Aaahhh nu metal...the heavy sub-genre that took the world by storm in the mid 1990s through the early 2000s. You love to hate it; you hate to love it. In actuality, many tried and true metalheads utterly despise the movement. I remember getting in arguments with the Shadows Fall guys back in the day. Vocalist Brian Fair memorably stated, "There was nothing wrong with 'old' metal." Touché.
I was much more open-minded to experimentations with the familiar heavy metal tropes. I grew up in urban, integrated New Brunswick, New Jersey. Hip hop and street culture left its mark on everything. From fashion, to the vernacular and the music, hip hop culture predictably amalgamated itself into all facets of life. Even the hardcore scene I came up in was also extremely urbanized. From bands like E-Town Concrete, Fury of Five, Madball, and Biohazard, it was no surprise that nu metal would arise out of this melding of hip hop and and rock right into the mainstream. I just liked heavy music that was interesting, even if my heart was with more with traditional thrash-based heavy metal.
It should be said that despite my open-mindedness, there was plenty of objectively bad, bad nu metal. Let's face it: they were throwing big record deals to pretty much anyone with baggy jeans, spiky bleached hair, and eyebrow piercings. Like grunge before it, there wasn't a high musical proficiency requirement to create passable nu metal. All you needed was the adequate angst and the effective bounce. The biggest early nu metal bands like Korn, Slipknot, Linkin Park, and Deftones are still very successful. Disturbed just landed their 5th consecutive number one album on the US Billboard charts, and yet the genre doesn't get the respect it deserves from the high-minded metal intelligentsia. Matter of fact, most of the bands mentioned here won't even want to be referred to as or be associated with nu metal.
Recently, there have been several nostalgia-infused listicles highlighting popular nu metal albums, but here are some of my favorite albums of the genre that have stood the test of time. They contain artistic merit and deserve respect—and a thorough revisiting.
Onesidezero - Is This Room Getting Smaller? (2001)
Not dissimilar from the Djent scene emerging as a sacrament to Meshuggah, at some point sounding like Tool became a sub-genre of rock. Although that is a little misleading as many of these bands were actually ripping off A Perfect Circle, because of it's easier-to-grasp melody and simpler rhythms. In any event, I found most of it unmoving. Examples would be Chevelle, Evan's Blue, or 10 Years. They weren't bad, but it just wasn't my cup of tea.
This Onesidezero record though...there was a depth and constructive elegance to the instrumentation, as well as an emotional truthfulness that permeated the recording. I would put them more in the Katatonia, Karnivool wing of Maynard worship. That distinction is important. I also have a theory that Tool takes so long between albums that you are allowed to fall in love with one Tool copycat every five years to satiate your needs.
American Head Charge - The War of Art (2001)
I covered American Head Charge in my mixtape article a while back. I hadn't listened to The War of Art in at least a decade, and I realized I didn't appreciate the album as much as I should have. I loved "Song For the Suspect", but I really wanted to like the album more back in 2001.
Now I'm hearing the album with fresh ears, and I love it. There are a few key takeaways: (1.) The album doesn't have many conventional radio "hits," but it pulls you in a more seductive manner. (2.) The production is absolutely fantastic. (3.) They managed to be a nu metal band without being cheesy. (4.) There is a lot of industrial influence that reminds me of Ministry. (5.) Lead singer Cameron Heacock is incredible. I get goosebumps when he opens up and really sings, (6.) Sometimes, a record can be a slow burn. The later Faith No More albums grew on me in the same way.
Incubus - S.C.I.E.N.C.E. (1997)
Time has a way concealing humble beginnings. Incubus might be known currently as a light rock band that woos young ladies with their pretty-boy frontman. Only the old school fans know that Brandon Boyd used to be a bearded, dread-lock adorned, dirty hippy. Incubus cut their teeth as a funky, bouncy ode to Faith No More in the hey day of nu metal, while touring with Ozzfest, Family Values Tour, Soulfly, and System of a Down. The style on S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is something I wish the band would have maintained throughout the years, even though it is abundantly clear that their creative changes reaped massive commercial rewards. This album just rocks top-to-bottom. The band truly found their voice on their follow up and breakout record, Make Yourself (1999), but S.C.I.E.N.C.E. will always be the album that made me fall in love with Incubus. I wish more bands would follow the adventurous approach they took to oddly blending genres.
40 Below Summer - Invitation To The Dance (2001)
Maybe this is my New Jersey homerism bleeding into the article, but these Jersey boys made a record that stands the test of time. Invitation To The Dance has many common nu metal hallmarks, with their closest influence, to my ears, being Korn. However, I would not put 40 Below Summer in the Korn clone category, of which there were many. My favorite thing about the band is their effective use of melody and dynamics. The heavy parts hit hard because they knew how to utilize the negative space. This was reflective of many of the great local NJ bands.
Vocalist Max Illidge also brought a creative and experimental twist to the sing/scream interplay. Nu metal doesn't get enough credit for vocalists like Illidge, David Draiman, and Jonathan Davis' willingness to stretch the boundaries of what's acceptable by hard rock and metal singers. 40 Below Summer reunited several years back, added E-Town Concrete guitarist, Dave Mondragon, and have a new album forthcoming. Check out a new track here.
Alien Ant Farm - ANThology (2001)
In a way, Alien Ant Farm's infamous cover of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" is the best and worst thing to happen to the band. It put them at the forefront of rock radio with a reimagined '90s staple, but the schtick overshadowed the great songwriting and excellent musicianship of the band itself. It's probably unfair to label Alien Ant Farm as nu metal to begin with, as they are primarily a rock band, but they certainly came along with the wave of quirky, energetic nu metal standouts like Papa Roach. Watching this incredibly entertaining music video for "Movies" makes me reminisce for the days when major label video budgets afforded high-level production and concepts. In all honesty, I have not kept up with the band since ANThology, but this album holds up great and puts a big smile on my face. I highly recommend you dust it off and give it a spin.
Chimaira - Pass Out of Existence (2001)
As good friends as I am with the Chimaira guys, I hope they won't mind me calling their debut, Pass Out of Existence, nu metal. Chimaira essentially pulled the same move as Incubus, but instead of morphing into sensitive rock, Chimaira stormed vehemently in the other direction. They employed more traditional thrash and death metal influences, and joined the New Wave of American Metal movement on their breakout album, Impossibility of Reason (2003). While I would count Impossibility as the better record, their debut has been somewhat lost to history. Tracks like "Let Go," "Dead Inside," and "Painting The White To Grey" absolutely crush. Their take on nu metal at the time brought the machine gun precision of a band like Fear Factory, but also a sinister and dissonant darkness, and stomping breakdowns that made them favorites in the hardcore scene. I think they really were doing something different with the nu metal sound, and it should be acknowledged, even if the band itself moved on musically not too long after.
Ill Niño - Revolution Revolución (2001)
Another New Jersey band. Another Roadrunner band. Another 2001 album. Apparently, this article contains some consistent themes. I remember not loving the record when I first heard it, and then I saw the band live on Ozzfest 2001. The energy contained in the material and the explosive band performance was completely undeniable. They stole the show. If you aren't a diehard fan, they might have fallen off your radar, but Ill Niño has maintained a very solid global career in the 15 years since the release of Revolution Revolución . Whether you look at live crowd reactions, Spotify listens, or Youtube views, Ill Niño's debut is still their most impactful album. They wrote straight up hits. If that's not enough to convince you, just remember that at their peak, no nu metal band ever had more dread-locks, per square inch.
Soulfly - Soulfly (1998)
Almost immediately after defecting from Sepultura, Max Cavalera's introduction of Soufly was an interesting creative statement. Previously, Sepultura would reinvent their sound on every album from quasi-death metal to definitive thrash, to power-groove, to prototypical nu metal with Roots (1996). This time, Cavalera didn't change much at all. Soulfly is sonically almost a sequel to Roots, and the core tonality of Soulfly remained singular in their early work. These days, it's difficult to determine the difference between modern Soufly and Max's (supposedly) thrashier counterpart, Cavalera Conspiracy. Across the board, the thrash is back. With regard to nu metal, I don't know if any record personifies the heart and soul of the genre more than Soulfly, possibly with the exception of Korn's debut: it features a classic Ross Robinson production, guest appearances by Fred Durst and Chino Moreno, and some of the most memorable songs of their career.
Nothingface - Violence (2000)
If a band isn't good live, I will seriously question their legitimacy. I have a stark memory of seeing Nothingface open for Mudvayne the week that L.D. 50 was released. Mudvayne was brand new, but had significant major label push, and Nothingface just blew them off the stage. No offense to Mudvayne, but Nothingface was just more polished and established in that moment, and they earned my respect.
What made them standout from many of the other nu metal bands was that Nothingface, as Jamey Jasta would say, was HAAAAARRDDD. They were heavy like a hardcore or metalcore band. Violence is their most impressive and complete work. This band and album are underrated because the band unjustly never reached the status of their peers, and they were clearly equally as talented. Singer Matt Holt had Corey Taylor-level chops, and fantastic guitarist Tom Maxwell eventually went on to the much more successful band, Hellyeah, ironically with members of Mudvayne.
Bloodsimple - A Cruel World (2005)
Bloodsimple was the teaming up of Vision of Disorder alums Tim Williams and Mike Kennedy, who flirted with nu metal on their 2001 album, From Bliss To Devastation, and nu metal veterans Kyle Sanders (Medication, Hellyeah) and Chris Hamilton (Downset). A Cruel World is one of the best sounding records of the genre, and is infectious the whole way through. I just love Tim Williams' voice. He can do everything from a Laney Staley-esque croon to pitched barks, and savage screeches. Bloodsimple's more straight-forward approach suited his talents extremely well. Despite the band getting a very decent push, this record just wasn't heard by enough people. Their major sin was just coming around too late, after the nu metal ship had more or less sailed. For me, the follow-up album, Red Harvest, just didn't quite have the magic of their debut. Make sure to pick up this hidden gem.
Sevendust - Animosity (2001)
I am a Sevendust superfan. I've seen them more times than any band I haven't toured with. I've been with them since the beginning. They still have a great career, a dedicated fanbase, and probably get more respect than any other nu metal band besides Slipknot. So why do I say Animosity is underrated? Because I think it's their best album, front-to-back, and the album that should have taken Sevendust from a gold selling artist to multi-platinum.
Based on quality of songs, live performance, and star power, Sevendust deserves be up there with Disturbed, Godsmack, and Five Finger Death Punch— at the top of the charts, dominating rock radio, and headlining arenas. I just think their record label, TVT, was ill-equipped to give the album the push it needed to succeed in the mainstream. I would single out classic songs off the album, but to me, it's like a rock version of Thriller; almost every song on Animosity is a classic, and will bring the house down if they play it live. I was listening to it while writing this article, and singing in my house like an asshole. Yep...
Linkin Park - Hybrid Theory (2000)
Hybrid Theory is the biggest nu metal album all time, and Linkin Park have been distancing themselves from the nu metal tag since it's release. It is certified Diamond in the US. What is Diamond you ask? That means it's sold over 10 million albums in the United States. How can an album be considered underrated with such astronomical sales? Nickelback sells just as many albums, but no one is breaking their arm to pat them on the back either.
As a piece of unimpeachable pop-rock, I would put Hybrid Theory up there with Def Leppard's Hysteria, Aerosmith's Get A Grip, or Foo Fighter's Colour And The Shape, where the sheer quantity of massive hit songs is difficult to comprehend. To understand how difficult this is to achieve, you'd have to be the type music listener that actually appreciates "hit" songs in a non-cynical fashion. Linkin Park are still one of the biggest bands in the world, and their influence is currently manifesting in a way that is culturally palpable, through emerging bands like Bring Me The Horizon, Issues, Of Mice And Men, and countless others. Hybrid Theory is still the gold standard for what classifies as a true crossover album, in a time where rock albums crossing over has gone virtually extinct. This collection of songs hold up in a way that makes me yearn for likeminded, unironic ambition.