Ch. 5: Alt-Metal (Speed, Thrash, Industrial, and Nü Metal)20min, 0sec

In the 1970s and 1980s, the sounds of dozens of heavy metal bands such as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC established the sub-genre as the formidable powerhouse of rock ‘n’ roll. However, with the rise in popularity of glam and hair metal bands, such as Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe, the shock of the genre began to wear off as America began to accept both the sound and look of heavy metal bands.

The resurgence of a new, alt-metal form in the 1990s brought a renewed vigor to the thunderstorm of the previous decade. Hair metal and heavy metal were now replaced by new terms such as “thrash metal,” “speed metal,” and “death metal.” Like the grunge bands, the thrash metal bands relied on indie record labels to build their audiences beyond local venues. However, they were welcomed with open (albeit less than altruistic) arms by corporate musical America once established. For those in the corporate offices, a band’s creativity, artistry, and innovation were not as crucial as the money-making possibilities.

The alt-metal sound of the 1990s was built on common characteristics: rapid, repeated riffs from a rhythm guitar’s low register, a lead guitar “shredding” distorted melodies, a gritty vocal line consisting of lyrics containing intense, dark, gory, often nihilistic language, all over a jackhammer rhythm pattern. 

Though some bands were established in the 1980s, many did not emerge with artistic import until the early 1990s. Bands like Anthrax, Megadeath, and Slayer were formed in the early ’80s and laid the foundation for the alt-metal sound of the ’90s. Arguably the first and most successful, if not the best, thrash band of the late ’80s, Metallica, launched into the new decade with their album Metallica (1991). The certified 16x platinum album solidified a place for metal music in the decade to come, a fantastic feat accomplished without either substantial radio air-play or MTV visibility.

One band which helped to create a bridge from the metal sounds of the ’70s constantly through to the 2010s was Motörhead. Emerging simultaneously as the punk sound of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were taking hold, Motörhead forged a high-energy form of metal that expanded the work of ’80s hair metal bands like AC/DC or Black Sabbath and prepared for a new metal variant called “speed metal.” While many might use the two terms synonymously, speed metal preceded thrash metal on the timeline and often differentiated itself from thrash by being cleaner, more melodic, and (obviously) faster in instrumental lines. Speed metal is as technically demanding for the bands as it was aggressive. With bass player and sometimes “lead shouter,” Lemmy Kilmister, Motörhead emerged from the ’80s to help forge the speed and thrash metal sounds of the ’90s. Active until Lemmy’s death in 2015, Motörhead released the posthumous album Live to Win in February 2021.

With a firm foundation of acceptance, new bands were willing to experiment with new sounds. Just like the earlier hybrids of jazz, blues, country, and earlier rock ‘n’ roll, these artists asked one of the essential questions creatives can ask themselves: “What if . . .” For these bands, their alt-metal sounds fused the power and aggression of metal rock with punk, funk, hip-hop, and industrial electronic.

Though emerging from Seattle in the early 1990s, Alice in Chains is often included in a list of Pacific Northwest grunge bands with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. However, the band is more accurately identified as an essential part of the early alt-metal movement in many ways. Original member Jerry Cantrell told Guitar World in a January 1996 interview that the band was “definitely metal, blues, rock and roll, maybe a touch of punk.” One of the unique characteristics of alt-metal Alice in Chains is their use of two simultaneous vocalists – harmonizing at times, sometimes throwing counter-melodies against one another.

One of the characteristics of alt-metal was its almost immediate fragmentation into sub-styles. Like many alt-metal bands, Nine Inch Nails fused metal with other sounds, most often industrial-electronic instrumentation. Trent Reznor, a classically trained pianist, created NIN by merging the energy of thrash metal with electronic synthesized sounds and samples and dissonant vocal lines. Nine Inch Nails combined the anger and grit of the post-punk sound with the electronic artistry of the ’70s art-rock movement and the drive of thrash metal to become the epitome of industrial metal/alt-metal sound. This sound would later be adopted by bands such as Marilyn Manson. As Reznor explained, he tried to “explore incredibly black emotions,” both from a personal and cultural perspective, when writing songs. 

Whether taking thrash’s speed or industrial’s clang, ’90s alt-metal became a voice for a Generation X, filled with angst and despair for the future. 

By the end of the 1990s, a new variant of alt-metal was emerging called “nu metal,” sometimes referred to as “nü-metal.” Nu Metal, which combined elements of heavy metal with hip-hop, funk, and grunge, downplayed technically proficient guitar solos in favor of grinding riffs on heavily distorted instruments. Guitar players would often use seven-string guitars tuned lower to emulate the sound of the vocals, which were often growled, screamed, rapped, or chanted more than sung. Bass guitar lines were reminiscent of a funk sound. 

Occasionally DJs would interject scratching, sampling, or electronic sounds. Lyrics of nu metal songs tended to mirror the anger and pain-filled angst of the grunge sound. Topics covered include bullying, alienation, violence, relationships, drugs, parties, sex, and a wide range of emotional issues. Korn’s “Shoots and Ladders” lyrics, for example, is built primarily with traditional nursery rhymes such as “Ring around the Rosies” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” commenting on the dark and violent nature hidden in these childhood messages. Nu metal provided a bridge between metal, grunge, and urban rap, with artists such as Kid Rock and Korn featuring rap artists like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem. Many nü metal artists acknowledge the influence of hip-hop artists such as LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Chuck D, and Run-DMC. The latter being one of the first hip-hop groups to merge rap and rock, most notably in their collaboration with Aerosmith, “Walk This Way” in 1986.

Following the early ’90s pioneering work of bands such as Korn and Rage Against the Machine, other nü metal bands emerged in the mid-to-late 1990s include Slipknot, Papa Roach, and System of a Down arrived. Significant among the mid-’90s nü metal bands was Limp Bizkit, perhaps the most commercially successful and the more stylistically divergent, of the nu metal wave.

Early in the 2000s, the nu metal style wave peaked with bands such as Linkin Park, and their diamond-selling album Hybrid Theory. By this time, it was not unusual for bands to include “turntablists” as part of their instrumentation, as can be seen in their video “Numb.”

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An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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