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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