Evanescence may have rejected the label of “Christian band,” but plenty of Christian music critics were happy to revoke it from them as well. Writing for PluggedIn, the media watchdog branch of the evil conservative Christian Focus on the Family tree, Bob Waliszewski warned of the "album's darkness and inner turmoil" and claimed songs like “Tourniquet” would confuse “despondent young fans” with lyrics that refer to "Christ as ‘my suicide.’” This failure of imagination is twofold: the inability to recognize that rendering pain and suffering directly with no filter can be a healing act is a big failure; the failure to recognize how Christianity indirectly and directly glorifies suicide is a much larger one. The Bible abounds with tales of noble Christian martyrs dying for their Lord and receiving their treasures in heaven and heaven itself is sold as a pure endless paradise with no more pain or strife. As a young, hurting teen, reading these stories inevitably compels one to ask, “If earth is such suffering, why not take my own life now?” “Tourniquet," a cover of a song by Soul Embraced but absolutely owned by singer Amy Lee for Evanescence, finds Lee during a desperately dark night of the soul, wracked with pain and pleading for release (“My wounds cry for the grave”) and wondering if Jesus will welcome her into heaven (“Will you be on the other side or will you forget me?”) despite taking her own life (“Am I too lost to be saved?”) When the song builds to a climactic scream of “I want to die!” it chills the blood, she's dangling from the edge but holding on. Millions of teens followed Christian fatalism to its logical conclusion but bands like Evanescence were lanterns in the dark for millions more.
9. System of a Down "Chop Suey"
Despite being very possibly the most acclaimed nu-metal song of all time, System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” is rarely engaged seriously on its own merits. It’s all “Wake up! Grababaldsfghairle MAKEUP!” or anecdotes about how the lyrics were picked at random from a book in Rick Rubin’s house or the seeming non-sequitur title. “Chop Suey!” is typically engaged with at arms length because “Chop Suey!” is a frightening, bracing song about domestic abuse.
Those garbled, oft parodied lyrics are, after all, "Grab a brush and put a little makeup/Hide the scars to fade away the shake-up." The juxtaposition of ordinary domestic happenings-- the makeup brush, the keys on the table-- and snapshots of depressingly ordinary abuse-- scars from the "shakeup", the fury of perceived failures ("Why'd you leave the keys upon the table?") and gaslighting ("Here you go creating another fable")-- is delivered so fast and so furiously by singer Serj Tankian it's like watching your parents fight from the backseat of a minivan. From there, it tips into something stranger as the profane and the divine start to commingle: "I cry when angels deserve to die." Referring to women as "angels,” beings of deceptive purity that seek to injure or humiliate the narrator, is a commontropeamongcertain strains of alternative rock. In this context the narrator seems to have found a "self-righteous" reason to hurt their partner. When Tankian quotes Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane ("Father into your hands I command my spirit!") he sounds unhinged, near murderous in his religious conviction.
"Chop Suey!" is stunning; magisterial with its beautiful string arrangements, yet wacky with its off-the-rails delivery and sudden shifts in tone. Hidden just below the silly, memeable surface is mania, delirious and threatening in its tenacity.
In the late 80s, rap music impacted the pop universe with such incredible force and innovation that popular rock was shocked into nostalgia. Rap could consume as many genres as it wanted, as fast as it wanted, while remaining fundamentally rap; meanwhile, rock could only go so far before it became something else. Unable to retaliate, rock 'n' roll began a downward cycle of insular self-congratulation. Nu-metal met rap’s challenge, eagerly snatching up different genres into its fold without sacrificing the fundamental nu-ness. Orgy mastermind Jay Gordon, already seasoned from producing Coal Chamber's 1997 debut album, sought to combine 80s new wave with nu-metal, and he pulled it off with unbelievable panache. “Stitches,” and Orgy’s debut Candyass, is one of nu-metal’s true auditory thrills, gorging on the most upscale European sounds and stripping them for scrap. The acts “Stitches” lifts from-- New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan-- are some of pop music’s most well worn reference points but nobody was underpinning them with an A-tuned 7-string grind that reorients the musical center of the world to Bakersfield. It’s distinctively nu-metal in all the right ways while also being sexy, slinky and fashionable to a degree nobody else could touch.
Anchorage, Alaska is nobody’s new Seattle, but it is the place that 36 Crazyfists scraped their way out from at the turn of the century with 2002’s Bitterness the Star, an uncanny fusion of nu-metal and post-hardcore that peaks on lead single “Slit Wrist Theory.” The lyrics to “Slit Wrist Theory” could have come from some ancient parchment as much as a spiral bound notebook: “With the absence of eye, I can start to bleed again/With the color of hearts it seems like you wear right thin.” Lindow’s words, plus a delivery that could accurately be described as a shivering mass of regret and vengeance, are thrilling. Daryl Palumbo of Glassjaw was using a very similar tone before Lindow, but where Palumbo sounded aggrieved, Lindow sounds anguished, mournful even, in his quivering wail. “Well I can still ask for more, I will still ask for more.” The song falls to total silence save for mic buzz and a hi-hat chiff, then blows a hole in the ceiling. “GET THE FUCK OUT STAY THE FUCK OUT,” Lindow screams, “IT MAKES ME SICK.” The guitar is pitched at post-hardcore speeds while dueling with a bass firmly in the nu-metal register. As passionate as it is frightening, it then leads straight into a chorus that is simply one of those choruses. From the first cry of “Lace me up!,” the impact is immediate and staggering. Your entire body will yearn for a large empty place to scream along to each “I’m still looking for these angels in the snow”. There may be no greater fusion of nu-metal heft and post-hardcore passion in all of rock than right here. 2021 has been a confusing year for 36 Crazyfists fans. Latest news on the band’s status has been muddled at best, with bassist Steven Holt lobbing insults at an unnamed member via social media and threatening to carry on, inconceivably, without Lindow as vocalist. 36 Crazyfists may be gone, but wherever "Slit Wrist Theory" is playing, there’s still blood on the ground.
A horde of white boys comes streaming over a small hill. They’re muddy, shirtless, and infuriated. They storm a small house that looks like it could have come from anywhere in the Midwest and rip it to shreds: breaking furniture; smashing windows; clawing apart the drywall; falling through the ceiling. Tony Petrossian’s music video for Slipknot’s 2004 single “Duality” feels prophetic. Nu-metal was the invasion of the angry white, a storming of the castle that began life as an answer to rap music’s challenge and finished as a rebuke of it. At its best, nu-metal could be explosively cathartic. At its worst, it was an aggressive shove against change and societal evolution-- Zach de La Rocha’s “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” redirected from racist, fascist police, and towards any sort of vague authority figure. “Duality” is a song about plunging all the way into that mindset, that insular “leave me alone, don’t try to change me and don’t tell me what to do” way of life that defines so much nu-metal, and coming out the other side even angrier than before. Corey Taylor has screamed until his veins collapsed, waited as his time elapsed, wished for this, bitched at that, found out the hard way and all he’s discovered is “Jesus, it never ends.” No wonder the poor guy is pushing his fingers into his eyes to relieve the ache. At the climax of “Duality”’s music video, the song breaks down, everyone comes to a halt, the energy is drawn inward as Taylor stalks the room like a rabid pastor, and everyone leans in close. Mick Tompson’s barely muted guitar and Joey Jordison’s barely contained drumming feel like they’re about to snap when Taylor roars into the big final chorus; “I push my fingers into MYYYYYYYYY!!!” Explosion. Humans may never find the empathy they need to get along, but we’ll always have that common need for a good scream.
With its one finger/three strings guitar riff and small handful of lyrics, “Roots Bloody Roots” is a “simple” song that seeks to annihilate everything in its path. It's a righteous anger that “Roots Bloody Roots” is tapping into. Recorded alongside Brazil’s indigenous Xavante tribe, Sepultura’s 1996 album Roots is one of metal’s most respectful and evocative blends of cultural tradition and headbanging mayhem. Its anthem is the lead-off track, “Roots Bloody Roots." When singer Max Cavalera proclaims “I pray we don't need to change our ways to be saved. That’s all we wanna be. Watch us freak,” he is directly rebuking an entire history of imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy. The American impulse is to associate “tribal” with “savage,” people who live off the land with no connection to the modern world waiting to be assimilated or eradicated. “Roots Bloody Roots” wants you to take your colonization and shove it. Cavalera is in top form here, rivaling conventional singers like Adele and Whitney Houston for sheer force and impact of delivery. Lines like “We're growing every day, getting stronger in every way” are filled with the same hysterical strength that inspires mothers to lift cars off their babies. Roots was created under an incredibly unique series of circumstances, but at the end of the day, you don’t need to know any of that to grasp the elemental power it has. Make no mistake, listening to “Roots Bloody Roots” will have you convinced you can run through brick walls and fight bears as long as Max Cavalera is yelling at you.
You hear drummer Abe Cunningham’s delicate yet commanding touch (recorded and produced to perfection by Terry Date), a turntable whirl somewhere on high, and you’re gone. “Digital Bath” is its own small word, something rendered in PlayStation One polygons, five-megapixel cameras, and bitcrusher plugins. "Digital Bath'' is Deftones pushing against nu-metal's tent, tearing the fabric as it reaches for space. By the time it was released nu-metal was so besotted with money in the Soundscan-CD-crazy early 00s that almost nobody followed their lead. Maybe if nu-metal had been allowed to evolve slower, the way that grunge had percolated in the Seattle underground years before Nirvana broke big, Deftones could have expanded the tent. Instead, they busted right through it and were swept into the arms of vague, sceneless genre hybrids like "alternative metal" and "art rock" by heavy metal NIMBYs determined to wrest their respectable Deftones from something as uncouth as nu-metal.
So is “Digital Bath'' nu-metal? Yes, of course it is. Did folk musicians stop being folk when they picked up electric guitars? Did hip-hop songs stop being hip-hop when they added choruses? The ingredients of nu-metal are all there but the heat has been reduced to a simmer. The drums are tight but the playing is restrained; the turntables spin but the touch is gentle; the guitar and the bass are tuned down but the roar has been leashed. The genre’s gendered violence fetish is here, too, but soused in distant poetics till it becomes something akin to a psychological horror film à laPerfect Blue instead of vengeful angst. It is yet another nu-metal murder ballad (“You breathed/Then you stopped/I breathed/then dried you off”), but Moreno’s delivery betrays no pleasure in the act; he sounds like he’s floating above his own body, watching himself. When he arcs up into a throat catching high note during the chorus (“I feel like more”) it’s orgasmic in its beauty, chilling in its delivery, and rapturous in total.
“There should be a separate Billboard chart for clever marketing plans,” sneered Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan when pressed for his opinion of nu-metal. “They shouldn’t really be on a music chart.” Obviously Keenan’s curmudgeoning is overblown, but there is something to be said about the relationship between nu-metal bands and their label’s marketing departments. In contrast to their Ticketmaster-boycotting, label-rebuking grunge forebears, nu-metal singers were getting hired as A&Rs for their record labels and launching cross-country campaigns to promote their albums. Los Angeles five piece Linkin Park had a close relationship with their record label. They workshopped their songs aggressively and collaborated with their marketing department closely, offering notes on single artwork and designs from hotel fax machines. Chester Bennington wasn’t Mike Shinoda's childhood friend; he was connected by lawyers and A&Rs seeking someone more magnetic than the erstwhile Mark Wakefield. And when it came time to seize Linkin Park’s greatest song ever, canny politics saved the day.
“With You” was originally supposed to be on the debut album by The Dust Brothers' (of Paul’s Boutique fame), but was scouted by the label for inclusion on Hybrid Theory. The Dust Brothers' influence on “With You” is gentle-- the heavy bass blurts at the beginning, some drum programming during the verses-- but effective; more “MMMBop” than “Mike on the Mic, '' but that’s because it can’t be the star of the show, it has to be a cog in the machine. “With You,” like all the best Linkin Park songs, is a hundred digitized layers all functioning like clockwork. You can trace the influences-- Black Celebration-era Depeche Mode synths and lyrics, the hip-hop beats of The Roots, Trent Reznor’s digital manipulations, Placebo’s simple but effective hooks -- but it still feels like there’s some magic missing link that connected metal with hip-hop with pop so seamlessly. Don Gilmore’s production is immaculate; Hybrid Theory is one of those special albums that never disintegrates into noise when played at high volume, just revealing more detail. The clean touch harmonics of “With You” hang in the air like crystals, while the massive sweeping guitar chords of the chorus rest comfortably beside DJ Mr. Hahn’s high squealing scratches. Mr. Hahn also contributes a turntable solo that should be too gimmicky to work but is instead a highlight of the song-- enough so that Shinoda always made certain to give him the spotlight live when it happened. (“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Hahn.”) Linkin Park’s occasionally tenuous connection to old school nu-metal is undeniable here, as Brad Delson’s 7-string riff could have been lifted from Korn’s debut album. Finally, Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington’s external-internal lyrical fusion is in peak form as their rapping and singing criss-cross each other for max impact. It’s a marvel of engineering and effective songwriting. Everything Linkin Park ever did well is done to perfection on “With You.”
Hahaha right? It's the meme song! It's the meme genre! Yes, nu-metal is ample fodder for meme culture (consider howmanysongswe'vealreadycovered are also memes) but that's because we have no legacy-media-sanctioned way to honor this genre. So we package it up as gifs and pngs, passed around with jokey "lol but it's also kinda good?" languages hoping someone validates us.
There's another reason nu-metal thrives as a meme: we need distance from the emotions it dredges up. Nu-metal bands, more than any other form of popular rock, do not couch trauma in poetry or irony. They wail it at the top of their lungs, they sob in recording booths, they scream themselves hoarse, and they reach out so desperately for someone to help them. Some of us who connected with this music flinch in embarrassment, remembering tantrums over Xbox privileges, but for others it digs far deeper. It reaches down into parental abuse, school yard torture, and suicide attempts.
So, yes. Papa Roach's "Last Resort" opens acapella: "Cut my life into pieces/this is my last resort." It's a phrase parodied enough to have it's own "know your meme" page, but put aside the ironic distance and “Last Resort” cuts to the marrow. Maybe you can keep chuckling through the rest of the first verse, but by the second singer Jacoby Shaddix is invoking the death of his mother, and by the end he's having a full-on panic attack. It’s one of nu-metal’s most harrowing vocal performances; even lines that shouldn’t work (“I’m running and I’m crying!”) somehow do, riding off the strength of his commitment. That final panic attack (“I! Can’t! Go! On!”) is devastating. He sounds utterly hysterical, desperate to rid himself of the pain by any means. In the deeply moving Noisey documentary on the song Shaddix breaks down weeping remembering the suicide of his uncle, the actual Papa Roach. "It sucks dude, suicide is fucking terrible," he stammers, choking down the tears. "Last Resort" is about Shaddix's teenage friend Mark Parnem ingesting too many psychedelics and attempting suicide. When the documentary brings the two together for the first time in years, they reflect as adults on the trials that made them. They shuffle blame, enjoy each other's company, reconcile the memories and bask in the joy of having survived. “[‘Last Resort’] is not a song about suicide [...] it’s about the response,” says Parnam. “How do you help someone who’s in crisis?”
"Last Resort" is an anthem for anyone that's had enough and wants out. Out of their job, out of their families, out of their life. As desperate as it may read on paper, “Last Resort” is not a depressing song-- it's motivating. The admission that you've touched bottom means there's nowhere to go but up.
There is a compelling case to be made that every single song on this list is just "Blind" disassembled, picked apart, and reassembled. When Jonathan Davis sings "This place inside my mind/A place I like to hide" and "A place inside my brain/Another kind of pain," he covers roughly 85% of nu-metal's entire lyrical spectrum in a single verse. Munky's 0-2-0-3 riff at the climax of the intro, Davis's sputtering rap interludes, David Silvera's 808 hits, Fieldy's low stringy bass sound-- it is impossible to imagine nu-metal without these. Even after the song ends there's a brief outro jam around Cypress Hill's "Lick a Shot," inventing the more directly hip-hop influenced side of nu-metal.
“Blind” began nu-metal; “Blind” ended nu-metal. Taking the stage at Woodstock 99 to a bloodthirsty crowd, “Blind” transformed a couple hundred thousand kids into a roiling ocean. In the mediocre-at-best HBO documentary Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, Jonathan Davis describes the realization that the speakers spread out amongst the 100,000 strong crowd were broadcasting the song with slight delays, which produced this massive wave effect as everyone bounced at different times. Not only does this performance stand as nu-metal's cultural zenith, it actually improves upon an already perfect song, trading the thin and trebley (but no less vital) mix of the original for an elephantine shock and awe. When the band drops into that pocket of silence before slamming back into the riff, it sounds like a black hole imploding and becoming a new universe. At one point the band stops, the classic "now you sing it!" moment, and the crowd roars the words back ("WHAT IF I SHOULD DIE") with such unreal force and intensity that Jonathan Davis looks momentarily stoked and scared out of his mind. Korn, for their part, are playing with the determination of five men that realize they're making history; the panic the rage the urgency the fury the pain the joy the sound of the entire 1990s is erupting in front of them and they are the tectonic plates. At the moment it looked like ecstasy; within days it would become a disaster. The shine was off. Music journalists eager to rid themselves of this lunkhead genre would soon drag the bands they once exalted, casting them to the gossip section as the garage rock revival started dominating the covers.
Removed from history, divorced from context, yanked off stage and stacked up against the other songs in this list, "Blind" looks a little... weak? It's not as out there as "Chop Suey!," not as muscular as "Duality," not as innovative as "Digital Bath," not as gripping as "Last Resort." What makes "Blind" truly better than the rest?
While inducting Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen famously referred to the opening snare hit on "Like a Rolling Stone" as "that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind." "Blind" begins with David Silvera’s delicate ride cymbal taps before Munky janks out a made up chord. Fieldy saunters in with a hip-hop/dub inspired bass line. Then Head revs up that immortal 0-2-0-3 riff. And just when the tension simply can't ratchet any higher, Jonathan Davis kicks open the door to your mind.