The short-lived success of nu metal
By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor
Nu metal, sometimes written as nü metal—not “noooo it’s not metal,” although you might hear that screamed by the plenty of heavy metal purists—as a genre has the reputation for being what kids listen to when they think they’re trying to be hardcore, but whether or not it truly counts as metal is up for the listener to decide.
Nu metal is about as fusion as you can get for a genre, as it is derived from heavy metal, hip hop, funk, grunge, rap, and a little of everything else. With so many different influences across a broad sonic spectrum, it’s hard to name just a few. From the rock and metal side, acts like Anthrax, Rage Against the Machine, and Pantera can probably identified as forerunners; for hip hop, various nu metal artists have named musicians from Dr. Dre to the Wu-Tang Clan as inspiration.
Although the stylistic sources are diverse, nu metal definitely emerged from the era of grunge and alternative metal in the early ’90s that had pushed metal into the mainstream. Metal had gotten popular, and in music popular usually means stale. The genre needed something fresh, something reinvigorating.
That innovation was introduced by Korn (stylized as KoЯn), widely hailed as the first nu metal band. Formed in Bakersfield, California in 1993, the group released their self-titled debut album in 1994. The record’s angry vocals, down-tuned seven-string guitars, and hip-hop-reminiscent riffs were later cited as influences by a lot of other groups. As for Korn’s own influences, they point to a lot of big names in heavy metal like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Slayer, but Korn’s sound is also drawn from funk and hip-hop, and in a 2015 interview with Vice music channel Noisey, frontman Jonathan Davis said he’s always considered Korn a funk band.
Alongside Korn, Deftones—also from California—were12w another pioneer of nu metal, with their first album Adrenaline (1995) featuring an experimental blend of metal, progressive, grunge, and rap. But it was still a pretty niche genre, and didn’t gain much attention outside its fanbase. Brazillian metal band Sepultura, with 1996’s Roots, marked a more definite push into the wider metal scene.
It’s not completely clear when the label “nu metal” was first applied. At first the genre was known as neo-heavy metal, but at some point it got shortened to “nu metal.” The term is often credited to producer Ross Robinson, who’s been given the title “Godfather of Nu Metal,” as he was the producer for some of the genre’s giants. Robinson was behind Korn’s first two albums, Sepultura’s Roots, and the band that would really launch nu metal into the spotlight: Limp Bizkit.
With Robinson, the rap-rock group from Florida released their debut Three Dollar Bill, Y’all in 1997, with a sound that was intentionally aggravating and abrasive, as much designed to repulse listeners as their name. Also in 1997 came the debut albums of Coal Chamber, Sevendust, and Papa Roach, and the second album by Deftones. Nu metal had taken on a definite sound, and it was starting to take radio waves by storm—and not just in the rock world.
Korn’s third album Follow the Leader hit number one on the Billboard 200 in 1998, a feat repeated by their next album Issues the following year. Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other did the same in 1999. Slipknot also landed onto the scene in 1999 with their self-titled debut, and, although they had a sound that was significantly harder than the more rap- and funk-infused sounds of others in the genre, they were still often labelled nu metal. One latecomer to the genre, but one of its most significant, was Linkin Park, who released Hybrid Theory in late 2000 to massive commercial success. It was the best-selling album of the year, and the best-selling debut album of the 21st century.
Around the turn of the millennium, nu metal was everywhere, topping charts and dominating MTV with the backing of major record labels. But, like so many musical trends, it grew too huge to the point of oversaturation, as record companies pushed forward band after band that tried to reproduce the sound. Album sales for Limp Bizkit’s Results May Vary (2003), while still high, were significantly lower than their previous releases. The same was true for Korn’s Take a Look in the Mirror (2003). Deftones had already diverged significantly from nu metal with White Pony in 2000, which was considerably more musically experimental, and a lot of other artists similarly turned away from nu metal. Slipknot delved deeper into death and thrash metal; Papa Roach went for a straight rock sound, dropping rap from its style; and emo, metalcore, and other genres started to grow in popularity. By the middle of the decade, it was clear that tastes had turned.
Nu metal certainly isn’t outstandingly popular anymore, but for all the flak it receives, it has definitely left its mark. Linkin Park is still one of the biggest bands out there, and although the electronic-infused style of their later albums doesn’t bear much resemblance to their early-2000s releases, 2014’s The Hunting Party was something of a musical return to their earlier style. Korn has been churning out music with their characteristic groove the entire time, and their twelfth studio album The Serenity of Suffering came out in late 2016. It sounds like there is still new life for nu metal.