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The real and fictional horror that characterised 'nu-metal'

Nu metal is a somewhat fluid and controversial term. It’s usually used as a one-size-fits-all and lazy means of bunching together a host of bands who dominated popular culture during the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, who all had a set of loose facets in common.

Many of the bands who were labelled as nu-metal by the press and audiences toned down elements of extreme metal and fused them with groove metal, industrial, hip-hop, electronic and grunge to create a genre that was adored by the younger consumers and absolutely loathed by their parents. Nu-metal was the last cultural movement of Generation X.

When you think about the classic ‘nu-metal’ bands, you consider the likes of Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Slipknot and sometimes even Deftones. However, all of the aforementioned – bar Limp Bizkit – would claim that they did not fit in with the other terrible nu-metal bands such as Bizkit, Papa Roach and Staind. I would agree with them, too. Korn, Linkin Park, Slipknot and Deftones, certainly had nu-metal elements, but their artistry was far denser. Ever wondered why their records have had longevity and the other garbage such as Coal Chamber have not? 

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However, there was one thing that the majority of these bands had in common; internal horror. I could spend all day talking about the subtle musical differences between a lot of the bands, but the one thing that did clearly tie them together was the darkness that permeated their lyrics.

The words were often filled with rage and nihilism, with some focusing on pain, angst, bullying, complex emotional problems, abandonment, betrayal, alienation and even sexual abuse. In short, it wasn’t a very optimistic movement. In this sense, nu-metal was the spiritual successor to grunge. The interesting thing about this is that although lyrically and in spirit, nu-metal succeded grunge, musically, it did not. It was the first rock genre to cast off the use of blues scales and create something that sounded altogether darker through the adoption of Dorian, Aeolian or Phrygian modes and a whole load of chromaticism.

Quite often used as a way of the vocalist or band escaping or confronting their inner demons, reading some or listening to nu-metal lyrics make for an uncomfortable and dark experience. The lyrics from Korn’s ‘Daddy’, the album closer to their 1994 self-titled debut, are some of the darkest ever penned, regardless of genre. Korn vocalist Jonathan Davis revealed that the song is about the life-changing experience of being molested as a child and the trauma it caused as well as not being believed by his parents. The verse lines are genuinely horrifying: “Little child / Looking so pretty / Come out and play / I’ll be your daddy / Innocent child / Looking so sweet / I’ll rape your mind / And now your flesh I reap”.

We could also take a deep dive into the sinister autobiographical implications of nu-metal lyrics, but that would be reductive. Davis’ tragically graphic lyrics on ‘Daddy’ are the best example of the point; nu-metal had an inherent crossover with horror. Both the very real and fictional. This sometimes bled into a band’s aesthetic. Aside from all the immediate visual hallmarks that we associate with nu-metal, baggy jeans, Adidas trainers, facial hair and tattoos, some bands chose to reflect the horror of their music with a gruesome aesthetic.

The obvious one is Slipknot, whose decision to adopt the masks augmented the ethos of their sound and is the most iconic of the era. It was so effective that they managed to outgrow the nu-metal moniker and create something that was totally individual. In many ways, Slipknot are visual artists as well as musical ones. Of the reasoning behind the adoption of the masks, in 1999, their percussionist Shawn Crahan explained: “Being from Des Moines, the shithole of the US, everybody treats us like nobody so we decided to be nobody and put on a mask”.

Slipknot has introdued a series of creative masks. (Credit: Kaanislek)

Aside from Slipknot, Mushroomhead, Motograter, Coal Chamber, and Mudvayne also adopted striking aesthetics. Masks, jumpsuits, costumes, and bodily paint were the visual weapon of choice. It worked to inspire awe and horrify at the same time. The semi-nihilistic consumer culture of the age lapped it up, and it sold millions. 

Another way that nu-metal was tied to horror, was the massive crossover between film and music. It became the soundtrack music of choice from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Nu-metal bands were everywhere, Spawn, Blade IIEnd of DaysDracula 2000Scream 3, are just a handful of the most memorable crossovers. Even the late Chester Bennington of Linkin Park starred in a Saw film.

Famously, Slipknot’s classic track ‘My Plague’ from their sophomore album, Iowa, was used as the main song for the first instalment of the zombie horror, Resident Evil. This partnership was so wickedly effective that the band returned for the follow-up, Resident Evil: Apocalypse. On the other hand, the video for Slipknot’s iconic single ‘Spit It Out’ was a direct homage to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. Each member of the band played one of the main characters with the late drummer Joey Jordison playing Danny Torrance and frontman Corey Taylor playing the unhinged Jack Torrance.  

Nu-metal is one of the darkest genres of music ever to exist. One would argue that due to the darkly autobiographical nature of the lyrics, that it trumps black metal as the darkest form of music out there. The real-life horror that many of the bands discussed in their lyrics went far beyond the affected macabre of black and extreme metal.

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