First of all, what is Nu Metal? Nu Metal (with the spelling "N-U" not "N-E-W" and no don't ask me where they got that from) was/is a sub-genre of Heavy Metal music that came to prominence in Mainstream Rock in the mid/late nineties through the mid 2000's. In this essay, I will explain what I think it is, and what it represents to me. For a lot of people, its still a mainstream representation (Still) of what Heavy Metal music is about. A huge percentage of people have different perceptions of what "Heavy Metal" is, but unfortunately, generalizations and stereotypes exist. The main concern with regards to Nu Metal that I have are that people often assume that I am a fan of this style of metal, or when they talk about metal in general they mention bands included in this genre. I still believe that Nu Metal is a form of metal (a highly contentious point with many people), but I do think that writing this post is necessary to dispel a few notions people have about my relationship with the genre, and also to show what my opinion is on its relation to the history of metal in general. I will do something a bit different with this post, I will use the format of a "FAQ" (frequently asked questions, a classic 90s/ early 2000's format used for online information).
Why do this essay?
I already mentioned this but will go over it again.
Because people (especially those around my age) still make the mistake of bringing up nu metal bands that I don't like, and I am at a loss of what to say to them about it. I also get people playing something that's nu metal, expecting me to like it because its "heavy". Well, I know there are many hours in a day, but instead of playing Candy Crush Saga or whatever the fuck they do for hours a day, they can spend 20 minutes reading this essay, instead of me trying to explain all this shit in person all the time (makes my life easier lol).
What is your history with Nu Metal Music?
Not a very healthy one- I used to make fun of it all the time, and thought that only "mainstream preps" who didn't know shit about Metal in general liked it. I was a little elitist loser asshole in my younger days (I've been compared to the guys in the film High Fidelity lol), and have subsequently met pretty credible people who actually like Slipknot for example. To give an example of that, Hypocrisy's Peter Tatgren has stated he likes that band, as a fan of Hypocrisy I can't immediately bash everyone who likes certain bands like that.
Needless to say, at the time of Nu Metal's heyday I was listening to non nu metal bands in the underground and what I call the "Mainstream underground" ranging from Emperor to Blind Guardian and beyond.
What did you think when you first heard it?
I don't remember what the first band I heard was in that genre, I think it may had been Korn. To me, it didn't really seem like Metal at all, kind of a heavier alternative band with some semi "metaly" guitars. I didn't like it, I thought it was kinda timely, kind of like Faith No More but more boring if that makes any sense.
Do you think the bands considered themselves "metal"?
That really all depends on who you asked at the time (or now, recent headline of Godsmack stating they're "hard rock and not metal"). I do recall reading an interview with one (or both) of the guitarists in Korn where they kind of disparaged metal, they said "even though we play in low B (because of using 7 string guitars) we aren't Caracass or some shit". I know that they had said this verbatim, and recall this was the era where even Rob Halford was making such statements as "Metal is dead". Korn later acknowledged metal influences at times, but the impetus even back then was they were trying to break from tradition. It was the era (in the mainstream United States Rock scene anyways) where "wanky" guitar solos were frowned upon and high clean vocals seen as "too hair metal" (more on this in a minute). I know that subsequently, a lot of the Nu Metal guys have come forward and acknowledged their traditional metal influences, however, at the time, it seems like they tried to play down their metal influences to some extent (as many metal and grunge bands themselves were doing, like Lars Ulrich from Metallica saying Metallica was no longer metal (or never metal?) just "hard rock". To quote Jonathan Davis of Korn: "There's a lot of closed-minded metal purists that would hate something because it's not true to metal or whatever, but Korn has never been a metal band, dude. We're not a metal band."
Why do you give Metalcore a free pass and bash on Nu Metal so much?
I don't give Metalcore a free pass, however, as I will explain, I have more in common with your average Metalcore fan than your average Nu Metal fan musically. Metalcore bands have usually always acknowledged the history of metal and firmly state in interviews their metal influences. More importantly, they show the influence of metal by having fully formed riffs (a lot of the time when they aren't doing too many breakdowns lol) and aren't scared by doing shred guitar solos in their songs. The music itself is so influenced by the Swedish Melodic Death Metal scene (At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, In Flames, etc) - a subgenre that I was fully into in the nineties that I can't help myself by liking a lot of the riffs either. I prefer the latter bands to most metalcore though, with a few exceptions.
Why do you think there's such a different between the members of nu metal bands, vs the metalcore bands (as far as mainstream US metal that's popular)?
Its a generational difference. Right now, a kid buying his first guitar will have youtube, and it will be a novelty to watch their first Iron Maiden video, for example. They may want to play Metalcore, Djent or whatever, but "really old stuff" like Maiden will seem cool, and interesting.
Back in the Nineties, someone who's in their teens or early twenties would have thought (a lot of the time) of bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest as dated, and even make the silly mistake of lumping them in with hair metal bands because of the high vocals!
They had the memories/associations because of how big hair metal became, and it turned them off (with good reason to a certain extent).
The distance between the kids coming up now in their 20s or teens and the kids in the nineties are very different with regards to historical context. The people growing up in the Nineties that got into Nu Metal were told time and time again a lot of the metal cliches and even for awhile the very word "metal" was dated, dumb and overindulgent. They got images of leopard prints, high falsetto vocals, rock groupies and dragons in their heads and during this time the stuff was not "cool". Beavis and Butthead, Bill and Ted, and Wayne's World put out media images of Metalheads as morons, and this made people want to steer away from a lot of the tropes and ideas inherent in classic metal, from thrash to hair metal.
Ironically, the Nu Metal bands had taken some of the musical characteristics of alternative and alternative metal, but returned to a lot of rock excesses. Some bands would even have lyrics in between about "partying" among their more angst ridden numbers. Bands like Andrew WK or Crazy Town brought back a lot of what had been "missing" since hair metal, but done in a way that would appeal to your Korn fan, and some bands would alternate between the teen angst and the partying. Nevertheless, Nu Metal still distanced itself from a genre that had similarily "mispelled" band names, hair metal, though during its peak it reached much of the same popularity and permeated the public perception of what modern metal was.
Metalcore, in contrast, has a lot of the same fanbase, but many bands that start out Metalcore eventually either branch off or become more metal. Metalcore seems like hardcore kids that got into metal and through the years become more and more into it. Solos are plentiful as well as admissions of classic metal influences (Killswitch Engage covering Dio for a famous example). The usage of breakdowns and the style of vocals are the main things that turn me off of a lot of it.
Do you hate Nu Metal because of its simplicity?
Yes and no. I'm a huge fan of punk rock including classic Misfits, I love simple straightforward songs a lot of the time. Its just that Nu Metal didn't really have the same emphasis on melody that other simple bands have or had. The hooks were lacking, to me anyway. There were a lot more droning styles of writing vocal melodies that recalled grunge or even industrial rock that were inherent in Nu Metal that weren't inherent in other styles of metal (and to me, not done half as well as those two aforementioned genres). And as I said in another question, why listen to something that sounds like watered death metal + teen angst lyrics when you can listen to fully formed death metal songs about the necronomicon, space, or whatever and mosh to that stuff?
As for the hooks, no one can deny bands like System of a Down, Sevendust, or even some Disturbed songs have some decent hooks. However, the dumbing down of the riffing takes away a lot from Nu Metal's appeal to me in general (see the next question), and I'd rather just listen to some classic punk rock that has less overly slick production than most nu metal that's a little catchy.
What Makes Nu Metal so different than other metal you like?
This is really where the heart of this essay lies and the first question that should be read if one were to read this. For me to say "its the association with rap music" would be disingenuous. I recall some early rap metal bands I thought were cool, especially a little known band called "The Hard Corps" who were around in the early nineties. They were the real deal, seriously (though I haven't heard them in years). I've always liked Body Count though I consider them to be Metal/Hardcore Punk Crossover (something metal archives should acknowledge) and never disliked Faith No More, and always thought Anthrax's "Im the Man" was funny. Its not the mixing of metal and rap that made me turn off of nu metal (people have actually assumed this at times, even if a lot of nu metal doesn't even have rapping, just some of it). So let's begin answering this question by using musical modes and other musical terms as examples why Nu Metal is different.
Nu Metal in many ways was an acceptable way for kids in the nineties (when metal was not "cool") to still like something "heavy" without "succumbing" to metal's "cliches" (not only hair metal but Metal as a whole). However in its quest to rid "metal" of its cliches, it also took out a lot of what I found appealing about metal to begin with, in an attempt to make metal "relevant" "urban" or "hip".
I must say that there's nothing wrong with appropriating traditional African American musical/cultural styles. But Nu Metal does it in such a dorky way its almost like seeing your grandfather use street slang to "fit in". If Enimem did a Metal Band, you know it would be a lot more interesting than say, Fred Durst's.
Taking out most or not all guitar solos because they sounded "too eighties" (or 70's, or 60's, or 50's) was a fatal flaw, even if not all bands need "wanky" guitar solos all the time. My mind goes to the Metallica film, Some Kind of Monster wherein Kirk Hammett was complaining about the lack of guitar solos on their (then) upcoming album St Anger (which recalled Nu Metal in some ways) and complaining that it would be "dated to that time" because of its lack of soloing. Well, he was right of course!
Traditional Heavy Metal music uses a few different keys/modes that usually contextualize it with regards to other forms of music. A common mode to use is the natural minor mode, as well as the harmonic minor mode at times (a mode found in alot of classical and baroque and romantic styles of orchestral music). As a matter of fact, a lot of the usage of natural minor/aeolian came to prominence in the eighties (When your metal non listener says something "sounds eighties" in regards to a song, a lot of times) where bands ranging from AOR to Dance to metal itself used these keys.
A lot of times this creates an "anthemic" quality that power metal bands also exploit nowadays. Bon Jovi's Living on a Prayer is in Natural minor, as well as Iron Maiden's Rhyme of the Ancient mariner. Also bands such as Metallica made a lot of usage of the Phrygian mode (a bit more middle eastern sounding or exotic in a way). Nu Metal in contrast, used a few of these modes at times, but also limited their scope of usage. Often in the context of a riff, the minimalism inherent in the riffs would only play 1-2 chords in the context of a huge part of the song. The minimalist guitar riffs present a challenge not because they're "simple" but because they lack "resolution".
Even a band that's dissonant like the Swans or Godflesh, Voivod or Martyr have riffs that are extremely dissonant but they have a seemingly concrete beginning middle and end. Even bands with minimalist guitar riffs like Minstry or Helmet (undoubtedly an influence on Nu metal) have riffs that "resolve" themselves.
This is a music theory aspect I'm speaking of in a way, but I guess I can illustrate by using Metallica as an example. Let's listen to the song "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Its well known that Groove Metal like Pantera brought a lot of influence to Nu Metal. If you listen or sing the main riff of that song "Dun Dun Dun Da Dun Dun Dun Dun Da Daa Daa" (For-Whom-The-Bell-Tolls) the Groove Metal band would play Dun Dun Dun Da only, but maybe keep the chorus, the Nu Metal band would play Dun Dun and then the chorus would be Dun Dun Da! As you can see, phonetically using this as an example illustrates my point. Nu Metal riffs aren't just minimal (a band like Helmet for example), they're watered down!
Also, genres like grunge and post-grunge would come into play with the melodic structures of this song. Grunge and Post Grunge are a bigger influence on Nu Metal than say, Saxon. There are even Nu Metal/Post Grunge hybrid bands played on "Modern Rock" radio to this day!
Limited usage of various modes, along with more dissonant sounding parts (and I am a fan of bands like Voivod who use dissonance nicely) also went along with the melodic parts of Nu metal songs using keys like Mixolydian- a mode that was used in a lot of grunge music but not a lot in more traditional metal which used more modes like mentioned above.
The use of dynamics in Nu Metal also recalled grunge in a lot more ways than that, the classic (Pixies derived) use of soft/heavy parts made famous by Nirvana was used as well. When there is melody, its more post grunge, post rap, and post pop punk, and the relation to traditional metal melody is barely there. But what got on my nerves was the way singers like Jonathan Davis made use of these dynamics. The singing had more in common with someone like Trent Reznor rather than Rob Halford or even James Hetfield or say, David Vincent.
It had this whiny suburban"teen angst" quality about it that made it seem almost forced in a way (and I'm a fan of NIN).
When there is melody, its more post grunge, post rap, and post pop punk, and the relation to traditional metal melody is barely there. The modes/scales used are watered down in a way refined to be simplified for the common listener, when its not just the dissonance I mentioned earlier.
While bands in the grunge genre paid tribute both to proletarian ideas in music as well as "college educated" middle class (a famous example being one of the first Seattle grunge bands, Green River, wherein two of the members were more "metal" two others "alternative"), Nu Metal had firmly middle class (namely suburban) roots that entail a mentality that is more "middle school" or high school rather than college. It didn't draw upon the lower class meets high brow sentiments that bands like those of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands did, nor did it have the political relevancy of punk (with a few exceptions).
The "angst" of Nu Metal sounded more suburban in nature rather than being rooted in anything substantial. It drew upon stereotypes of how White American Teen Boys behave/talk when angry, rather than argue substantive political points like say Napalm Death (a grindcore/death metal band that makes Slipknot seem as light as Lawrence Welk in comparison!). To give an example of how "juvenile" Nu Metal could be, let's look at two song titles: "Break Stuff" and "People = Shit". While these titles COULD have been found on an 80's thrash metal album, these would more than likely be said bands JOKE ("filler") songs alongside more "serious", but these titles are two SERIOUS (or at least two"main") songs by two Nu Metal bands (Limp Bizkit and Slipknot respectively) (how serious is up to the listener, the use of irony is something that is inherent in nu metal as well)!
What Things Do You Like About the Metal Styles That You Do Like Does Nu Metal Not Have?
Ironically, even though I am a fan of many different styles of metal, this is not a tough question to answer. I can use a few examples just to give the gist of some of what I do like.
I really really really really like Dual guitar harmonies. Its obvious from my love of bands like Maiden, Priest or Helloween that this is a factor, though not with every band I like. Name me one band in the Nu Metal genre that used dual harmonies and I'll give you 20 bucks.
I like grand theatrical concepts involving themes from literature, fantasy or the occult.
Most King Diamond albums are album long horror stories written from his twisted imagination. Voivod albums all follow a Science Fiction story concept that the band members wrote themselves. Blind Guardian has a whole album based on JRR Tolkien's the Simarillion, and Iron Maiden write 13 minute songs based on romantic era poets like Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Meanwhile, nu metal bands like Trapt have lyrics like "Headstrong, I'll take on anyone". Wow you are so tough man.
Also it must be said, with the aforementioned bands, their music would still have many of those same qualities without vocals or lyrics, because those are the images that they dredge up from the way they play and structure their songs. You would still think you're in a hall of medieval bards with Blind Guardian just listening to the music itself, you would think that you're in some weird part of space with Voivod, etc. And the list of bands that have these different themes and go in these cool directions within regular (non nu) metal are endlesss. The only thing the actual music of Nu Metal brings up with me is an image of some angry middle class white boy acting retarded and angry at the same time, and speaking in ebonics but seeming like more of a dork than any white rapper ever was! And I'd prefer not to have those images.
But a lot of Nu Metal Bands are SOOO Heavy, Why Don't/Didn't You Like It?
See the aforementioned questions. Does Slipknot really compete with bands such as one like Mortician? Your average Slipknot fan would probably run home to mommy after hearing a band like that! It reminds me of when I saw Pantera in 2000. They (well namely Phil) had gotten Morbid Angel to tour with them and open for their tour with Soulfly. The kids at the show were kind of "rural" to say the least. When Morbid Angel came on, many of the kids in the audience laughed and mocked them, and I doubt it was for the lyrical content. Morbid Angel is a much heavier and faster band than Pantera in many ways (but because Groove Metal kind of begat Nu Metal) but the mainstream "acceptable" liking of Pantera prevented them from enjoying Morbid Angel even when Phil Anselmo himself came out and guested on a song. Its needless to say that Nu Metal has no competition of heaviness or even anger when it comes to bands ranging from Bolt Thrower, to Black Flag. It sounds like watered down amalgamation of a lot of the aggressiveness of the past 30 years of heavier music but done badly and in a very commercial way. Why listen to Evanescence when you can listen to Theater of Tragedy, or listen to Mudvayne when you can listen to Candiria? The examples are endless..
I'm not saying that Nu Metal didn't have elements that I liked in other bands/styles of metal, but the usage of those elements came into question in the way they were used. I feel also there are/were other bands and styles that were far more appealing that had those elements than the Nu Metal bands. A person may like Mudvayne (not a too terrible Nu band) for the slap bass but why not check out Fishbone or Infectious Grooves as well for the same reasons? Just because you've never heard of those bands or they're old doesn't mean that they don't have some of the same elements done well. Nu Metal has an appeal to people, and I am not trying to question the people that like it for various reasons that they find personal to them. Its just that, if/when people question why I don't like it or what my reasons are for that, I have broken these ideas down and hopefully this can explain it.
1. Nu Metal did not follow the trajectory/progression of normal heavy metal music, it took bits and pieces from styles such as groove metal (Later day Sepultura, and Exhorder, or Pantera) and added alternative music, grunge influences, rap (and sometimes other styles like funk) to the mix. It took a lot of the thematic elements, and musical elements that made heavy metal what it was before and replaced it with more attitudes found in rap or some forms of hardcore punk, and also a more angst ridden attitude found in grunge rock as well.
As for the different styles added to Nu Metal, I had found earlier bands flirted with these styles better, such for example bands like Faith No More or Suicidal Tendencies, and hell even Tool or Rage Against the Machine (latter both being heavy influences on Nu Metal). The issue is, that the Nu Metal bands would have alternative metal bands as influences, but as their majority influence, pushing a lot of traditional metal influences to the background and not falling into the real lineage that even Death Metal or Black Metal would.
2. Nu Metal really didn't have a precedent before other than some of the "alternative" metal bands, and like shown in the above point, you couldn't really say "groove metal" begat Nu Metal in the same way that Thrash begat Groove Metal. So, in essence, no real metal subgenre had a huge influence on Nu Metal the way the HYBRID genre of Alternative Metal did.
3. The song structures (some post punk bands played minimalist styles with staccato riffs like Gang of Four), made the music seem not only minimal (as said before bands like Helmet, even the Melvins, had other elements even if they were minimalist in their riffing that made up for the minimalism or the minimalism was done in a cool way) but "hollow" or "empty" to my ears. Having something along with that that reminded me of mainstream "alternative rock" but with super whiny vocals about juvenile subjects really turned me off when I heard these bands for the first time. Nu Metal was/is full of things like that.
4. As for the angst angle, there was always better examples of this that I already knew about/liked that fulfilled any cathartic release that Nu Metal had for some people. I knew of plenty of angry Black Flag or Rollins Band or Suicidal Tendencies or DRI songs that when I was in an angry mood I listened to. I didn't need some upper middle class kid from Bakersfield California with a Seven String Ibanez to make me feel relieved after being pissed off.
5. The angst seemed feigned and fake to me. I can imagine some of it being forced, as you see footage of Nu Metal rockstars and they seemed almost Hair Metal like in their "indulgences" rather than the more forlorn personalities that populated Grunge or even Gothic Rock. It was like the Record Business, in a rush to get more bands befitting of "90's angst" rushed to sign as many bands in these genres as possible, culminating in a huge surge of Nu Metal bands in the late nineties. It was also overcrowded, overhyped, and much hated ironically by the bands that influenced it, as many statements by people like Trent Reznor, Paige Hamilton, or Mike Patton testify to.
6. The fans of Nu Metal liked things "heavy" but seemed to be almost scared to get into more underground extreme metal, or even other groove metal bands like Exhorder or old Machine Head. They may had liked Pantera, maybe some Metallica, and it annoyed me that they had never heard a lot of other bands that were more extreme or different but just as heavy.
7. The mask thing was done before by Mr Bungle. As a note on that, Marilyn Manson kind of was popular with a lot of Nu Metal fans, but GG Allin throwing poop in the audience trumps the extremity of pretend masturbation on stage. Basically stuff was done before that I heard but in a way I liked more.
8. Fred Durst just sucked. Really. Sorry dude. Nothing against you as a person.