Nu metal is a subgenre of alternative metal that was commercially successful throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, but also carries the burden of being a controversial subject for the metal community. It combines elements of heavy metal with other genres such as hip-hop, pop, industrial or electronic music.
In an interview, Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian when asked about how much he thought his band had influenced the development of the Nu metal scene after they’d put out one of the first ever collaborations between metal music and rap (Bring The Noise – Public Enemy & Anthrax) he said:
“People always say you [Anthrax] created rap rock or rap metal. All that shit that started in the 90s with Limp Bizkit and Korn and that whole sound or whatever… NU METAL. I’m like: man I don’t take credit or blame because I don’t believe it. There’s so many other bands involved; Faith No More was doing rap hip-hop kind of stuff since the f*cking inception of Faith No More.”
These words very wisely point out the controversy in Nu Metal (“I’m like, man I don’t take credit or blame”) and also point to some sort of beginning, a primordial soup that would later evolve into the subgenre it now is: Faith No More.
Faith No More, although arguably the fathers of Nu metal, are one of the biggest influences for this subgenre and its commercial outbreak. Their album Angel Dust (1992) proved to take the proto Nu metal sound they had been working on for over a decade to the next level. Heavy sounding drums and bass that lead the music and groove like no other metal music had done before, making the guitars more of an accompaniment for the rhythm section. The incorporation of samples, industrial noises and eclectic sound FX.
Even though Faith No More can be accounted for laying the foundations for this subgenre, other bands from the late 80s and early 90s are key in the forging of the Nu metal sound. Sepultura, Pantera, Soundgarden, Helmet and Rage Against The Machine lead this new wave of experimenting with new sounds in metal music, tired of the mainstream and MTV airing metal bands.
Other styles that Nu metal artists have included as influential are goth rock, funk, grunge, jazz, punk, thrash and even country music.
The particularities of the Nu metal sound are many, but they are also the reason why it is such a controversial subject in the metal community. On one hand it’s a very riff based style of music, with heavy dropped tuning guitars and bass (either tuned low or using 7-8 stringed guitars or 5-6 string bass) that put great emphasis on the rhythm. There are no guitar solos in most of the songs because guitars are used to enhance the groove or to create a DJ like effect. What makes it so controversial is the hybridization that the subgenre created as it mixed groove driven metal with rap, pop and electronic elements, as well as the use of Djs that include scratches, synths and samples into the tracks. This evolution of Alternative Metal didn’t agree too well with the older metal community and many of the self-considered “true” fans. The more casual, laid back aesthetics for some of the Nu metal acts is also pointed out as one of the issues, although it is by far less controversial.
The structure of Nu metal derives from pop structures that use verses to contrast the chorus or hook and use bridges to create a different section. In the case of Nu metal bridges are thought of as breaks, which would later become very influential for other modern subgenres of metal like metalcore.
In the aspect of vocal styles there’s a lot of variation between different techniques: singing, whispering, rapping, growling and screaming are the most used and many times will be heard throughout the same song.
The lyrics, on the other hand, don’t focus on many more subjects than personal pain, teenage angst, rage or alienation. They are punk inspired, but lack the social and political vindication (System Of A Down is an exception due to it’s very political lyrics, which keeps the debate open about them being or not a Nu metal band).
There is a larger participation of women in Nu metal than in other metal genres and subgenres. Some examples of all-female or female inclusive bands are: Kittie, Flyleaf, Head Phones President, MyPollux, OTEP or Heavensdust.