Reflecting on The New Wave of American Heavy Metal
Of course I made a New Wave of American Heavy Metal Playlist on Spotify for this article. The list includes the big names and influential innovators, along with some of the lesser acts who I include for historical and nostalgic reasons. I suggest sorting by band, as it will keep it organized as I add more bands. – Drew
Over the last year or so, a narrative has emerged about the New Wave of American Heavy Metal (NWOAHM aka “metalcore”). In short: It’s over. Its legacy is now set into the mausoleum of heavy metal history. Though it’s partly hyperbole, there is some truth to this. The movement is very much in its legacy stage, and it's up to us to decide what that legacy is.
The movement experienced its rise through the underground during the late 90s, fusing the sounds of At the Gates style-riffs, Pantera-esque vocals and production, along with the attitude and breakdowns prevalent in 90s hardcore. As 2003 moved into 2004, it became clear that this sound was the dominant movement in heavy music. Not only did it open the doors for countless other genres, it also brought listeners’ attention back to the canonical sounds of thrash, death and black metal – movements which seemed passe and forgotten in the era of nu-metal.
As with all musical movements, some bands stayed relevant and retained their fanbase, becoming “legacy acts” (e.g. Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, Mastodon, Unearth). Others changed their sound to establish a larger, more mainstream audience (e.g. Avenged Sevenfold). Others fizzled early (e.g. A Dozen Furies, Martyr AD), or slowly faded as the initial buzz and excitement wore off (e.g. Shadows Fall, Chimaira, God Forbid). Still others met with some kind of disaster that makes it impossible to continue (e.g. As I Lay Dying).
With some hindsight, the fate of the NWOAHM looks very similar to it’s early 80s predecessor, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). In both cases, the style never really got struck down or run out of fashion, it simply became subsumed into heavy metal’s wider DNA. Again, some bands became legacy acts (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest), while others faded early (Angel Witch) or changed their sound to appeal to the mainstream (Def Leppard). No one escapes this type of musical darwinism.
As it's been 10 years since the genre really exploded into the metal consciousness, the moment calls for a reflection. Did it change the course of extreme music for the better? I think so. And I don’t just say this because of my age. True, I was 17 in 2004, and this gives me a certain nostalgic bias. But my time of being that age was no more special than that of anyone else. The music stands up well enough on its own merits, and it’s important that metalheads get a sense of where we’ve been over the past decade to better understand where we are now.
An Exciting Time to Be a Metalhead
By 1997, metal had largely exhausted itself, at least as far as any cohesive "scene" was concerned. The glue holding its black wings together had melted off, leaving it to plummet into an ocean of uncertainty. To a great extent, metal had said all it could logically say: Reign in Blood, Effigy of the Forgotten, A Blaze in the Northern Sky and From Enslavement to Obliteration had all been written. Much as bands may try, there was no point in rewriting In the Nightside Eclipse, Obsessed by Cruelty and Onward to Golgotha when they had already made their impact. The rabid core fanbase never totally vanished, but by the late 90s, the major movements of extreme metal – thrash, death metal, black metal and grindcore – had all seen their respective peaks, followed by eventual stasis and disillusion. Therefore, it became very unlikely that audiences beyond the small community of devotees would have a chance to discover this music.
This is of course an oversimplification, open to cries of "but what about such and such record?" It's true that many bands continued to make great metal, but they did so as individual units of creativity, divorced from a discernible artistic community of fans, zines, tape trading and venues.
For the time spanning roughly 1997-2003, the heavy music that mainstream audiences were aware of was dominated by nu-metal. Bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, Orgy, Coal Chamber, Ill Nino and many others took metal’s aggression and distortion, but essentially used the guitar as a percussive instrument. Following the cultural shifts made in rock music in the early 90s, nu-metal kept the lyrics focused on personal matters, but expressed them in more of a matter-of-fact, even sophomoric attitude that ditched grunge’s poetic nuances in favor of histrionics and jeremiads about youthful angst. And by adding elements of hip-hop and electronica, they capitalized on audience demand for music that was energetic, but which didn’t alienate or challenge them in the way metal traditionally would.
But there were also the heavier post-grunge bands. In the fall of 2001, I read an incredibly stupid editorial that declared Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” had signaled the end of the nu-metal era and “changed everything.” It did nothing of the kind. Nu-metal and generic post-grunge had always happily co-existed, with bands from each genre often touring together. Bands like Nickelback, Seether and Default were merely the latest iteration of the marketing strategies that had worked with Bush, Creed and Days of the New a few years earlier.
Still, things had begun to change by the end of 2001. While nu-metal did not suffer a Nevermind-ageddon mass extinction event, its place in the mainstream was eroded by its own ossification, changing tastes and increased access to other styles via the internet. The first blow was the garage rock revival which prompted that October 2002 Rolling Stone cover story: “Rock is Back!” celebrating the rise of “the The Bands.” Short lived as this was, it would preempt the wave of indie and alternative rock that broke in the mid-aughts, eventually leading to the hipsterized balkanization of today’s rock music.
As its mainstream audience began to ebb in 2002, nu-metal was left vulnerable on its metal flank. With virtually no underground network of zines or venues, and a dwindling set of journalists willing to say nice things about it, there was little goodwill to fall back on. Younger audiences, ones who were too young to remember metal’s original heydey, had grown tired of being told that “this is the only form of metal that matters now, guitar solos are for old people, wear these stupid baggy pants!!!” Soon enough, nu-metal became a dirty word, much in the way hair metal had in the early 90s. This has softened over time, as even my own opinion has shifted away from outright hostility (might be that age thing again, I was in middle-school during the nu-metal era) to shrugging indifference.
History has been kinder to System of a Down, Deftones and Slipknot, with each band finding their own way to transcend the cultural limits of nu-metal as a genre. And it’s not as if a light-switch was flipped and everything changed. But 2002 and 2003 were definitely transitional years. There was clearly an emerging audience who wanted something heavy, but without the obligatory nods to hip-hop and goth culture. One need only catch the commercials for Hatebreed’s Perseverance on MTV and Fuse – in daytime rotation (!) – to see that record labels had begun to take notice.
A curious thing happened in the spring of 2003: Headbanger’s Ball came back on the air. Yes, VH1 had the Rock Show with Scott Ian, Fuse had Uranium with Julia, and MuchMusic had Loud (where I first discovered Pantera, Slayer and Celtic Frost). But this was MTV2, and having a metal show with MTV’s name recognition behind it again was a big deal. Metallica wound up hosting the first episode, which dovetailed nicely with the release of their much anticipated album, St. Anger. We all know how that turned out. But in hindsight, it makes a lot of sense. Here was the biggest metal band of all time, trying to find itself again but still hamstrung by the musical norms of the time. And here was the metal audience, trying to get back in touch with its true self, but left to put up with the dissatisfying wash of solo-less, superficial drivel.
But later in 2003, Jamey Jasta was pegged as the new host, and the show released its first compilation. Check out the tracklist. Though it's dominated by nu-metal, there were some fresh names there as well: Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall, Chimaira, Lamb of God, Unearth, Mastodon and As I Lay Dying. Most of these bands had released their debut albums earlier, but were now gaining a much larger following. Though not American, the presence of In Flames and Cradle of Filth is worth noting. These bands, along with Dimmu Borgir and Children of Bodom, took more accessible versions of extreme metal and brought them to a wider audience. Opeth and Enslaved weren’t too far behind either. A few years earlier, the idea of these bands getting played on an MTV show would have been laughable.
Now look at the compilations for September 2004 and April 2006. By the last compilation, the ratio had flipped completely and irreversibly. There was also the 2003 Headbanger’s Ball Tour, featuring Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, God Forbid and Shadows Fall. And then there was that year’s New England Metal and Hardcore Fest, soon to become an annual mainstay for the emerging metal audience. If you wanted to get a good snapshot of what was going on, it'd be hard to beat the commercial below:
Even Ozzfest took notice. Look at the lineups and scroll down to 2001 and 2002, mostly nu-metal right? Now scroll through 2003 and look at 2004. By the summer of 2004 (my first Ozzfest), things had changed completely, as Slipknot remains the only nu-metal band left on the bill. When I went to Ozzfest 2005 (the Hartford date…with the huge mud-fight), even with the presence of Mudvayne, nu-metal seemed like a distant memory. Doc Coyle of God Forbid mentions this as well in his excellent article, told from a musician's perspective.
Headbanger’s Ball and Ozzfest both offer a high-level view of the changing metal milieu, but this obscures millions of individual experiences. It’s not just that the concert lineups and music videos had changed, the entire conversation around metal had shifted. Guitar solos, screaming vocals and blastbeats were back. Bands cared about writing good riffs again. Old bands started coming back together, while others stopped making god-awful, time-wasting hard rock records. Listeners had a pathway to death metal, black metal and grindcore again, this time with an updated frame of reference. And with the other side of it's heritage, the NWOAHM gave metalheads a reason to check out punk and hardcore again. It gave you a reason to seek out those classic and influential records you might have missed. I had been introduced to death metal and black metal a little earlier, but it was through the NWOAHM that my taste for these sounds was able to develop.
And I don't mean to say that the NWOAHM was the only big thing going on in underground metal at this time, that would be absurd. Bands like Leviathan, Xasthur, Taake and Tsuder were firing off glorious salvos of darkness and brutality, but unless you were a bit older or connected to just the right person, you may have missed these releases at the time. More to the point, readers passionate about these bands now might have reached them through the entryway of the NWOAHM, which gives me an easy transition to the next section.
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