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Alternative Metal

A History of Alt-Metal and Nu-Metal



Alt-Metal Band Staind

Photo courtesy Atlantic.

What Is Alternative Metal?

Alternative metal is a style of hard rock that embraces the punishing guitar aggression of metal but tempers that fierceness with melodic accessibility and experimental flourishes. (If you need a sampling of the genre’s musical textures, check out this list of alt-metal’s top 10 essential songs.) Encompassing many disparate bands and sounds, alternative metal is perhaps best categorized as a contemporary updating of classic metal, which has allowed for widely divergent sonic approaches. Alternative metal can sometimes also be called nu-metal, but as we’ll see, that is but one of the many offshoots of this ever-evolving genre.

Alternative Metal Junks the Hair Spray (Early 1990s)

Alternative metal began largely as a reaction to the popularity of hair-metal bands of the late 1980s. Those groups had turned the steel-driving purity of old-school metal into a watered-down pop movement, and consequently alternative metal (or alt-metal) bands sought to bring back metal’s original fire.

But that doesn’t mean that the first alt-metal bands were all the same. Living Colour, for instance, were a socially-conscious African American group with a virtuosic lead guitarist in Vernon Reid, while Faith No More unabashedly mixed hip-hop, funk, performance art and prog-rock in their metal music, most brilliantly on 1992’s Angel Dust. Plus, the harder-edged bands of the Seattle scene, namely Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, would often be lumped into this crop of new metal bands, even though they would more accurately be described as grunge groups.

At this point, alternative metal was more about a mindset than a clearly defined sound, but soon influential alt-metal bands would emerge that would help codify the genre’s sonic blueprint.

Alternative Metal Gets Pulled Into the 'Undertow' (Mid-1990s)

If alternative metal has a defining band, it’s Tool, who launched onto the scene with their monstrously dark and complex 1993 full-length debut, Undertow. With their lumbering, head-crushing riffs and frontman Maynard James Keenan’s anguished wails, Tool evoked metal’s fire-and-brimstone origins but also brought a fresh energy and menace to the template. At a time when pioneering metal figures like Ozzy Osbourne were becoming relics and once-underground groups like Metallica were now chart-topping superstar acts, Tool signaled that alternative metal bands could reclaim the genre’s vitality and ferocity.

Alternative Metal Becomes Nu-Metal (Late 1990s)

Tool’s popularity in the mid-‘90s kicked off an era of bands with alt-metal tendencies, including groups better classified in other genres like industrial (Nine Inch Nails) and rap-rock (Rage Against the Machine). But Tool’s two biggest disciples turned alt-metal into one of the most successful genres of the late ‘90s.

Led by frontman Jonathan Davis, Korn explored introspective lyrical themes, particularly the pain of childhood, with horror-show menace and aggressive guitar riffs. Later, Staind would extend alt-metal’s sound, incorporating acoustic ballads like “It’s Been Awhile” into their repertoire and greatly increasing their fan base as a result.

Rock journalists dubbed Korn and Staind nu-metal, and with their rap-rock compatriot Limp Bizkit by their side, these bands brought alternative metal to the mainstream.

Alternative Metal Gets Too Popular? (Early 2000s)

Alternative metal experienced an inevitable backlash during the early years of the 21st century, as bandwagon-jumping bands tried to mimic the sound of Korn and Staind. What this meant was new groups would have vaguely sinister guitar songs but would also have a ballad or two on their album for the pop audience. Soon, alt-metal became a generic, faddy sound. But there were still innovative groups making good music within the genre. Slipknot released their self-titled album in 1999 and produced a series of platinum albums over the next decade. And System of a Down wowed both critics and audiences on albums like 2001’s Toxicity, continuing alt-metal’s interest in experimental sounds and politically-charged lyrics.

Alternative Metal Today

As it heads into the 2010s, alternative metal may have lost some of its popularity, but groups like Disturbed are continuing to push the genre forward. Alt-metal began as a response to ‘80s metal’s creative stagnation – it’s a good bet that future bands will likewise grow tired of the genre’s current sounds and develop metal’s next wave of attitudes and sonic textures.
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