Alternative metal arose in the late 1980s after thrash bulldozed down any walls separating metal from punk, hardcore musicians who had mastered their form’s minimalist requirements developed advanced technical skills through which to explore their expanding musical imaginations, and heavy funk acts on the order of Fishbone, Living Colour, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers just kept getting heavier and funkier.
The grunge sound from Seattle, rooted as it was in ’70s hard rock, infused hardscrabble punk rage with the stadium-stomping grandeur of Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, and side two of Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps.
In 1991, Nirvana broke as the biggest band in the world by utilizing the formula “Black Flag plus Black Sabbath plus the Beatles.” Triumphantly, then, alternative rock had been rescued from limp-wick ’80s synth-feebs on the order of the Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen, and potently repurposed with the pomp and power of heavy metal.
From there, the Lollapalooza Nation conquered mainstream music and alternative metal came to define the decade. A new generation of artists and aficionado has arisen since then, forever rejecting constrictions and pushing metal forward into new realms and realizations.
Here now is an A to Z guide to our picks of acts and artists who set the standards for alt-metal, and who continue to inspire no-limits sonic exploration.
ALICE IN CHAINS
Seattle’s true grunge groundbreakers broke a year before Nirvana via Facelift, and won the thrash world over on the 1991 Clash of the Titans Tour. Layne Staley, Jerry Cantrell and company forged some of the most unique and enduring sounds on the ’90s across AIC’s first three classic albums.
Psychedelic Texan terror tornadoes the Butthole Surfers cracked open the skull of punk rock and let a zillion acid-enhanced metal mushrooms bloom in the muck. The Buttholes’ 1987 masterwork Locust Abortion Technician opens with “Sweat Loaf,” a psilocybin-fried reimaging of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” and the moment they landed major label bucks for 1993’s Independent Worm Saloon, these Austin anarchists hired Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones to produce it.
Maryland marauders Clutch moshed up out of hardcore punk to spearhead the Eastern Seaboard front of the ’90s stoner metal movement that, elsewhere, spawned Kyuss, Corrosion of Conformity, Fu Manchu, and other riff-baked blazer batallions. Clutch has remained vital in its evolution over the decades since, forever reigniting itself to rise Phoenix-like from the bong of creation.
Disturbed emerged as Brawl from Chicago’s hyper-fertile mid-’90s alt-rock before finding their ideal boot-stomping footing in the later half of the decade before putting it together in 2000 as a long-playing powder keg titled The Sickness.
Fifteen years and multiple #1 albums later, Disturbed rules as one of the most beloved and badass metal ensembles on the planet, with every new release presenting a true alternative to all that has come before.
Amy Lee’s angelic vocals over a spookily tinkling piano just before it explodes into metallic onslaught on Evanescence’s breakthrough smash “Bring Me to Life” served as one of the most astonishing, “stop now and listen” radio moments of the 2000s.
The operatic Goth frontwoman has piloted the group through various changes from that ground zero moment, and she remains one of rock’s strongest voices—both in terms of how she sings and the way she commands all she sets out to conquer.
FAITH NO MORE
In a cultural sense, it can easily be argued that the ’90s truly began with “Epic” by Faith No More breaking through to the mainstream. The sprawling, multi-tempo track more than lives up to its title as the band combines hefty funk with soaring metal choruses while maniacal vocalist Mike Patton goes from pummeling rap to high-pitched power-squeaking and back again, over and over until the song’s cascading crescendo.
The Real Thing, the album that launched “Epic,” is loaded with many of the ingredients that would define music of the decade ahead. When FNM followed it in 1992 with the bizarre, berserk Angel Dust, the group cemented their place as impossible-to-pin-down legends, embodying a new, never-to-be-duplicated freak front of heavy metal.
Equal parts energetic and eerie, brooding Boston brawlers Godsmack arose from fiendish, feverish ideas and instincts hatched by frontman and multi-instrumentalist Sully Erna. Presently twenty years into their mesmerizing journey, Godsmack continues to spellbind via music that mixes hard, heavy, and haunting like no other alt-rock alchemists.
Avant-garde New York noisemaker Page Hamilton formed Helmet in 1989 and tapped into the then-crumbling city’s physical rot and social pressure-cooker dynamics to unleash a near-industrial sound somewhere between a more song-oriented Swans and a hardboiled Black Sabbath. Helmet specializes in short, sharp, bare-knuckled brute-like blasts of dark noise mixed with open-air pauses that enhance every impact.
The group garnered much unwelcome over-analysis as the first high-profile winners in the record industry’s post-Nirvana underground gold rush. And even though the album to arise from that moment, 1994’s Betty, flopped commercially, it endures endlessly onward as masterwork. Cooler still is that group has never relented, and they’re still laying waste to doubters today.
Hugely popular Calabasas, California crew Incubus came together in the early 1990s while its members were still in high school. Absorbing that decade’s multilayered mainstream and incendiary underground rock sounds formed the group into an eventual platinum-making machine.
Funkified without ever succumbing to nü-metal tendencies, Incubus albums are often hard enough to still command alt-metal respect, while their intricately constructed, lushly produced singles beguile sufficiently to land occasionally on adult contemporary radio. In the strictest sense, that is one true alternative.
Arguably alt-metal’s one definitive act above all others, Jane’s Addiction initially flowered amidst the mousse-heaps and Sunset Strip spandex of ’80s L.A. hair metal. Vocalist/philosopher Perry Farrell and freak-lick guitar wizard Dave Navarro propelled the group to genuinely blaze an unprecedented trail in all of rock, let alone too often strictly defined heavy metal.
Jane’s captured the imagination of Generation X and instituted the Lollapalooza Music Festival that simultaneously embodied and expanded alternative culture throughout the ’90s.
There’s still no easily nailing down the sounds, sights, and overall aesthetic of Jane’s Addiction, but for all its ethereal artfulness, barefoot hippie flights of fancy, and gutter-punk narcotic underbelly, there’s also no mistaking it as being not brilliantly metal.
For a brief, not entirely comfortable moment around the turn of our current century, nü-metal was the most commercially potent strain of hard rock. Limp Bizkit, Lincoln Park, Papa Roach, Coal Chamber, Mudvayne, Kittie, and even Brazilian thrash titans Sepultura combined metal riffs and grooves with industrial beats, rap vocals, and, quite often, a live DJ scratching alongside the other band members to occasionally massively popular effect.
Bakersfield, California’s Korn, fronted by dreadlocked and Adidas-tracksuit-adorned Jonathan Davis, achieved quick nü-metal icon status. The group also ably endured the genre’s being turned against and taunted by mainstream metal “tastemakers” long enough for nü-metal to begin to come back to being in fashion once more.
Goth-spooked Italian maestros Lacuna Coil boasts the most distinctive and dynamic male-female vocal duo in contemporary hard-and-heavy music making: Andrea Ferro and Cristina Scabbia, respectively. An international sensation since there 2002 global breakthrough Comalies, Lacuna Coil is an absolute tower of alt-metal majesty.
Shock rock’s Antichrist Superstar supreme, Marilyn Manson emerged from in the mid-’90s from the long, pitch-black shadow of his mentor, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, to frighten the masses and hurl metal to panic-inducing extremes that even the finest previous practitioners in his field (Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, GG Allin) had never achieved on such a specifically scandalous scale.
NINE INCH NAILS
Pennsylvania high school marching band geek Trent Reznor grew up to reinvent industrial metal and paint alternative rock in new shades of bloody black by way of his universally acclaimed, instantly sensational, ever evolving sonic stormtrooper collective, Nine Inch Nails.
NIN reached down past the gloom of new wave synth mopes such as Depeche Mode to grab fingerless-leather-gloved handfuls of the psychosexual homicidal furor of antisocial (to say the least) power electronics entities on the order of Boyd Rice and Whitehouse. Reznor then forced that foulness through his wicked songwriting sensibilities, resulting in a searing succession of plugged-in, down-tuned metal that invites both dancing and death rituals.
Loud and proud lesbian vegetarian Otep Shamaya fronts bashing and thrashing L.A.-based alt-metal mayhem makers Otep with fervor and fury that is unmistakably hers. The band plays like she sings and the marks left by the experience are deep and permanent.
At the same time that his pals and peers in the Bay Area thrash scene were initially revolutionizing extreme rock in their own image, fantastically wacko bass guitar genius Les Claypool launched Primus from San Francisco and deliciously demonstrated that harder, faster, and louder were not the sole directions in which metal could rendered more heavy.
Claypool is a cult hero, cultural icon, and a crackpot composer like no one since Frank Zappa and, try as multiple generations now have (and always will), nobody beats up and blasts broken-brained beauty out of a bass like he does.
Primus still sucks—which is just how Primus devotees say that Primus still rules.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE
Kyuss soared skyward from the natural heat and other blazing sensations of Palm Desert throughout the first half of the 1990s. Along with their fellow Californians and cannabis enthusiasts Sleep from San Jose, Kyuss effectively blazed a trail for after which alternative metal’s most potent and prolific offshoot in the 21st century followed: stoner rock.
Following Kyuss’s ’95 dissolution, six-foot-four guitarist Josh Homme created Queens of the Stone Age, barreling through the door of MTV and commercial rock radio just before it closed on new hard-and-heavy sounds and scoring commercial success beyond what Kyuss might have even dreamed of in their smokiest of hazes.
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE
Rage Against the Machine threw down their own gauntlet by going with that name. Any band with so potent a moniker immediately had to make good on its promise of get steamrolled by screaming skeptics in the process.
Fortunately, these incendiary political polemicists showed up armed with monster riffs, furious screeds, and megatons of talent—particularly in the form of vocalist Zack de la Rocha and genuinely game-changing guitarist Tom Morello—to ignite even their most radical notions into firestorms of heart-pounding, consciousness-expanding metal.
Grunge gods Soundgarden stupefied rock fans upon importing the nascent “Seattle sound” worldwide in 1998 via their debut LP, Ultramega OK. It was metal, to be sure, but somehow punk, too, and, even more than that, something entirely new.
In the wake of that first impact, of course, everything changed, not the least of which was Soundgarden itself. Two more killer collections, Louder Than Love (1989) and Badmotorfinger (1991) set the group up for history-making mega-stardom come the arrival of their 1994 opus Superunknown and its 1996 follow-up, Down on the Upside.
The group disbanded for more than a decade in 1998, sending vocalist Chris Cornell—one of the greatest and most influential frontmen in rock history—to hook up with members of Rage Against the Machine to launch yet another alt-metal juggernaut, Audioslave.
Soundgarden reunited in 2010 and continue to reign as alt-metal royalty.
One of the most ludicrous claims made by alleged experts regarding 1970s punk is that it “liberated” pure, raw, so-called “real” music from the progressive rock that it ran up against.
First off, prog always played to vastly huger audiences than even the biggest vintage punk projects, and, secondly, a stylistic change does not mean one rock genre “beat” the other.
In fact, Tool proved that punk didn’t crush or dispel prog—and vice versa—but that it actually enhanced and expanded it by adding new arrays of colors to heavy music’s creative palette.
While Tool is unmistakably both metal and progressive, its immediacy and urgency carries the power of punk, most notably in the vocals of frontman Maynard James Keenan.
The band’s music also emerges from art rock and psychedelia, albeit always filtered through a pitch-black prism that’s also witty enough to produce enduring anthems on the order of “Prison Sex” and “Stinkfist.”
UGLY KID JOE
The sharp-humored rapscallions of Ugly Kid Joe brought subversive wit to hard rock at a peak moment of hair metal overkill. The group spoofed the scene by way of their very name, which is a goof on poodlehead noodlers Pretty Boy Floyd, as well as by titling their debut LP As Ugly as They Wanna Be (a parody of 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be) and scoring a mainstream hit with the nastily funny “(I Hate) Everything About You.”
UKJ enjoyed more success with 1992’s America’s Least Wanted, and went on to carve a unique place for themselves in rock, doing for alternative metal what the Dead Milkmen had done for punk rock: waxing hilarious while never descending into being a mere joke.
Canadian space explorers Voivod combined thrash, speed metal, prog rock, and science fiction as far back as their 1984 debut, War and Pain, and from there, the group blasted off into territories so uniquely their own that even the most adventurous metal explorers never even attempted to follow them.
Every Voivod album has been an event and the band has even successfully soldiered on in the wake of the 2005 cancer death of founding guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour. There’s just no keeping the universe’s mightiest intergalactic metal squadron from continually blasting off from their Canuck launch pad.
White Zombie emerging from the sewer pipes of New York’s dirty, decadent ’80s noise rock scene, albeit always with one crusty boot clearly in the realm of metal.
Named for a 1932 Bela Lugosi fright flick and fronted by a renaissance beast named Rob, White Zombie mutated rapidly into the diabolically danceable devil squad that initially caught mainstream metal fans’ attention in 1994 after Beavis and Butt-head righteously lost their sh-t over the group’s music video for “Thunder Kiss ’65.”
A year later, White Zombie scored such a monster hit (pun intended) with “More Human Than Human” from their Astrocreep: 2000 LP that the it tore the group apart at their Frankenstein-like seams.
Rob Zombie simply kept charging forward, however, creating himself as the 21st century Alice Cooper by way of a succession of classic albums, sold-out concert tours, and unique horror movies he’s directed… and only he knows what’s next.
Ever the high conceptualists, Gwar spun off their side project X-Cops in 1995 with members trading in their elaborate sci-fi/horror costumes for police uniforms.
Inspiration came from guitarist Peter Lee—aka Gwar’s Flattus Maximus—surviving a gunshot by a would-be carjacker. Afterward, Lee says he thought, “What would be cooler than a bunch of cops played kick-ass rock-and-roll?”
X-Cops answered that very question on their Metal Blade album, You Have the Right to Remain Silent….
Jazzy, proggy, Chicago-based avant-garde collective Yakuza have won a dedicated following by way of their take on extreme metal so unique that the group’s saxophonist sounds completely of a rocking piece with the rest of the band.
West Virginian metalcore veterans Zao have been a going concern for twenty-plus years, toured the world repeatedly, delivered a series of acclaimed and highly respected albums, and, here’s the kicker, they’re heavy-duty Christians who music flows from the messages of the Bible. So, yes, Zao is not only alt-metal, they’re alt-alt-metal.