—the bands he advertised on T-shirts in the “I’m Broken” video—enjoyed elevated status, but they obviously never became a Korn or Limp Bizkit or Coal Chamber. And yet, over 20 years later, the original trend killer himself seems far more equitable about the movement that threatened the music he still loves so much. “I can’t really condemn any band for their choices or what direction they’ve taken. I know that personally, myself, I chose my side a long time ago.”
While Pantera clearly had issues with the state of the scene, Anselmo either remembers it differently now or has gained perspective due to the shifting sands of the genre. “In the ’90s, being in the business of heavy metal, with all the shapes and styles, the flavor of the day, all I could do was be myself. Maybe I tried desperately to ignore things. For me, it was a time to roll with the punches. But it always is. It’s happening right now; it’ll happen again, and that is how the goddamn ball fucking bounces.”
And he is happy to point out what he sees as hypocrisy from those of us more than happy to dismiss nü-metal as trite, lazy or a bandwagon scene. “[Nü-metal] wasn’t the prettiest or purest thing in the world for a lot of people, but I can take a look around today and point at a hundred different bands that want to be Black Sabbath or a hundred different bands that want to be Sodom, and they’re revered, even though those songs were written 40 fucking years ago.”
Anselmo admits that he once asked Kerry King why Slayer doesn’t play parts like on Hell Awaits anymore and King answered with, “Oh, that’s boring.”
When bands talk about growing, maturing, trying something new, they often receive scorn. And usually, as we’ve seen here, for good reason—it’s often a terrible idea. But maybe, above anything, nü-metal was one of those tectonic shifts where bands both old and new had to be sacrificed to move on. How a grand disaster or mass poisoning ends up saving a population. A semi-controlled burning to save a forest. Recycling what we know for sure is good beyond current trends may be acceptable and even championed, but it’s also incredibly safe.
In the ’70s and ’80s, extreme metal seemed too evil, too heavy for normal people. It couldn’t actually become popular. And when it did start to get a foothold, when Metallica losing at the Grammys started to become a topic of conversation, then it was time for a contrast.
It needed something new to fight against; nü-metal was that perfect villain, a clear foil that was arrogant and rich and comfortable. It was what made the community want to join hands after a long fight, battered and bloody, feeling stronger and ready to keep going.
Or maybe the answer is a little simpler.
“I was in the Hard Rock in Tampa,” Brian Slagel says. “And they had this guitar on the wall and said it was Kerry King’s. It didn’t look like his guitar at all; it was all these different colors, and was so strange. And I took a picture and texted it to him and said, ‘Is this really your guitar? What the hell?’”
And he texted back: “The ’90s were weird.”