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Brandon Boyd had all the answers. Witness, dreadlocked and blissed out somewhere in Europe, excited enough about his life that he has the nerve to imply his band’s
combinations of turntables and guitars were confusing the masses. Several years after 311 first hired a full time DJ and a year after Fred Durst poached DJ Lethal for Limp Bizkit, Boyd muses “We’re a little more difficult to understand at first.” If Incubus were ahead of anything it was selling nu-metal up the river. Just three short years after S.C.I.E.N.C.E. guitarist Mike Einziger would crow to Spin Magazine, "We just really turned our backs on it completely [...] [rap-metal] is a very horrible place to be. We don't want to be part of anyone's little bullshit scene." The shame of this was how effortless Incubus made this little bullshit scene their own. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is a funky swirl of half remembered Adult Swim cartoons, decayed educational film reels, and bonfire jam sessions assembled by those guys in high school that swore they did better on tests while high and actually did. You can practically see the band oohing and aahing at each other as Brandon Boyd explains the central metaphor of “A Certain Shade of Green” or giggling for hours looping “Magic Medicine”s samples. It should grate but it comes together with tight, dedicated musicianship and the undeniable wonder of inspiration. Incubus' S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is the shock of throwing everything at the wall and watching it all stick.
29. 36 Crazyfists
Bitterness the Star
Post-hardcore’s relationship to nu-metal can be described as, at best, strained and at worst quite hostile. The two genres shared elbow room in the late 90s and, during the early
00’s, started jockeying for position as record labels wondering if it was going to be the new outlet of choice for angered teens signed bands like At the Drive In, Thursday, Blindside, and Alexisonfire. Refer to any of those as nu-metal and expect to get flamed by aging LiveJournal survivors but stand firm for Anchorage, Alaska’s own 36 Crazyfists. Clearly post-hardcore in many respects (lots of screamy yelling with emo breakdowns) but even more nu-metal in others (low, stringy bass sound; drop tuned guitars; bounce riffs) their debut album Bitterness the Star is so packed with consistently excellent emoting it plays more like a greatest hits than a proper album. Maybe if Ross Robinson had discovered 36 Crazyfists instead of Glassjaw he would have signed them to save “Adidas rock” instead of kill it.
28. System of a Down
System of a Down
[American Recordings; 1998]
Like mischievous imps dancing around our popular culture, System of a Down ingested the sociopolitical landscape and return it as absurdist tragicomedy. When “Sugar” breaks
down into a jazzy snap or Serj Tankian shoots his voice into a mocking falsetto on “DDevil” (“Stupid people do stupid things smart people outsmart them / Then themselves! Then themselves!”) It feels like being laughed at by someone and laughing with them at the same time. “If you own the light post then you own the working class” taunts “Suggestions,” a political truth just obscure enough to fly over your head the first time you hear it. “War?” describes a world where mass murder is ordained by God first, building to a haunting refrain “We don’t speak anymore of war” that circles like klaxons sounding in the dark. When System do come down to earth with us on “Spiders'' it is to mourn, hushed and reverent then a lonesome cry, “Before you know I will be waiting, all awake.”
[TVT Records; 1999]
A strange thing happens during Sevendust’s star-making set at the infamous Woodstock 99– a rainbow. Witnessing this awe inspiring display of natural phenomena, the band’s
singer, Lajon Witherspoon, proceeds to ask the massive sweaty brawling moshing crowd to look at the rainbow. Actually, he demands it. “Look at that fuckin’ rainbow y’all!” Witherspoon whoops with childlike glee, “Everyone look at the rainbow!!” It was a perfect moment (and maybe the greatest pit call of all time) for a band who crafted battle cries for the bench press on record and displayed a hard won easygoing generosity in person. Their peak, 1999’s Home, followed that triumphant Woodstock set with that same confidence a heavy metal band needs to demand a legendarily violent crowd bear witness to a rainbow. With a voice like the singer formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby on Ozzfest, Witherspoon sings with a radient passion buttressed by backing vocalist Clint Lowrey’s post-grunge conviction and drummer Morgan Rose’s headset mic adrenaline spiked outbursts. It’s an incredibly underrated and effective triple vocal attack. When they bounce off each other on airtight bangers like “Reconnect” and “Waffle” you can hear the brotherhood in their voices. So open were their hearts that when Skunk Anansie’s Skin and Deftones’ Chino Moreno make guest appearances, Sevendust is happy to cede the spotlight to them and gets two of their best ever songs in return.
26. Papa Roach
The first lyric of the first verse on Papa Roach’s major label debut Infest is “My name’s Coby Dick! Mr. Dick if you’re nasty!” A bizarre moment on multiple fronts— first, Coby Dick
is not lead singer Jacoby Shaddix’s name and second Infest is not an album that asks you to be nasty. It asks if you’re traumatized, reassures you you’re not alone, and begs you to hold tight till the next chorus. Bolstered by an undeniable lead single and a friendly MTV, Papa Roach were a nu-metal breakout right as that phenomenon was becoming scarce. The plainspokeness of songs like “Last Resort” and “Broken Home” are about finding the shortest path to catharsis and taking it. Shaddix’s rap delivery is never less than right up in your face, begging you to get your shit together and live to see another day. An unstoppable side-A secedes to a near conceptual side-B, wracked with the nervy paranoia of their hometown Vacaville’s empty lots and baked pavements. Songs like “Revenge” and “Snakes” are stories of youthful recklessness wreaking real consequences while “Thrown Away” and “Binge” are the downward spiral reaching bottom. But before the album can end disparagingly, Papa Roach pull themselves to their feet with hopeful reggae closer “Tightrope.” And sure, its “Ras Trent with a wallet chain” skank is an overreach but they reach for it anyway, with an open heart and passionate eyes ready to help you scream your way to safety again.
The Height of Callousness
If adolescence is about drilling big gobs of gnarled hormonal muck from your chest and throwing them at whoever is around then discovering Spineshank’s The Height of
Callousness during that tender era is like someone handing you an industrial strength boring machine. Imagine a remake of the Keanu Reeves runaway bus thriller Speed but it’s Nine Inch Nails at Woodstock ‘94 and if the crowd stops moshing the stage explodes. Johnny Santos screams, pants, fumes and howls like he’s speedrunning puberty. His opening roar, “COME AHHHHHHN!”, sounds both like invitation to get the fuck up and personal plea to get this shit over with. Songs like “Synthetic” and “New Disease'' are hard enough to make Fear Factory faint and hooky enough to make Roadrunner cut checks while “Asthmatic” could have been the opening credits to the greatest action movie Vin Diesel ever made. Yet for all its whip crack and thunder The Height of Callousness is about confronting the things you don’t like about your environment and aspiring to change. Santos dispenses with poetry in favor of just hashing shit out; “The contradictions you live / Have canceled out the truth / The desperation you show / Is just the focal point,” goes a particularly straightforward stanza from “Malnutrition.” Eventually becoming a good man means understanding the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Asserting your moral righteousness. Being whole and undivided. But sometimes you’ve gotta tear all that shit down and scream “Fuck integrity!” When you do, The Height of Callousness will be there.
With 1996’s Roots Sepultura accomplished what Anthrax, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, Rage Against the Machine, and Ministry either couldn’t or wouldn’t; make the leap
from being proto-nu metal to nu-metal. 1993’s Refuse/Resist was almost there, the riffs thrashed less and bounced more, groovy enough that they started to lift up instead of beat down, while the solos got simpler and more “wah”-pedaled. Following the success of Refuse/Resist, Sepultura decamped to Brazil, nu-metal messiah producer Ross Robinson in tow, for guidance. There they found drums. Drums so resonate they dedicate an entire 13 minutes (“Canyon Jam”) to them sounding off into the night like tracer fire and it somehow feels necessary, a finale of quiet reflection to conclude an album that is otherwise exhilaratingly brutal. Anthems like “Roots Bloody Roots” and “Attitude” are dangerously powerful, with singer Max Cavalera’s war cries either compelling you to topple the government or push your squat max at the gym. This sense of adventure, of bravery, made Sepultura into something like a global phenomenon, attracting admirers from all tiers of the music scene. Witness young Bjork looking like she’s about to explode with excitement at the prospect of catching their set at a festival in Belgium. “I really love their energy,” she gushes, “It seems a very honest energy.”
If Deftones are the Radiohead of Metal then Adrenaline is their Pablo Honey— the consensus dud. The fandom rejects it on purely moral grounds (rapping, ew) and
“Deftones Ranked” is usually shorthand for “Adrenaline Last.” At glance this makes sense. Far from the polished efforts to follow, Adrenaline is a weird, squirly little record. The vocals, recorded live into one handheld Shur microphone, are fresh scrapes on naked skin. Moreno would rapidly become one of nu-metal’s most distinct melodists but here he’s feeling his way forward, stumbling through streams of consciousness mutters, raps and painful shrieks. Yet, it’s never less than a thrill to hear him clawing his way towards his own distinct style in real time. You’re in the rehearsal room right with them, feeling the passion of knowing they're onto something good and the frustration of not being there yet. And while its songs aren’t making any “Outer Space” YouTube compilations anytime soon, Adrenaline has its own distinct atmosphere. Heat waves radiating off of “Bored”s hazy California malaise while twin ragers “Root” and “Engine No. 9” are sweaty basement shows, bodies thrown against bodies. On “Minus Blindfold” Moreno relays suburban adventures through his house phone: “You had to prove me right and then we did and that son of a bitch he swerved, almost hit two kids.” Then there’s closer “Fist,” pointing the way forward. A near wordless, formless jam it proceeds with quiet post-punk guitar touches, cultivating two minutes of patient build before Moreno unleashes a melodic wail that slices through the speakers. It’s a breath-catching moment, one that portends all greatness to come. Deftones would ascend to higher heights but the exposed nerve of Adrenaline is unrepeatable and essential.
22. Coal Chamber
Coal Chamber is a groove. Not lyrics, not songwriting and certainly not melody - just groove. Chiefly, whatever drummer Mike Cox could summon the rest of the band simply got
onboard. The guitars rarely move beyond the first three frets, the bass is a weedy blurt, the singer a grunting maniac. Coal Chamber is nu-metal reduced to little more than bone and broth. So why? What makes this a classic? Well, that aforementioned groove is deep. Deep enough that vocalist Dez Fafara understood his job was more hypeman than frontman. His lyrics are toasts; “Me loco!” “Big truck!” “So hypnotic!” Sussing for meaning would be like parsing Mike & Ike candies for nutrition. Released in 1997, Coal Chamber headed up nu-metal’s glammeier LA scene. The band did their part, dressing like Halloween store managers fired for boosting merchandise and made themselves mainstays of metal mags in the process. The hardscrabble success of Coal Chamber would clear the lane for similar Whisky A-Go-Go workhorses like Static-X, System of a Down, and Orgy. Another wing of the nu-metal movement was open for business.
[Locomotive Music; 2002]
Stepa’s self-titled debut is one of nu-metal’s most precious secrets. Passed around in .zip files and Google drives before finally making it to streaming services just this year, Stepa is an
Interscope bankrolled effort that ended up buried, its major label origins revealed by songs as accessible as the genre’s most successful records while standing well outside of them. An extended psychedelic meditation on innocence close enough to taste but far enough away to be understood as gone, Stepa is filled with fantastical aquariums, Rubiks Cubes, and eye candy intermingling with LucasArts SFX and 7-string guitar. “Confusion, simple brain, stupid frown on a pretty face,” singer Blake Beckman ponders on “Free” like a child staring with wide eyes at the adults around him. “When’s- it- my- turn- to explode / Ha ha ha!” Beckmann shrieks on “Mountain”. “I feel so happy I could… I feel so happy I could…” he howls, an unfinished thought lost in excitement like a child whose second serving of mozzarella sticks just touched down. There’s trauma here too, rendered in packicky distant dream logic. “Spaceships and Airplanes,” another seemingly perfect pop-nu-metal glimmer that becomes darker with successive listens, is about the death of Beckmann’s brother in a car accident. “Let him go! Free and strong!” he wails through the breakdown before consoling, “I am with you wherever you are right now.” Trafficking real tragedy in the kind of innocent angst nu-metal provides, it’s a deeply touching moment, the beating heart at the center of Stepa’s curiosities.
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