R.I.P. Matt Holt of Nothingface

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Yesterday, word came out that Matt Holt, former vocalist of Washington, D.C. alt-metallers Nothingface had died after a battle with degenerative illness. Let me tell you a little bit about why he and the band he sang for were important to me.

I imagine for a great many of today’s metal fans, the news of Holt’s death didn’t mean much. Nothingface hadn’t released an album since 2003, and outside of a couple abortive reunion attempts, Holt has kept a low profile in recent years. In any case, the band could be easily dismissed as one of the many also-rans of the nu metal era to do their time on the Ozzfest second stage only to go nowhere.

Nonetheless, I would argue they were much more that. Certainly, the Korn influence is strong in their early work, as heard on the 1995 self-released, self-titled album – later largely re-recorded for the 1996 debut LP on DCide, Pacifier. However, on those records there’s already a strong sense of how to connect heaviness with hooks and melody that made the band stand out among the day’s infestation of Jonathan Davis wannabes.

The balance of elements came to fruition on the band’s 1998 sophomore album, An Audio Guide to Everyday Atrocity. Guitarist Tom Maxwell (whom you may recognize as the guy in the cowboy hat squandering his talents in Hellyeah), drummer Chris Houck, and bassist Bill Gaal delivered an infectious collection of stripped-down groove metal peppered with ominous samples of film dialogue, while Holt alternated between a coarse bark and alt rock-style melodic vocals. Beyond his obvious technical versatility, Holt’s contributions were distinguished by his ability to convey a far greater range of emotion than the average metal vocalist and his bleak lyrical point-of-view.

The darkness grew even more prevalent on 2000’s Violence, when the band made its jump to TVT Records. This album was their most vicious and thoroughly metallic, full of rippers like opener “Make Your Bones,” “Same Solution,” and “American Love.” Still, Holt’s melodic vocals continued to be a prominent feature throughout, notably on the single “Bleeder.”

This period was when I first heard Nothingface. I was a high school kid in northwestern Illinois, feeling my way into metal at the outset of the 2000s. Effectively, that meant listening to a lot of second-rate nu metal as I worked my way through the catalogs of more respectable gateway bands like Metallica, Tool, Pantera, Slayer, and Sepultura. Nothingface caught my ear because their angular riffs and groove-oriented drumming maintained a visceral aggression much of the Pro Tools-saturated alt metal showing up on MTV2 lacked. Meanwhile, the focus on dynamics made the music far more immediately accessible than the limited amount of death metal I’d heard at the time. And, of course, Holt was a huge part of the appeal. The paranoia and frustration he expressed in his lyrics was highly relatable to a pissed-off teenage, with his on-the-dime shifts between murderous rage and angsty melody perfectly capturing the tumult of those stupid, formative years.

When Skeletons was released in 2003,  I was gearing up for college, and my tastes had largely moved toward bands like Opeth, Morbid Angel, Soilwork, Nile, and Meshuggah. Nonetheless, I was glad to hear from Nothingface again, with its first album featuring Tommy Sickles on drums following Houck’s departure during the recording of Violence. Beyond the shift in the rhythm section, the band had further broadened out its pallet. A brutal track like the anti-Christian rant, “Here Come the Butchers” is balanced by “Ether,” basically a straight-up alt-rock song. Holt’s lyrical focus changed as well, with a definite shift toward the political in response to the Bush administration. Still living in a largely conservative, semi-rural town, I felt fortunate to have an ally for my burgeoning leftism in my copy of the CD.

Holt’s mounting frustration with the business end of music also shows through in on a couple Skeletons tracks, especially “I Wish I Was a Communist.” Indeed, the band’s conflicts with TVT (famously also the subject of Trent Reznor’s ire on Broken) seem to have been a major factor in its break-up. Later, there were a couple tries at reviving the band, but relations apparently grew strained between Maxwell and Holt. Consequently, the music world had not heard much from Holt for a while when he died at 39.

I never met Holt. If I had gotten into heavy music four years sooner or later, there’s a good chance his music would not have meant nearly as much to me. But I didn’t, so those records were a major source of catharsis, and Holt was an inspiration for my early attempts at fronting a band. My old copies of An Audio Guide to Everyday Atrocity and Violence still come out a couple times a year, and as I sing along I can remember what it was like to first discover devastating, passionate music that seemed to reflect perfectly what I needed. I thank Matt Holt for that. R.I.P.

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