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.”