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Through most of the ’90s and ’00s, nu-metal was the dominant force in heavy music. At the turn of the millennium, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Deftones, Slipknot and Linkin Park were all Top 10-sellers, arena headliners, and very big deals. Today, its echoes can be heard in a new generation of path-forgers like Bring Me The Horizon, Parkway Drive and Architects. It is, therefore, a story worth telling. And what better way than by mapping 14 of the genre's most important songs and seeing how the nu-metal tale played out…
It should have been a pairing like oil and water: Big Four thrashers Anthrax in one corner, and hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy in the other. And this was in a time, remember, when the dividing line between metal and hip-hop, not to mention the respective fans, was much more pronounced than it is now. But the common ground was bountiful, too. Both acts were from the streets of New York, both were willing to experiment, and both, ahem, brought the noise. Thus, having given Anthrax a shoutout on the original in response to guitarist Scott Ian wearing their merch onstage, Public Enemy joined the ’Thrax to redo it in metal style (with a riff Scott later admitted was just Black Sabbath’s Warning sped up). Some hated it, some loved it, and though not the first mash-up of rock and rap, it ably demonstrated just how heavy the concoction could be, and what could be done with it. From here, a thousand seeds bloomed.
Perhaps the greatest song ever written about institutionalised racism in the police force, Killing In The Name also helped give the frontiers of what rock could do a good hard yank. Though guitarist Tom Morello was – still is – an absolute die-hard Iron Maiden and Van Halen nerd, Killing In The Name saw him reining in his metal maniac tendencies to all but lay the foundations for the new style to follow. With a heavy, rhythmic bedrock, KITN’s almost funky beat was viciously danceable, while Zack de la Rocha’s lyrical fury showed just how hard this music had the potential to go. Add in some glorious swearing, and you have basically a waymarker for the rest of the ’90s.
Even with primers like RATM and Anthrax, when Korn’s self-titled debut hit in 1994, there wasn’t really anything else like it. There wasn’t really anything like Korn in metal full-stop. With their Adidas tracksuits, dreadlocks and, in Jonathan Davis, “a fucking scarecrow of a singer” (not our words, the words of guitarist James ‘Munky’ Schaffer), even by the scruffy alt.rock and grunge standards of the early ’90s they were not what you expect from a rock band. And then you played their album. That cymbal tap at the start, the weird chords, those monstrous, seven-string riffs, and then Jonathan bellowing ‘Are you ready?!’ – it was all something new. Grunge had been pained, but not as chillingly as this. So too had metal been heavy and sludgy, but not really in this manner (the only notable seven-string user at the time had been, um, Steve Vai). Where some said the shift in the early ’90s had killed metal, what they actually meant was it had moved the goalposts away from the glitz of glam, and toward something more street. Metallica, Pantera and Sepultura had maintained, thanks to their street-level grit. For Korn, it was a perfect jumping off point, and with Blind, they started on a trajectory that would see them become one of the most influential bands of the decade.
In Deftones, though the nu-metal tag was often one that was resisted, or at least an ambivalence, the budding movement had a group who were cooler, classier and more mysterious than their contemporaries. In a scene full of bands who looked like lads who smoked weed down the skate park, Deftones actually were lads who smoked weed down the skate park. It gave them a less fussy vibe than some. It also helped that they had a) the best riffs and b) a singer who was proper good and had a talent for choruses. My Own Summer (Shove It) broke them in a massive way, becoming a giant hit thanks to its sharky video, and set Deftones up as the cooler older brother of the movement. Fun fact: Kerrang! once played this riff to Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi for his thoughts, and he dug it, so there. And as well as getting the seal of approval from the greatest riffman of all time, this also added a new dimension to nu-metal – a dreamy, thoughtful, epic mood along with the anger and pain.
It’s hard to overstate just how phenomenally massive nu-metal was at the end of the ’90s. Despite being made in a haze of booze (Jonathan Davis had a child’s bottle full of Jack Daniel’s round his neck while recording), drugs (Jonathan Davis would refuse to record until producer Toby Wright brought him A Lot Of Cocaine) and sex (Jonathan Davis claims there were people having it off all over the studio while he was trying to work), Korn’s third album, Follow The Leader, went straight to Number One in the U.S., almost instantly being certified platinum. Though still raging in songs like It’s On and macabre in Dead Bodies Everywhere, they also had hits here. Freak On A Leash showed just how weirdly well a band like Korn could fit on the radio, and its part-animated video became an MTV staple. It was an early indicator of the huge success that could be had if you got the balance of nasty and nice just right.
If Deftones represented something deeper about nu-metal, Limp Bizkit represented something entirely at the other end of the scale. Despite having a genuinely innovative guitarist in Wes Borland, whose vision for his genre-straddling band was probably more in line with bands like Primus, Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, Limp Bizkit were – and continue to be – seen by many nu-metal’s primal, base mode, where thinking was done largely with fists. What’s missed in this view is that Limp Bizkit were actually the 1966 England team of such things. No other band delivered quite the dancefloor-filling shove they did. Nobody could get you that riled up in that specific a way. And, truthfully, nobody else was as much monkey-in-a-bubble-bath fun as they were. Break Stuff, ahem, broke Limp Bizkit through its fiendishly simple two-chord motif, kick-up-the-arse drop, and its glued-to-MTV video featuring Jonathan Davis, Flea and The Who’s Roger Daltrey, as well as rap megastars Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Dr. Dre, taking them to an audience far beyond metal. The celebrity that followed was huge. The influence it left was huger.
Beep beep! That horn you hear belongs to us, and we’re the ones beeping it. In 1999, before anyone in the UK had written a word about Slipknot, we were so excited about these nine mad bastards from Iowa that we gave away Eyeless on a free covermount CD as a way of introducing this isle to their noisy charms. Well played, us. Anyway, by the time their self-titled debut rolled around a couple of months later, things were already at fever pitch, and Slipknot exploded. Oh, and BEEP BEEP, FUCKIN’ BEEP, we also put on their chaotic first ever UK show that Christmas at London’s much missed Astoria. And what a launch pad this all was. Nu-metal super-producer Ross Robinson had found his perfect project in Slipknot, a band as into his mad people management skills (throwing pot plants at people while they were playing, making them run down mountains in the middle of the night to get their blood moving if they moaned that they were tired) as he was, and he captured their violence perfectly. With a strong death metal influence in the mix, the ’Knot were absolutely savage, and Eyeless, with its Carcass-esque riff, harsh vocals and thumping drum’n’bass intro, was the most vicious way they could possibly have made their entrance.
And now for something completely different. Or, at least, slightly smarter. As nu-metal grew, so too did a base of participants and observers happy to say “faggot” and “bitch” every other word, and for whom blood was a thing constantly at boiling point. Incubus were not one of these bands. Led by arty surfer stoner hippie bloke Brandon Boyd, and with music that frequently followed in a similarly blissed-out style, the California quintet were in possession of an intelligence (both emotional and an apparent ability to read) that set them miles apart from some of their more bullish contemporaries. Pardon Me is a shiny, buffed-up rocker, but with nu-metal’s usual darkness and pessimism replaced with a more thoughtful approach to life’s frustration. And a massive chorus.
It’s almost comical now to think how fast Linkin Park became basically the new sheriffs in town when Hybrid Theory came out 20 years ago. One minute they were nowhere, the next they were everywhere. It may have missed the Number One spot in America, but this is somewhat remedied in its status as the biggest selling debut album since Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, and the biggest selling rock album of the 21st century. As we say, almost comical. For many, the introduction was via One Step Closer and its flying-ninjas-at-night video that LP took hold, and though some were cynical about the band’s overnight success (largely because there had to be some explanation for the staggering numbers being shifted beyond ‘people are just buying it’), truthfully it was just a bullseye of timing, talent and personality. And a great song. Just as Korn and Limp Bizkit had pushed open the possibilities of success, Linkin Park took it immeasurably further by already knowing what could be done and looking beyond it. From here, many bands aimed themselves squarely at the radio and TV with product that had the crusts cut off, a pale imitation of LP’s distillation heaviness into something more palatable. None, however, would come close.
There was a point where Disturbed could sneeze and it would sell three million copies. As a sweet spot between heaviness and radio play/arena-sized success became a clearer landing strip than it had once been, Disturbed masterfully navigated themselves right into it with Down With The Sickness. Some laughed at David Draiman’s ‘Wa-ah-ah-ah’ vocals and took to using the band as a whipping boy that represented some sort of dead-end for this stuff, but the band had the last laugh by becoming massive and this song becoming a legal requirement at every rock club on Earth. And rightly so: it is an absolute banger.
Now a coronavirus-denying friend of Donald Trump, it’s easy to forget that at one point Kid Rock’s cartoonish ’Murica-isms were actually something to be celebrated. With a noisy confidence that put David Lee Roth in the shade, Kid’s tailgate-party noisiness and, frankly, boastfulness made him as much of a laugh as he was bone-headed. On American Bad Ass, as the riff from Metallica’s Sad But True grinds out behind him, there’s literally a bit where the man born Bob Richie brags about how he ‘Went platinum seven times’, before telling you that, ‘It stinks in here ’cause I’m the shit,’ and you absolutely love him for it. Yes, it took a reliance on someone else’s riff and an understanding of just how much people want something to listen to while they eat barbecue/watch wrestling/go hunting/drive monster trucks to work, but get that right and stick a gobshite like Kid on top, and you have absolute gold.
With an Iron Maiden guitar lick, the stomp of an elephant, and lyrics you could spray paint on a wall, Last Resort is nu-metal at its most anthemic. Seemingly without breaking a sweat, it made Papa Roach one of the biggest metal bands in America, as its parent album, Infest, sold two million copies at a stroke and put the band at the top table. It also made frontman Jacoby Shaddix an instant icon, a man who wore all his insides on the outside for all to see, but who also genuinely seemed to want to help and listen as well. Whether this carried over to club dancefloors at 2am is something that to this day requires further investigation.
Pictures you can hear: look at literally any pro-wrestling screenshot and Bodies starts playing. Not an unusual notion for many nu-metal bands, particularly not post-2000 when labels couldn’t sign them fast enough (stand up, Taproot, Soil, American Head Charge), but Drowning Pool are still a particularly noteworthy case. And it’s not a bad thing. Bodies is as subtle as a bulldozer strapped to a wrecking ball; the point of the exercise is to knock down the house, not be clever about how you do it. Like Limp Bizkit without the rapping, the simplicity of Bodies is the key to just how enjoyably effective it is, never mind that its knuckles are dragging on the ground so hard they’re striking oil. That’s sort of the best bit.
Remember there was a time when System Of A Down were a sort of functioning metal band who did normal, functional things like releasing records and going on tours? Different world. Having laid foundations as nu-metal’s slightly weird ones with their 1998 self-titled debut, when SOAD returned with Toxicity in 2001, they properly went stratospheric, even having the dubious honour of being Number One in America as 9/11 unfolded (a circumstance to which Serj Tankian responded by publishing an essay entitled Understanding Oil that tried to unpick the cause of the tragedy, much to the unhappiness of his record label). But it was their unhinged music that had put SOAD where they were – and as a run-up to the album, lead single Chop Suey! was an exercise in exhilaration. It twitchily refused to do the same thing twice, jumping between riffs and rhythms as though they were burning hot, while Serj’s cry of ‘When angels deserve to die’ is surely the best nu-metal jumping off point since the start of Korn’s debut.
Bunch of new American psychos just dropped…
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