Crossfader’s Nu Metal Primer
“Nu metal makes my stomach turn. Don’t blame that poo poo on us, blame it on their mothers! Do you think I listen to any of that stuff at all? No, it’s for 13-year-old morons! Believe me, we’ll all be laughing about nu metal in a couple of years. Heck, I’m actually laughing at it now!”
“I do apologize for Limp Bizkit. I really do. I feel really bad that we inspired such bullshit . . . They’re gone, though. That’s the beautiful thing.”
“They had this wave of metal that came through in the ‘90s and it was called ‘nu metal,’ I don’t know if you remember it but it was so bad. I would have rather had my eyelids pulled out.”
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, Faster Louder 2014
“When I’m asked what do I think of a lot of the nu metal bands that are out there, my response is that it seems really insincere to me. ‘I’ve had a really shitty childhood and I’m really upset and I’m really ugly and I’ve put a lot of make-up on and I’m harder and faster and my voice sounds more like the cookie monster’s than yours does.’ To me it all comes across as being comical, as being a parody of itself.”
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Kerrang! 2002
I think that’s all the introduction needed. Let’s get started.
Rage Against the Machine – S/T
Favorite Tracks: “Bombtrack,” “Take The Power Back,” “Bullet in the Head,” “Know Your Enemy”
There is rampant debate over whether Rage Against the Machine counts as nu metal, and much of the pushback against such labeling can be chalked up to people seeing the label as an inherently negative one. Regardless, RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE was one of the first releases to showcase the massive potential in combining rap with rock and metal. Tom Morello’s guitar tones took a lot of influence from hip hop production, adopting squealing, high-pitched tones like you’d hear from a turntable, along with beefier drop-tuned ones. The drums weren’t thunderous and in your face; they kept the beat while the main energy came from Zach De Le Rocha’s rapping and political fury. He attacked the dangers of obedience and patriotism, institutional and structural racism, and the Vietnam War, all with a simple but hard-hitting and steady flow that took a lot of influence from rap legends like Public Enemy. Few other bands could match Rage Against the Machine’s energy or conviction, especially later nu metal releases, and it’s easy to see why this became one of the most influential metal records of the ‘90s.
Korn – FOLLOW THE LEADER
Favorite Tracks: “Children of the Korn (featuring Ice Cube),” “Seed”
While Rage Against the Machine famously stuck to guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, Korn were more willing to adapt hip hop beats and a more industrial, dissonant tinge to their clinking funk-metal basslines and chunky guitars. FOLLOW THE LEADER is a dense, sludgy mess that often devolves into mindless screaming without any of the charisma that made it acceptable when other nu metal bands had similar freakouts. Lead singer and scatter Jonathan Davis is basically the guy who invented the whole “cookie monster” growl cliche of nu metal, making personal and dark lyrical topics like alcoholism and child abuse impossible to take seriously. Perhaps all of this wouldn’t be as redundant if Marilyn Manson wasn’t making very similar music with far more atmosphere, hooks, and stage presence, or Eminem wasn’t tackling similar topics with more dramatic weight and humor. Still, there was a lot of truth in the title given how many artists soon were FOLLOWing Korn’s formula of heavily dissonant, ugly, and angsty metal after their third record broke the genre into the mainstream.
Limp Bizkit – SIGNIFICANT OTHER
Favorite Tracks: “Just Like This” “Don’t Go Off Wandering,” “N 2 Gether Now”
The view of nu metal as mall-rap for white boys in cargo shorts and backward baseball caps starts with Fred Durst and four other guys who were probably way more talented than their work in Limp Bizkit would indicate. While Limp Bizkit would go on to do much, much worse on their next two releases, SIGNIFICANT OTHER is a worst of both worlds that’s less mechanical and dark than Korn, but much more immature in its angst and bratty in its attitude. This isn’t so much a fusion of rap and metal as a forced collision of the two, with the majority of a track dominated by overly-distorted guitar chords while the last minute or so becomes a random hip hop sample. A handful of talented guests (Scott Weiland, Les Claypool, Method Man, DJ Premier) are completely wasted in favor of Jonathan Davis and Staind’s Aaron Lewis. Most of all, Fred Durst is an awful frontman, with tons of macho posturing that’s more adorable than threatening and a terrible grasp of delivery and scansion. No matter what the album tries to be—fun, sexy, dangerous, angry—it’s always ruined by Durst’s nasally, whiny vocals that make everything seem like a chore to him.
Linkin Park – HYBRID THEORY
Favorite Tracks: “Papercut,” “Runaway,” “In The End,” “Forgotten”
According to Billboard, HYBRID THEORY has sold almost 30 million copies worldwide, it’s the best selling album of 2001 in the U.S. (beating out U2 and Michael Jackson), it’s the best selling metal debut of all time, and the best selling debut of the 21st century. Linkin Park made nu metal accessible in a way that no contemporary or influence had. Not only was the production a lot more polished and smooth in its fusion of metal, rap vocals, and instrumentation, and the songs trimmed down to their bare essentials, leaving the record at a mere 38 minutes, but lyrically, HYBRID THEORY remains one of the most genuinely adolescent records of all time. There’s a reason why lines like, “Everything you say to me / Takes me one step closer to the edge / And I’m about to break,” “ ,” and “I tried so hard and got so far / But in the end, it doesn’t even matter” have become mini-memes; Linkin Park knew how to express pure, stupid teenage nihilism and angst through simple yet memorable phrases better than anyone. Its universality is undeniable, and, like a bot appearing when someone says a specific word on Twitter, HYBRID THEORY is likely to pop up as long as teenage angst continues in all its predictable, simple-minded, and temporary glory.
A Perfect Circle – MER DE NOMS
Favorite Tracks: “The Hollow,” “Judith,” “Orestes,” “3 Libras,” “Sleeping Beauty”
A Perfect Circle is a supergroup with a revolving-door approach to membership, but its two most important members are lead guitarist Billy Howerdel and vocalist James Maynard Keenan of Tool. Howerdel is an excellent composer and producer; he has a gift for creating tracks that combine classic metal heaviness and moody, gothic ambience with a polished, punchy sheen. Many alt-metal and nu metal records focus on blend between heavy and soft, loud and quiet, brute force and atmosphere, but A Perfect Circle did it more effortlessly and artfully than any before them. We already knew Keenan was a gifted singer and lyricist, but MER DE NOMS was the first record to firmly establish him as a legend. He skillfully navigates the myriad of topics (foolishness of religion, his favorite stripper, the agony of infatuation, masturbating to how great anal sex is) with finesse and power, most impressively on the 15-second-long ending note on “Judith.” It’s nowhere near as ambitious as a Tool record, but MER DE NOMS is easily the most gorgeous thing ever to be associated with nu metal, and one of the best metal debuts of all time.
Staind – BREAK THE CYCLE
Favorite Tracks: “Suffer,” “For You”
The two big trends in turn-of-the-century radio rock and metal, nu metal and post-grunge, converged on BREAK THE CYCLE, a transition record for the band from their angry earlier records to the overly brooding sludge of Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd. It is very likely that the only track you’re familiar with from Staind is the massive hit “It’s Been Awhile,” but that repetitive dirge represents only about half of this record. The other half is blocky, overly-layered guitars, nonexistent basswork, brutish drums with no finesse, and monotone Aaron Lewis straining to sound tough by swearing a lot and occasionally bringing out a demonic rasp that doesn’t fit alongside powerless ballads like “Epiphany” and “Outside.” It’s nu metal with a lot more musical baggage and post-grunge with a lot more lyrical baggage, making it a near-impossible slog to sit through. Even with all its lack of individuality, Staind are arguably responsible for starting a CYCLE of acts like Shinedown, Three Days Grace, and Seether, who merged watered-down alt-metal and grunge to far too much chart success.
Slipknot – IOWA
Favorite Tracks: “Disasterpiece,” “Gently,” “Skin Ticket,” “Metabolic”
With eight band members (half of which were probably disposable), ridiculous masks and stage shows, and the second widest range in rock and metal vocals behind Mike Patton, Slipknot made nu metal entertaining in just how over-the-top and theatrical they were. IOWA is widely considered their heaviest record, and possibly the heaviest nu metal record besides Mudvayne, but it still comes off like death metal with training wheels. The chugging guitars lack muscle and are very low in the mix, which may have been a smart move by the producer, since it puts the focus on better elements. On a technical level, Corey Taylor is a more versatile, forceful, and intimidating vocalist and screamer than many of his peers, and the drum work is much more thunderous and thrash metal in its influence. While the lyrics are likely to incur accusations of trying way too hard to sound edgy and disturbed, at least they are laughably ridiculous rather than tepid and lame. The mix is layered with enough chaotic vocals and the soundscape is gigantic enough that the listener has enough fun to simply forget how painfully repetitive and childish the lyrics are. Too bad the rest of the genre never figured that out.
System of a Down – TOXICITY
Favorite Tracks: “Needles,” “Deer Dance,” “Chop Suey!,” “Forest,” “Toxicity,” “Aerials”
They had down-tuned, chunky guitar passages paired with pricklier, almost turntable-like ones and unorthodox vocal melodies. However, the main reason System of a Down is considered nu metal is because they were a popular alt-metal band at a time when the most popular form of alternative metal was nu metal, and no music critic knew what to classify them as. With the eccentric vocals and experimentation of Faith No More and the political ferocity and pure energy of Rage Against the Machine, four Armenian-Americans combined a huge number of influences into 44 minutes of the most original and acclaimed music in not just nu metal, but metal as well. It’s incredibly raw and spontaneous, like it was composed, written, and performed by brilliant yet schizophrenic mad men. There may be no subtlety to the writing, and it can easily cross the line into outright silliness on “Bounce” and “Jet Pilot.” However, TOXICITY is the nu metal answer to punk, and in the 15 years since its release, there hasn’t been anything like it, even on System of a Down’s disappointing later releases. With plans for a new album this year, there’s isn’t a better time to revisit it.
Hurt – VOLUME II
Favorite Tracks: “Summers Lost,” “Alone With The Sea,” “Talk to God,” “Loded,” “Et Al”
I know that standing up for hidden, underappreciated gems of nu metal seems like the most foolish of hills to die upon. Nonetheless, I will stand by Hurt’s VOL. series as solid releases in a genre that was four years past its expiration date. VOL. II is a more rustic and acoustic record than the more traditionally nu metal VOL. I, and it’s populated with some of the strangest instrumentation the genre ever saw: banjos, female backing vocals, and dobros. Much of nu metal tried to convince you it was hurting, but it was kind of unconvincing when delivered with a hardcore flow and bad boy attitude. Hurt dispensed with attempts at bravado or swagger in favor of pure sadness. They still produced circular, riff-heavy, in-your-face tracks with too many cuss words and a pseudo-rap vocal cadence (“Loded” and “Ten Ton Brick”), but Hurt’s main strengths lied in their longer, slower, and more emotional cuts filled with violins and banjos. Calling it angsty is doing it a massive disservice; it is grippingly sorrowful, the kind of sorrow that comes from experience with physical pain and existential dread. For a band with the most boring and obvious name in the genre, Hurt remains one of it’s most slept-on and emotional bands.
King 810 – MEMOIRS OF A MURDERER
Favorite Tracks: “Killem all”
Nu metal’s legacy is sparse but still worth talking about. More juvenile metalcore and deathcore bands cite nu metal acts as major influences, and Linkin Park in particular still has a lot of copycats out there. Most of all, some music writers have identified a “second wave” of nu metal and rap metal in recent years. Bands like Gemini Syndrome, Emmure, Fire From the Gods, and From Ashes to New have gained momentum recently, but the most controversial nu metal upstart has to be Flint, Michigan’s own King 810.
I felt unclean listening to MEMOIRS OF A MURDERER. Other metal acts are like samurai or skilled swordsman; their goals are to cause destruction and violence, but they do so with finesse, talent, and a coherent plan. This is like a club-wielding, incomprehensible caveman charging into battle with zero sense of strategy besides hitting things until they die. It’s one of the most one-note experiences of my life; every song is just a re-writing of the the first track “Killem all,” beating you over the head with how badass King 810 think they are, and how tough they have it, and how many bullets they have been shot with, and how many people they’ve killed, and blah blah blah.
Perhaps I wouldn’t be so annoyed by all of this if they didn’t have one of the worst lead singers of all time, who I can only describe as some demonic fusion of Alex Jones and “Hurt”-era Johnny Cash. His bandmates are no better; I’ve taken about a couple weeks of guitar lessons and I could play more complicated riffs than this amateurish garbage. It’s an hour of torture that represents the worst of nu metal and exemplifies Reznor’s quote trashing the genre. No creativity, no passion, no variety, no beauty; it’s musically, aesthetically, lyrically and emotionally unpleasant, simple, and ugly.