Call it De La Rocha’s Dilemma: how do you make heavy music that’s politically engaged while assuring that the very people you’re targeting aren’t pumping iron to it? When Paul Ryan, the erstwhile shitheel Republican congressman from Wisconsin, revealed that his gym playlist contained songs by Rage Against the Machine, guitarist Tom Morello put out a statement incredulous that someone so antithetical to everything Rage stands for could listen to their music. Yet Rage’s sound is so powerful that one can, with little to no effort, completely cancel out the message. Los Angeles’s System of a Down also made music muscular enough to lift to while tuning out the lyrics, but on “Prison Song” they pushed back against it as hard as they could. A brutally straightforward thesis on America's carceral system, Tankian’s delivery during the verses is flat, almost mocking: “Minor drug offenders fill your prisons you don't even flinch/All our taxes paying for your wars against the new non-rich.” The lyrics don’t rhyme, aren’t melodious and are pushed way up front in the mix while the band whips with the same off-kilter energy as Entertainment!-era Gang of Four. There’s no way to avoid this message. “I buy my crack my smack my bitch right here in Hollywood!” guitarist Daron Malakian screeches, a perverse parody of a hook. It’s all delivered quickly and playfully, but there’s an unmistakable current of despair coursing through. After loudly warning us that “They’re trying to build a prison for you and me,” Tankian collapses. “Oh baby, you and me,” he mourns. During the bridge he’s possessed, enraged-- when declaring “All research and successful drug policies show that treatment should be increased!” clamping down hard on the “all,” stressing that there is no rational reason to be jailing this many people. “And law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences!” “Prison Song”’s lyrics are plain spoken and grounded in fact. Listening now it seems so obvious; it was all so obvious 20 years ago. But it hasn’t been fixed. “They’re trying to build a prison for you and me,” “Prison Song” concludes. They still are.
See Also: Factory 81 "Peace Officer", Nothingface "Here Come the Butchers"
Pleymo’s Episode 2: Medicine Cake is an iconoclastic masterpiece, at once paying tribute to their precursors and daring to reach beyond them at the same time. The references are usually quite clear -- a Slipknot riff here, a Limp Bizkit beat there, a Korn breakdown here -- but “Ce soir c’est grand soir” is Pleymo playing by nobody’s rules but their own. Even among Episode 2’s unflappable consistency “Ce soir” leaps from the fold as the dominant song: the snare is sharper; the guitars are louder; the bass slaps harder. It’s a huge sound that dives headfirst into the kind of innovative layered clean guitars that liquidated “Tank Club”’s verses. Lyrically “Ce soir c’est grand soir” is a million miles from its peers. Google translate tells me the third verse begins:
“Winter 1991. One morning, in a Moscow hospital, an old man was reading his newspaper in a magazine article related to the "medicine cake" affair. [...] He called a nurse and asked her to call inquiries and ask for contact details for Sergeï Kalninitch.”
Personally, I love this shit. It's so far afield of standard nu-metal songwriting, bordering on progressive rock levels of inscrutability, and singer Mark Maggiori's whimsy and zeal wins me over every time. Not to mention, it's in French, which I don't speak but I do delight in the cadences and flows the language unlocks (imagine trying to rap those lyrics in English.) Just when you think you've got some kind of grip on the song, it breaks down into clattering plates and gibberish like dinner service from a Baz Luhrmann movie, and then it breaks down into a 3/4s syncopated outro, played with jaw dropping accuracy and finesse. Nobody in nu-metal was as enthusiastic, as purely passionate, as Pleymo. We're lucky to have captured them at all.
See Also: Pleymo "Muck", Watcha "Sam2", Linea 77 "Cacao"
“Winter 1991. One morning, in a Moscow hospital, an old man was reading his newspaper in a magazine article related to the "medicine cake" affair. [...] He called a nurse and asked her to call inquiries and ask for contact details for Sergeï Kalninitch."
American Head Charge’s 2001 debut The War of Art is an Album with a capital A. What Dark Side of the Moon did for prog, or OK Computer for alternative rock, The War of Art does for nu-metal, creating a series of songs in which every successive second seems to build on the one that came before it until you’re left a tiny ant beholding its massive scale. It is also-- at an hour and seven minutes-- very long and very intense, sometimes too intense to take all in one sitting. When that happens you’ve got this: “Just So You Know” “Just So You Know” covers The War of Art’s two modes - which are driving the tank and getting run over by it - in just 4 minutes. “Just So You Know” is AHC trying to write a pop song and succeeding spectacularly. Imagine Faith No More’s Angel Dust snorted up the nose of Al Jourgenson, who’s not a military school dropout but a four star general. Sing along to the chorus! Delight in the sound effects! Thrill in the power of the middle-8 while you can! Because, before you know it, you’re thrown in front of the treads for a breakdown that brings everything down to a couple sonar blips and a twitchy bassline. Then, "PAUSE. SILENCE. ANOTHER MOMENT DROPPED OFF." Now you're being crushed, run over by 68 tons of military grade engineering; Cameron Heacock's Drill Sargent roar and a band that went from your team to enemy combatants in a snap. And all it was was something beautiful.
See Also: Fear Factory "Edgecrusher", Filter "Columind", Velcra "War is Peace"
You grow up. You open a 401k. You have a stock portfolio. You watch your diet. You listen to Steely Dan regularly. You mix your own ginger shots. You've got it together. And then one day "Break Stuff" shows up in your YouTube recommendations and tears it all down. You listen to it. You watch the video with its skateboarding and cameos. You replay the Woodstock 99 performance-- the ocean of people engaged in combat with both each other and history itself. You're transfixed. You suddenly find the music on your office stereo hopelessly lame. You have no desire to listen to indie rock anymore. Your impeccably tailored slacks suddenly feel impossibly tight. You crave a pair of jeans that drag on the concrete behind you. You unsubscribe from that podcast because everything is just he said/she said bullshit anyway. You don't tell anyone you're back into nu-metal at first, and then one day you can't shut up about it. You feel free. You're liberated. You're a motherfucking chainsaw. You're skinning the world's ass raw.
See Also: Reveille "What You Got", .sPout. "Sicksong"
Taproot’s career didn’t start with their 1999 debut Gift. It got started when one of the most powerful A&Rs in the music industry cussed them out over voicemail. That A&R was Fred Durst. Miffed that the band he discovered signed to Atlantic instead of his Flip imprint, the Limp Bizkit leader called singer Stephen Richards’s voicemail and informed him that their career was now over: “You’re learning right now exactly how to ruin a career before it gets started, all the luck brother, fuck you,” it concludes. This was irresistible bait for music journalists, a part of almost everything written about the band for years, and Taproot themselves played it off as water under the bridge. But, for a young band this had to be stressful. The most inescapable man in nu-metal just went from your biggest fan to your biggest enemy. Luckily, Richards had already written his own best advice. It was time to bring back the old days when he “was in control of [his] life.” For as angry as they might sound, Taproot excelled at dishing out some good common sense advice, and likewise, “Again & Again” excels because of how casually relatable it is. Richards isn't breaking stuff; he doesn't need you to feel his anger, feel his pain; he’s not asking you to hold the Glock against your head; he doesn't want you to shut up when he's talking to you, he just "needs some time to [him]self." The actionability of “Again & Again”’s chorus is why it hits so damn hard. It makes you want to clear your Sunday schedule or book that personal day. This isn’t one step closer, it’s one step back.
See Also: Taproot "I", Unloco "Far Side"
15. Simon Says
When Simon Says released their 1999 debut Jump Start, they had an idea: play free live shows in high school common areas up and down the California coast. Why slug it out to bored crowds waiting for the headliner when they could take it straight to the kids? They dove into these performances with the confidence of a band on the verge of a breakthrough. They connected so well that even those jaded high schoolers couldn't help but join in. Life was good and the future was bright.
Flash forward one year. Simon Says is schlepping it somewhere in Germany, playing a side stage at the Bizarre Festival. That optimistic confidence has been replaced with a hatred so brilliant it’s almost blinding. At one point guitarist Zac Diebels just flat out glares into the camera like he’s about to leap offstage and beat the operator within an inch of his life. What happened? How did a band so fresh faced become so fully defeated within a year?
Prior to the release of Jump Start, Simon Says signed a multi-million dollar deal with Hollywood Records, a subsidiary of Disney, and somehow also signed a promotional deal with Vivid Entertainment, as in the pornography company Vivid Entertainment. Needless to say, Disney wasn’t particularly excited to work with Vivid and, after Jump Start failed to catch on, Simon Says were left for dead. Yet they had a contract to fulfill so back to the studio they went. The result, 2001’s Shut Your Breath, is the sound of four kids finding out that a multi-million dollar record advance is something you have to pay back and feeling pretty fucking pissed about it. The songs come in two flavors; righteously infuriated (“Hey You,” “Silk Moth”) and deliriously exhausted (“Canvas," “El Ess”). “Syphon” is where the former peaks, finding the group at the tail end of a barely-there rope, so angry they literally can’t see straight; “The line blurs out of focus now, my senses gone I’m falling numb again!” The band lunges forward, whipping the dust off their chains. Franks is the focus here; his unhinged howls during the chorus (“WHY hate/ someone when I’VE got YOU”) cut to the marrow. Drummer Mike Johnson turns in an astounding performance, annihilating the song with pinpoint fills delivered with David Grohl-level muscle. But no matter who’s holding the spotlight, “Syphon” is a band effort because the entire band is playing their instruments with the same level of hatred. Hatred for the industry that was shredding them for mulch, yes, but hatred for themselves for getting fooled by it. The music industry is a jagged pathway laden with the bodies of those that got into the game for all the right reasons, were taken advantage of, and abandoned along the way. “Syphon” is the horror of realizing the little passion project you formed with your friends is now an item line on a balance sheet you’ll never see.
See Also: Headplate "Jump the Bridge", Emil Bulls "Hi, It's Me Christ", Spineshank "Play God"
Some roller coasters patiently take you around a curve or two before slowly bringing you to the top of the big hill; others drop the lap bar and go zero to 70 in seconds flat. “(Sic)” is the latter. From second one you’re overwhelmed with an “Oh man, here we go” feeling as “(Sic)” catapults you into the new universe created when Slipknot dropped their self-titled debut in 1999. Ostensibly “(Sic)” has a chorus (“Fuck this shit I’m sick of it you’re going down this is a war”) but taken as a whole it doesn’t feel so much like traditional song structure as much as a band proving to the world that they’re here to take over. Drums, guitars, turntables, vocals all go streaking past your eyes at speeds too fast to comprehend. Slipknot are functioning as a perfect unit, allowing each element a moment of breathing room before exploding into the next drop or whirling around another bend. When "(Sic)" comes to a stop after a ridiculously brief 3 minutes and 19 seconds, you’ll giddily stumble out of the ride and hop right back in line.
See Also: Sw1tched "Exterminate", Celldweller "One Good Reason", Bloodsimple "Straighthate"
Decades of Aaron Lewis's bloviating about gun control (doesn't work) and political correctness (not a fan), his cynical pivot into pandering country slop as well as his current gig (touring the country, wearing "Fuck Biden" t-shirts, lazily moping around the stage while half-heartedly slurring the lyrics to "Raw" with a country accent so fake it crosses clean into parody) have all called into question the work of one of nu-metal's most tortured songwriters. Did he really mean this stuff or does he just enjoy the attention? For one, songs like "For You" are so good it begs you to put those troubling feelings aside. Break the Cycle was Staind's concentrated pop maneuver. As such, "For You" is constructed around hitting the maximum number of jaded, angsty teens as possible. The lyrics are incredibly broad ("To my mother, to my father, it's your son or it's your daughter") to the point that it begs the question of sincerity again ("Is he trying to reach out to all the struggling sons AND daughters or is he trying to double his market share?"), but truthfully, when you're a wounded teen, that shit just doesn't matter. What matters is that it connects. And when "For You" goes hurtling into its massive chorus, with its arresting melodies (the downward swoop of "The silence gets us nowhere" devastates) and Mike Mushok's powerful but restrained guitar work, it connects. By the time Lewis is nakedly begging for attention during the breakdown ("Because I'm fucked up, because you are"), those nagging issues are gone and you're a vulnerable teenager again, crying into your CD player. So did Aaron Lewis mean it? Maybe, maybe not. Did the sons and daughters weeping openly at their concerts while singing every word mean it? Yes. And that's plenty.
See Also: Liquid Sand "Away from the World", 32 Leaves "Never Even There", (intheclear) "Drown"
Intro + singer makes a cool sound + big drop. So far we’ve heard this one three times (“Filth in the Beauty,” “Pollution,” “Bury Me Where I Fall”), and “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” has one too. Stephen Carpenter’s guitar riff fires up, a jagged and brillantine chord, then Chino Moreno delivers a sensual breath and drop. Or, lift? “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” does have that same “get the fuck up” moment, but it never hits the ground. You see this all the time live. When Moreno commands the audience to get the fuck up, they obey, then they stop, confused: “Are we supposed to be jumping or like… crying?”
"Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)" is a zillion-ton explosion of purest snow emotion. The guitar riff billows out in great flowing sheets like Kevin Shields ghostwriting for Faith No More while Chi Cheng and Abe Cunningham hold it down on rhythm. Then Chino starts singing.
The first time you hear Chino unfurl that patient, swooning vocal melody, it takes your breath away, and every time after that you’ll still feel it catch in your chest. In the context of Deftones' career up to that point it's a revelation: the first time they bet it all on singing pretty instead of sputtering rage. Nobody in nu-metal had ever sung like this before. Chino’s insistence that he preferred Radiohead and PJ Harvey to heavy music manifests fully here; this could have been a Radiohead B-side before anything on Roadrunner Records. There’s such piercing sadness in Chino’s screams. “I don’t care where, just far”-- it doesn't matter where they go, he just wants to be taken far away from himself. It’s not necessarily a cathartic release as much as a barely concealed breakdown. He’s crying in the passenger seat on a dark highway, pleading with you to keep driving until it’s all gone.
See Also: Deftones "Minerva", 16Stitch "Things They Say", Balance and Composure "Reflection"
Most of Korn’s golden-era highlights have to bear the weight of history:the one that broke them through on MTV (“A.D.I.D.A.S.”); the one that established their dominance of TRL (“Got the Life”); the one that made them into household names (“Freak on a Leash”); the ones that proved they could evolve past their peak (“Falling Away from Me,” “Make Me Bad”). Hell there’s even the one that invented the entire genre. That’s a lot of weight to bear for one band. “Chi” bears no such weight. 1996’s Life is Peachy is the sound of a band completely unencumbered, feeling themselves at the forefront of something bigger and charging to the head of the pack. Everyone is in top form here-- Munky and Head come up with a brilliant, almost atonal riff, Fieldy whaps the shit out of his bass, Jonathan is at his throat shredding best-- but David Silvera takes his star turn with his greatest drum performance ever, so tight and so creative it had to have been worth all the Calvin Klein ads and lawsuits to come. (Witness this awe inspiring studio video for living proof.) “Chi” is vicious, brutal, thrilling, nasty, catchy, endlessly replayable, and-- as far as the original, purest strain of nu-metal goes-- good as it gets.
See Also: 616 Undone "John's Problem", Head Phones President "Puppet", Eths "Samantha"