PSA: This article is mostly written linearly, but because of the wide scope of this genre and all the moving parts, I chose to focus more on the huge success in the genre, as opposed to nit picking through all the different angles, storylines, plethora of bands etc. This was also supposed to include some cringy pictures of me during this period, but time isn't permitting. Hopefully time will permit at some later point. Either way, I hope you enjoy it.
Musical trends come and go, naturally, like seasons passing through our lives. This is relevant if only because as a burgeoning seventeen year old I was convinced that the bands discussed in this piece would change the world, and most notably, be around for years and decades to come. Neither one of those things ended up being blatantly true, but like every genre that has risen and fallen within a few years, it left its impact and obviously, the best survived, more or less.
For many the birth of this genre starts in California, where Bakersfield boys Korn and Sacramento thrashers Deftones starting tooling around with a new sound that combines the metal grooves of the mid 90’s, with more lyrical rhyme schemes. Korn, with a signature voice in Johnathan Davis, backed by a rhyme section of David Silveria and “Fieldy,” not to mention Brian ”Head” Welch and “Munky” had success from their initial album, and the atmosphere of the music industry was ripe with benefit and reward. The tone of the music was nurtured with emotion, trauma, and enough never-addressed personal issues, making it the perfect music for the angst among male teens aged 14-18, give or take a few years. During this time rock music was more alternative, less abrasive with Bush, Foo Fighters, No Doubt and many others mostly filling up the airwaves in the years between grunge and nu metal.
What was created blended metal and hip hop in a loose way, but this isn’t exactly the beginning of the story. In my opinion, it begins with three bands. It's the 80’s and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are discovering themselves, with Kiedis bringing way more hip hop and rap influences than rock had before. You also get Faith No More, who, while significantly better in every way than the RHCP, never really make it in the states as a band that could be filling stadiums, which they absolutely should've been able to. We also, very early in the 90’s, got just a taste of the extent the genre could go with Rage Against the Machine, who take the rap protest idea and tangle it up in bass heavy layering, politically charged lyrics, and more than enough guitar and drums arrangements to keep the rock kids amped up. Like many genres, something was being created in an organic way, learning from what came before and altering it to fit the times and themes they were trying to convey. Whether they liked it or not, down the road didn’t matter, Nu Metal was slowly being born.
The year is 1994 and the music industry is hearing something coming up from the underbelly of underground metal and rap, respectively. A little known band from Cali, Korn, is just releasing their first album. The cover is still creepy to this day, but what everyone remembers the most are three words hitting at just the right time. “Are You Ready?” soars over the spattering of high hats, and as a guitar riff enters, the elevation ramps up. Before you know it, the beat has you energized, and you’re lost. As a kid unsure of everything, it was a revelation. I hadn’t met the friends who would join me on this journey yet, but the ideas had been implanted. All over the country kids were discovering this, and loving it. The songs bristled with very real angry, justifiably so if you hear the stories of Davis’ upbringing, but it was something else too. They didn’t look particularly good, no frills, just some guys in their everyday clothes. This is important because maybe that's how it was at first, but soon enough, probably by the time they ended up in my radar, it was thought out, much in the way Marilyn Mansons was able to get people to advertise for him, with chants of “indecent” or “anti-christ.” Whatever else they called all these bands. It worked, they got fame and their music out, and the people that hated them the most help get them on the news in the first place.
The self titled album made enough of a dent in the industry to get attention, but Korn wasn’t the first or last. In fact it would be years before the hemorrhage of bands would slow in the world of Nu metal. Most of these aren’t worth mentioning, but the important ones we'll get to, I promise. For a group of kids, many of whom being teen boys, who weren’t happy with their lives and their upbringings, this music was the way to access all those feelings we weren’t yet mature enough to deal with. Listening to “Around the Fur” by the Deftones for the first time, after my father purchased it for me, everything fell into place. He hated it sure, asking if the band fucked up by not being named the “Tonedefs,” but naturally, it only made me like it more.
The album was unflinching in its blunt brutal production, with the then four piece creating an album that had bounce, emotion, riffs galore and, in a slight change from Korn, vocals you could understand and instantly know the words to. That might not seem like much, but belting out lyrics has always been an outlet for angsty teens, and will likely continue to be. The Deftones offered on this second record more layered music but also more aggressive. It was all around better than its predecessor “Adrenaline,” but the major difference between what else was out there and what the Deftones were doing was melody and vocal range.
What set them apart from most others, at least to me, but the production, mixing, and overall risk the band was willing to take. Even now in 2020, they don't always hit their mark perfectly, but they take risks, and that's the best reward i think, the ability to see what works and the years cruise on.
In regards to the overall scene, most of these guys couldn’t sing, at least initially, but Chino was developing earlier than everyone. The story of the band in Nu Metal is brief, but the mark was made. More on that later. Around the Fur was a landmark record, slowly building a ground swell that would elevate them to right under the big names as they climbed the ladder. but by that point Korn was one their way to the third record, which would prove vital not only to the bands continued growth, but to the movement as a whole. The rumblings had started though, and by the next year, it was all anyone could talk about in the world of rock.
As most people should know, 90% of what comes out of Florida is often mocked and should be ignored. This is where Fred Durst comes into play. You see he wasn’t born in the sunshine state, but like all good things that need to eventually die, he ended up finding success in Florida with the creation of Limp Bizkit. Full disclosure, I LOVED this band, more than I’d like to admit. I was just a kid, man, I didn't know the damage it would cause. All joking aside, the band had strange art design, a blue collar appeal splashed with a walking monster movie, and enough ammo and heavy riffs to connect with its target demographic. That's where I come in. I was mostly able to purchase my own music without much deterrence, so I started buying things like Korn, Rob Zombie, Tool, Pantera, Rammstein, etc. The list goes on. What made Limp Bizkit so special wasn’t even Durst or his lyrics, but rather the weird guy in the back of the promo pictures. Over the course of their four best selling albums, Wes Borland became not only the most interesting person in the genre, but also a guitarist capable of bringing more respect to a genre not known for much respect. Their debut album “Three Dollar Bill Y’all” blew away expectations, and before we knew it, the three biggest bands in the genre were appearing on MTV, touring and filling up bigger rooms, and riding the wave. It took Korn to get the big push, but all three benefited greatly.
It was gritty, or as it was uttered at the time “Hard,” but I was so enraptured in the idea that other white boys felt the same as me that everything else seemed unimportant. Especially when it came to my entertainment wants. “Counterfeit” was one of the early tracks that pulled me in, and all it took was the opening “break” or whatever it’s called. The whole album was like that, and before long, they were favorite band, at least while nin was nowhere to be found.
Enter 1998, and the year that changes everything. I was 16, still mostly single, still angry, still wanting to find music to convey my resentments. By this point my wardrobe consisted of big jeans, band shirts, and plenty of attitude to throw wherever I wanted. Fall comes, and for the first time, I felt like the world of music was exactly where it should be, and I couldn't be happier. I remember going to purchase Korn's “Follow the Leader” the day it came out and being transported in a way that music had been unable to up until that point. The album is still leagues above the rest of the genre, but in it's emotion you get exactly what you hoped for in a new metal record. For months I fell asleep listening to it, and it was the first time I’d learned the lyrics to a record on my own, without lyric sheets, just by listening. It took me 6 days, and I’ll never forget it. I remember the first thirteen silent “tracks” before the onslaught of “It’s On!” and “Got the Life,” not to mention amazingly dark artwork by Todd Macfarlane of Spawn fame. It featured tons of guests, including Fred Durst on “All in the Family,” Ice Cube and various others. Limp Bizkit had just broken out, and now the leader was building a tour that would be the call to the arms for the whole genre.
When my friends and I first heard about this tour, it was insane to believe. MTV reported that Korn would be leading the first annual “Family Values Tour,” featuring acts like Rob Zombie, Orgy, Ice Cube, and Limp Bizkit. Deftones were briefly rumored, but that ended up being nothing. Even without them, it sounded like the best thing ever put on a stage. Eventually Rob Zombie dropped out, long story not worth the time repeating here, but Rammstein came in and made it all ok. They were an old choice, not quite “nu metal” like the other ones, but you’ll find artists coming and going through this. The tour was going to feature elaborate stage sets for each band, be about five hours long and feature DJs and various other things between the sets to keep the momentum going. It ended up being the coolest thing I had ever experienced up til then, and even now it's pretty amazing they pulled it off. The tour was a huge success, with Limp Bizkit and their alien crash site being the big highlight of the ornate set designs. Durst and company stole the show, and before we knew it, they’d be the biggest act in the genre and would be filling places just like Korn was already doing.
The album is “Significant Other,” the song is “Nookie,” and the drama is the insanity of their Woodstock 99 performance. At the time i thought it was incredible, but it seems so dangerous now for an event that size to even be allowed to happen, and I still don't understand how any of those bands bettered the legacy of the initial festival. Strangely it didn’t matter. Limp Bizkit’s sunset Saturday night bonanza of plywood became all everyone talked about, and it made them bigger than any band actively touring at the time. Just like nine inch nails in the mud five years before, bizkit had headlined in the news articles way more than any other band on the bill. Significant Other was still a huge success, but overall not as good as the first record. They headlined the next Family Values tour along with Filter, Primus, Crystal Method, and Korn in a few select markets.
This is where you start to see the benefit of a push for a second time. Like Korn did for Bizkit, Durst and his band would do for Staind. Led by Aaron Lewis, the band was more Alice in Chains and less Korn, but the vocals were deep and arduous, as if he was forcing them out to expel the pain. They too broke huge with “Mudshovel,” but, while appearing on the second FVT, a new song with Durst called “Outside” was debuted. Once it aired on MTV and alternative Radio, it was over. They were the next success story. During this time, we saw plenty of bands that sadly didn’t pass the litmus test in the way the biggest names did, but some did. Some ended up not even being nu metal in the way that it had initially begun, but it brought a depth of different approaches to the scene, which was quickly overshadowing most other forms of rock.
As the dam broke, we got Chevelle, Disturbed, Godsmack, P.O.D., Coal Chamber, Crazy Town, Fear Factory, ill Nino, Nonpoint, Powrman 500, Otep, Puddle of Mudd, Saliva, Snot, Sevendust, Soulfly, Spineshank, Static- X, Taproot, and plenty more. Some of these names are still touring and some have fared much better than others. The point is, all of these names had their big break and rode it as well as they could.
There were exceptions among that list though. Disturbed and Godsmacjk especially made it big during these years. Godsmack wasn’t quite nu metal, but they toured with Limp Bizkit, Deftones, and many other nu metal friendly tours. But Disturbed almost seemed like a second generation type of act, similar to Linkin Park. Even Draiman’s early vocals sounded similar to the incoherent growls of Korn tracks like “Twist.”
Nonetheless they blew up in a way I never expected. David Draiman and company had has a few lineup shifts over the years, but you cant ignore the success. They play huge arenas, headline big tours, and have generally had very solid radio play. With Davis Draiman's animalistic yet harmonic vocals, the band found a base big enough to have a pretty fantastic overall career, even if the critical acclaim the band hoped for never really landed. Maybe they weren’t for everyone, but they fared better than even bands like “P.O.D” who had a very pure less hateful message and should have been huge, they never quite get to the heights of Disturbed. Papa Roach was huge for two albums then kinda faded firmly into the world of rock festivals that are steeped in the early heydays of their career. was more of a mix of Korn’s darkness and angst, but with Bizkit’s general vibe.
But then in ‘99 things took an even weirder, more aggressive tone. Out of Iowa, , Slipknot was adding to the field of version by changing and going in a different direction. While firmly in line with many of the prerequisites of the genre, the touch of custom matching suits, numbered 0-8 and armed violently cathartic emotions running through all made it feel fresh. They exploded on the music world, and within a year they were the talk of modern metal. They too, have one of the biggest fan bases and popularity in the world of metal, even now. One of the most brutal and decadent, but one of the better also.
Many had similar success, but few were able to make full successful careers out of it quite like Incubus, featured on the first FVT as a replacement for Ice Cube, opening the show no less, who in 1997 were opening for 311 and Sugar Ray, had quickly emerged as more of an alternative rock band than nu metal with the game changing albums “Make Yourself” and “Morning View.” Others like System of a Down brought a political aesthetic to the mix, However, it was a band no one saw coming that would overtake the nu metal world and impact even more fans than Korn would. Once their next album following “Make Yourself” came out, the band never played before anybody else again, and they became extremely popular, but not in the world of nu metal. They broke out, went their own way.
By 2000, the wave was still strong, but signs were starting to form of decay. Limp Bizkit, mainly Durst, had managed to stay in the news for years because of scandals and drama. First there was the beef with Insane Clown Posse regarding the latter’s being taken off the second annual Family Values Tour. Then the Creed drama, which isn’t worth mentioning, then the Aguilera drama and all the notary that got him for being “edgy.” Korn was still massively popular, by this time being a staple in large arenas. With follow ups to “Follow the Leader” like “ Issues and Untouchables'', the band tried and mostly succeeded in developing a more textured sound than the bare bones nature of the first albums. Their “Sick and Twisted” tour with Staind was amazing in terms of production and sales, but the bubble was definitely bursting.
Staind, Disturbed and various others were on their second albums and beyond, but there were two other records that year that wound up being pretty critical to the movement, and where it went. Those records, “Hybrid Theory” and “White Pony,” Both transcended the more ugly, defined anger of the genre, each in very different ways.
Pony was as far away from the beginning of the genre as anyone could have gotten during that period, but in its challenges it was able to separate the band from the idea that one, they were ever “Nu Metal” to start with, and and that two, you could make an album distant in style from the others, but capable of luring those same fans in. I remember the summer the album came out, even before when it leaked, my friends Dennis, Miles and I spent literal months listening to the record, devouring it and letting it change how we viewed music. It was one of the first times a new sound latched itself on to me, but it's something I'll always remember in regards to that record. In my opinion it's the benchmark for how other records in the nu metal scope should be judged.
On the other end of that, you get Linkin Park, who, though arriving later and after the initial boom, ended up being both the most successful band of the history of nu metal, but they brought in fans too timid for Korn and the others. That’s not to say it's a bad thing at all, but coming later enabled them to learn from the mistakes of others, and to make music less blatantly angry and more in line with more traditional alternative rock. The hip hop elements were there, as were the catchy ass songs. Beningtoin, Shinoda and company crafted an album big on hooks, dark honesty, but melodies able to get on radio and mtv and get the attention of younger kids. It was dark in tone, but the music was teenage friendly enough that before long, you had kids as young as 11 and adults as old as 20 singing the worlds to “In the End.” They also scored the biggest selling rock album of the year, and well the rest is history.
Following the success of many, ten signs were starting to form that the end was nigh. The best sellers were going to be fine, but that's how any genre evelevates and then diminishes itself. The strongest and most successful survive, as best they can, for as long as they can. Te rest disappear, eventually taking up spaces in the minds of fans who still haven’t completely moved on. I mention all this because right around the time P.O.D. was having their biggest success ever with “Satellite” and “Youth of the Nation,” the rumblings of a new american metal movement were forming. Gradually bands like Lamb of God, Mastodon, Killswitch Engage, and many others started getting recognition for a more true version of the metal everyone loved once upon a time.
The movement was over, but another quickly replaced it. That, in a nutshell is the music industry. Korn is still able to fill large venues, Deftones are still the best, and many others are still carrying the nu metal banner, with bands like Disturbed, and most recently Bring Me the Horizon still making something new and at times exciting. Nu Metal will never die, even if memories of our awful clothes and cringy sing alongs still jump into our heads every now and then.
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Landon Murray is a music connooisseur who craves sounds of all shapes and textures. He's seen over 2000 bands and looks forward to welcoming you into his world of sound,
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