Nu-metal had problems. Today, a fresh generation of listeners remembers the genre for its on-the-face-of-it diversity and its tradition-crushing heaviness — which is good, because those things were what made it worthwhile overall. But those of us who lived through the era remember the bad times, where every label wanted nothing but cookie-cutter rap-metal and cybergoth, when interesting riffs and guitar solos were taboo, when all of our ’80s idols began rocking bad lip piercings and doing rap hands in promo photos. Don’t believe in the ‘good ol’ days,’ kids — nu-metal was rough.
That said, it’s a shame that when people talk about nu-metal, they only mention the same five massive bands every time. As with any subgenre of metal, the really good shit was always just below the surface, dominating local scenes and dropping either right before or right after the genre blew up, got bloated, and crapped itself to death. These were the bands who saw nu-metal as a fertile breeding ground for variety and nuance, acts who were in this to make cool, weird, heavy-as-fuck tunes first and wear a stupid sparkly outfit second.
Here are 10 nu-metal bands who were surprisingly real…
Not only were downset one of the better nu-metal bands, they’re also one of the first. The band’s self-titled debut dropped in 1994, the same year as Korn’s, and boasted a brolic mixture of pissed-off rap and churlish hardcore riffs that so many bands would rip off later in the decade. Not only that, but downset’s members’ lives in ‘90s LA gave them a believability that a lot of other suburban white-boy crews only played at. Listen to “Holding Hands” and see what it does to the cords in your neck.
The descriptor “evil spaceman disco made by Rob Zombie’s little brother” might not have some metalheads jumping out of their seats. But Powerman 5000’s second and third albums, 1997’s Mega!! King Fu Radio and 1999’s Tonight, The Stars Revolt!, have some truly gnarly alt-metal tracks on them, including “Car Crash,” “20 Miles to Texas 25 to Hell,” “Nobody’s Real,” and underrated gem “The Son of X-51.” Of course, massive single “When World Collide” will always be a genre staple, but the real rewards come with these guys’ B-sides. Into every man’s life a pair of neon goggles must fall.
Most fans probably heard Sinisstar’s first single “Psychosexy” on the soundtrack to the animated movie Heavy Metal 2000. And for what they were — a sleazy, goth-tinged nu-metal crew — these guys brought all the right attitude notes, down to the black-lipsticked sneer. But the band’s debut Future Shock came out just as the genre was collapsing in on itself; no one wanted these dudes by 2002, they wanted Killswitch Engage. As such, Sinisstar never really got their due — a shame, because Future Shock has some truly excellent moments on it.
Nothingface perfectly embodied a turn-of-the-millennium phenomenon: the heavier-than-nu-metal act. The DC-based band were always a little scarier, a little tougher and more guttural, than the polished rap-metal crews they were often lumped in with. 2000’s Violence was the band’s peak, landing them big festival dates and introducing a legion of fans dissatisfied with Crazy Town and bullshit like them. Definitely a band one could argue transcended their genre — and who, due to singer Matt Holt’s death in 2017, will never get the fame they truly deserved.
Spookier and more alternative than your average LA rap-metallers, California’s The Deadlights only put out one studio album, but that record is as strange and interesting an underground nu-metal disc as one can find. At the forefront of this are the vocals of singer/guitarist Duke Collins, whose reedy keening adds an unusual Billy Corganish vibe to the record’s ominous alt-metal riffs. Unfortunately, Collins passed away in 2015 after a long battle with addiction, making a proper reunion impossible. A tragedy, that someone talented enough to make this record lost their life so young.
It feels like no one knew what to do with Nonpoint. The Floridan band’s music had distinct Latin influences which seemed to suit the hip-hop-informed world of nu-metal. But their songs were always a little more interesting and dynamic than a lot of the mall-goth acts around them, making them a hard sell to tough-guy dumbasses (the best comp might be that they were a more hardcore-leaning Sevendust). That said, the band have a considerable discography littered with classics, and are one of the few members of their class who never became cheesy or terrible. Cheers to them.
There was an awesome intersectionality to My Ruin. Their music had the grimy distortion of sludge, but vocalist Tairrie B. alternated between snarling, rapping, and grumbling over it. The band’s look had overtones of goth and metal, but also played with the feminist angst of acts like Jack Off Jill and Veruca Salt. All of this came together in an awesome handful of albums whose attitudes never went nicer than a misanthropic middle finger. These guys could’ve been all gimmicks, but nope, impressively real.
With their only album, Disfigured Consciousness, coming out in 2004, Slave Machine were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Jacksonville, North Carolina-based band’s sound would’ve earned them critical acclaim and slots on Ozzfest five to ten years earlier. Instead, Slave Machine’s steely, grunge-influenced metal fell on ears deafened by Shadows Fall and Hatebreed, and these dudes never got their due. A damn shame.
While Puya were at times over-sold as being from Puerto Rico, it’s undeniable that their use of Latin musical elements set them apart from the pack. That said, the band always provided the foundation of a good metal track, which no amount of horns or bongos can fake. Songs like “Retro,” “Trinidad,” and“No Inventes” off of 1999’s Fundamental helped open up what a metal track could be in the eyes of the world. For that, they’ll always be one of the underground acts of the genre who deserve more praise than the many lackluster bands around them.
In a lot of ways, Dope were ridiculous — their dreads were endless, all their marketing copy harped on how they’d gone to jail, and their lead singer was named Edsel and had the word ‘dope’ tattooed on both his sets of knuckles. But it’s undeniable that the band’s music had a lot going for it; tracks like “One Fix,” “Take Your Best Shot,” and “So Low” all brought a level of grime and snarl that so many others desperately scrabbled at. You could hate on nu-metal all you wanted in ‘01, but these dudes packed houses across America, every night, and that’s impressive no matter what it says on your knuckles.
Words by Chris Krovatin