It’s hard to imagine that 20 years ago, Fred Durst was a pop star. Nu-metal’s short time in the public eye left a lot of bands either over-hyped or under-appreciated. It’s understandable why the old guard was so offended by certain aspects of the ragtag movement, but it’s proven to have much more legitimate staying power than people realize. Whereas fads like glam metal never had a resurgence beyond tongue-in-cheek parodies, nu-metal has actually resurfaced via modern metalcore. The metal community’s increased acceptance of Korn, Slipknot and even Limp Bizkit has coincided with a nu-wave featuring Code Orange, Vein and Tallah. The underdogs of yesteryear have become legends, but like any genre, there’s more to nu-metal than its flagship bands.
Also like any genre, finding buried gems means navigating a landslide of copycat garbage. Luckily, we’ve taken care of the heavy lifting. We’ve centered on six underrated (or over-hated) acts whose noise got lost in the shuffle.
Some of these bands have stuck to their guns, while others broke up or eventually moved away from nu-metal. Either way, these groups display nu metal’s diversity and vitality, even when most people sneered at it nonstop. They span from nu=metal’s incubation, its coming of age, and its mid-life crisis. Sure, it requires overcoming some dated aesthetic and sonic choices—but hey, ’90s nostalgia is the future. What better time to comb through the decade’s most polarizing export?
Nothingface‘s first three albums deserved the “Korn-clone” tag, but 2000’s Violence started to incorporate more elements of metalcore. It’s clear in the riffs alone, as they would get any fan of ’90s metallic hardcore swinging in the pit. If it wasn’t for Matt Holt’s penchant for melodic vocals, Nothingface might have evolved into a tough guy hardcore band. Still, his singing does that alt-rock vibe justice, just like his growls capture primal rage. There’s also some underrated technically to appreciate in the riffs, though certainly within the nu-metal groove-oriented wheelhouse.
Considering bands like Demon Hunter, who adopted a similar approach, it’s worth noting that Nothingface did it years earlier. 2003’s Skeleton displayed even more potential for artistic transcendence, but the band broke up a year later. Other than a return from 2005 to 2009, Nothingface how ahead of the curve they were. Nu-metalcore has gained much more traction over the past decade, but NothingFace realized the crossover before either genre gained credibility.
Soulfly remains the go-to nu-metal/world music maestros, but New Jersey’s Ill Niño deserves more “Latin metal” clout. The band’s 2001 debut Revolution Revolución has some of the slickest production and melodies from nu metal’s commercial peak. This does lead to more predictable song structures, but the band offered an impressive dynamic range. This was mostly thanks to the acoustic guitars and auxiliary percussion, which found a surprisingly tasteful pocket within the heaviness. Arguably, this extra instrumentation had a more vital role in Ill Niño‘s sound than that of Slipknot or Mushroomhead. Like a more radio-friendly take on Sepultura‘s Roots, a bolstered rhythm section supports the music’s ethnic slant.
Like others on this list, Ill Niño’s latent metalcore influence helped the band maintain relevancy during the 2000s, and may have done the same during the 2010s if it weren’t for some legal troubles. What surfaced in January 2019 as a dispute over the rights to the band name revealed itself as a lawsuit levied at drummer Dave Chavarri by ex-members Cristian Machado, Ahrue Luster, Diego Verduzco, and Oscar Santiago. The court case, detailed by Metalsucks here, actually resolved itself in March 2020… just in time for COVID-19. With a new lineup intact, the story of Ill Niño may yet continue as the world recovers from the pandemic! In the meantime, the band’s past work is worth diving into for fans of ethnically-tinged groove metal.
The strange relationship between nu-metal and professional wrestling is no secret (the entrance music, anyone?), but this Georgia band literally wrote a love letter to sports entertainment with 1998’s Rising. The rise of Stuck Mojo resulted in a brief partnership with the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling. Rising became a latent payoff for the band after many years of bridging the gap between nu-metal and one of its stylistic accendants: funk metal. In fact, Stuck Mojo’s didn’t drop their debut LP until six years after they formed. The band’s vibe is way less dark than nu-metal stereotypes, embodying the likes of Infectious Grooves by pairing southern boogie and thrashy motifs with streetwise beats.
Stuck Mojo came a bit too early for the nu-metal boom, so the band spent its formative years as one of the movement’s many scapegoats. Beyond the closed-minded response from genre purists, original vocalist Bonz endured racist abuse as an African American frontman. It’s a shame, as albums like Pigwalk (1996) have plenty to offer fans groove metal acts like Pantera or Madball-style NYHC. Even more overlooked is Bonz’s steady, mid-tempo rap flow. Zack De La Rocha may be the true keeper of lethal rap flow in a metal context, but Bonz also had undeniable crossover appeal. Nu metal vocalists rarely appeal to genuine hip-hop heads, but Bonz easily could. Why? Authenticity. These guys stuck it out in the rap-rock Wild West before the getting was good, making them admirable, downplayed trailblazers.
The turn of the millennia opened the floodgates of “Christian alternatives” to all manor of music with mainstream credibility. Even so, Orange County’s Project 86 provided a lot more than a faith-based cash-grab. Actually, they’ve actively fought against the “Christian Rock” stereotype since dropping their self-titled debut in 1998 on Tooth & Nail Records. This release, followed by Drawing Black Lines in 2000, found Project 86 playing straight-up rapcore, nu metal’s underground counterpart. In fact, the band proved too radical for the Christian industry with their 2002 album Truthless Heroes. Apparently, lyrics questioning the necessity of war during the Bush administration rustled some jimmies. This explains why Project 86 independently released 2003’s appropriately-titled Songs to Burn Your Bridges By. That uncompromising attitude carried over from the band’s nu-ish roots, giving their brand of rock a much more dangerous edge.
The band’s riffage and vocal cadence sidestepped the usual meat-headed bounce riffs for a more visceral approach. Why else would 2012’s Wait For the Siren feature Bruce Fitzhugh—frontman of the legendary thrash/groove merchants Living Sacrifice? Instead of bad rapping or melodramatic scream/crying, Andrew Schwab brings convincing tension and emotion to his vocals. He hits as hard as the riffs, which have no business being that moshy. It’s easy to compare Project 86 to a catchier version of bands like Biohazard or Downset just in terms of sheer unbridled menace. The band’s gnarled intensity profoundly distinguishes subsequent singles like 2003’s “Spy Hunter” and 2007’s “Evil (A Chorus of Resistance)” from the glut of safe, uninspired mid-2000s Christian hard-rock—not to mention their latest LP Sheep Among Wolves, which dropped in 2017.
Otherwise known as “The band Ivan Moody was in before Five Finger Death Punch,” Santa Barbara’s Motograter answers a common question for nu-metal bands: “what’s the point of a bass after you tune the guitars to drop ‘z?'” Founding member (now ex-member) Robert Butler presented a solution with his homemade instrument—which he also named the band after. The Motograter is basically a tabletop guitar with two industrial cables for strings, played by hammering the cables with one hand and fretting with the other. The instrument epitomized nu metal’s “clickety-clack” bass approach and proved its musical potential early on as the main instrument on Motograter’s first two EPs—Hugh Chardon (1998) and Indy (2000).
Once Moody replaced Zak Ward as lead vocalist, Motograter transitioned from industrial experimentation to a more streamlined cross between Slipknot and Disturbed. Sound dated? Fair, but the band’s 2003 self-titled debut features cornels of inventiveness to counterbalance chest-beating angst made for bad slasher movies. Unfortunately, Motograter‘s come-up occurred when nu metal’s visual extremities had reached their twilight of mainstream popularity. So for all their tribal paint, extra percussionists and invented instrument, the band came and went relatively unnoticed. Motograter has returned twice since its initial run, both with entirely new lineups and each time getting closer to a slightly heavier Breaking Benjamin sound. Less ruthlessness notwithstanding, Motograter should keep the hiatuses at bay until Butler’s invention makes it onto the shelves of a Guitar Center.
Although they started after the mainstream decline of nu-metal, Red proves the true potential of Christian nu-metal! Nu metal’s crossover with post-grunge is generally best to ignore, but Red transcended the likes of Trapt and Skillet with a convincing sense of symphonic, cinematic scope. Their 2006 debut End of Silence was, rightly, compared to Linkin Park with string orchestras instead of hip-hop, but Red’s subsequent albums blurred the lines between rock and darker, heavier music. For every anthemic chorus comes an odd time signature, an orchestral interlude or a ballistic breakdown, all tied together into a lush, haunting, instantly recognizable soundscape.
Songs like “Feed The Machine,” “Shadow and Soul” and “The Evening Hate” spotlight this band’s weightier, more complex approach to the nu/orchestral template. If Evanescence popularized it, then Red perfected it. The strings and choirs add bombast and atmosphere to the punishing passages and deepen the atmosphere of more balladic selections. Anthony and Randy Armstrong have written some of the best riffs in their scene, while Michael Barnes has developed one of the most impressive vocal ranges in modern heavy rock. Red’s latest album Declaration, released in April 2020, comes as a solid reminder of the band’s staying power in a genre rife with mediocrity. Abysmal search engine optics notwithstanding, these guys remain a beacon of light within the post-nu-metal fallout.