Reflecting on The New Wave of American Heavy Metal
Connections to Classic Underground Metal
There is something special about the core canon of extreme metal – Venom and Mercyful Fate, Hellhammer and Bathory, Slayer and Possessed, Grave and Morbid Angel, Sentenced and Amorphis, Darkthrone and Mayhem, Gorguts and Cryptopsy – it’s the loud, fast and thrilling sound that fearlessly explores the dark, mysterious and chaotic parts of existence. If that sentiment sounds a little overblown and dramatic, that’s kind of the point. But when people refer to “real metal,” these are the bands they’re talking about.
Though thrash, death metal, black metal and grindcore all have their own unique attributes, there are several common threads. The music creates a dark and aggressive atmosphere forged by heavily-distorted riffs and power chord progressions. The tempo is usually at a heart-racing speed or an intentionally devastating crunch. With it's influences from European romanticism, there is a flair for the dramatic and theatrical, going beyond the mundane topics of everyday life and reaching for the epic, terrifying or extreme. While this alienates some people, it instills a ferocious loyalty in others.
So with that in mind, which style resonates more with this tradition: Nu-metal or the New Wave of American Heavy Metal? Even a passive listen to both styles should make the answer incredibly obvious.
At best, nu-metal might lead listeners to pick up The Black Album, along with some alternative and classic rock, eventually steering them toward extreme music…maybe. At worst, it leads to the people who tell me, “you know Drew? I’m kind of over that phase, I listen to more chiiiiiill music now bro” as they drop their faded Adema and Dope t-shirts off at the Goodwill donation center. And that’s fine, but it doesn’t speak well for the enduring qualities of the music. Could nu-metal eventually lead listeners to Ildjarn and Angelcorpse? Perhaps, but the road to get there would be very long indeed.
In contrast, metalcore’s use of melodic guitar riffs and intricate solos has clear roots in classic albums like At the Gates' Slaughter of the Soul.
“But Drew, that was a sellout album!”
Even if you think so, it’s more widely known than The Red Sky is Ours, and many fans are too young to have the frame of reference that would lead them to think of Slaughter that way. Another important difference: the NWOAHM bands were proud of the metal label. They would often cite classic thrash and death metal bands as influences and even tour with them (e.g. Lamb of God was on Gigantour 2006 with Megadeth; Unearth toured with Slayer in early 2007). And while I don’t have numbers for this, I’m fairly certain that festivals like New England Metal and Hardcore helped grow the potential audience for Maryland Deathfest.
And the praise goes both ways. Artists like Kerry King and Scott Ian have spoken highly of Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, Chimaira and Shadows Fall. Here is a good example from the documentary, Get Thrashed: The Story of Thrash Metal. It also drove many artists to create some of their best work in years, especially Slayer, Exodus, Testament and Megadeth (well, up to a point). By bringing attention back to these bands, the NWOAHM created an environment where things like the neo-thrash movement could thrive and gain a wider audience.
Starting from around 2004, you were more likely to hear classic extreme metal on the monitors between sets, or run into people who could introduce you to the older stuff. Sure, you might have overheard them complain about the breakdowns and the style of moshing going on in the pit, but at least that would start the conversation! I got to know about Carcass by sharing a beer with an older metalhead at Ozzfest 2004. I got to know about At the Gates because Dead to Fall covered them live when I saw them at a VFW show. But the guy selling CDs at that show also directed my attention to Youth of Today’s classic, Break Down the Walls. This intersection with the hardcore universe brings us to our next topic.
Connections to Hardcore
On the surface, the years from 1997-2003 look like a great dark age for extreme music. But while metal was atomized and pushed deep into the underground, or obscured by its fashionable mainstream variants, this ignores the crucial developments taking place in the hardcore scene.
After the first wave petered out in 1986, hardcore merged with thrash in the crossover genre and radicalized with the youth-crew movement. By the early 90s, hardcore had evolved into a heavier, more punishing sound that only hinted at its old 77’ punk-rock roots. Bands like Gorilla Biscuits, Judge, Side by Side and Chain of Strength led to Integrity, Earth Crisis and Snapcase, crafting the sound we now associate with Madball and Hatebreed: fast, power chord-driven verses, anthemic choruses and punishing breakdowns.
As was the case with thrash, crossover and grunge, two scenes that embody similar sonic tendencies and ideas will inevitably interact and create something new. Between 1997 and 2002, a string of influential records came out which would lay the groundwork for the metalcore style. Writing in the liner notes of the re-issue of Converge’s Petitioning the Empty Sky, Chris Gramlich wrote that:
those bands…signaled a rising trend in intelligent, emotional, complex and intricate aggressive music…raging against the unintelligent, banal, lackluster music being passed off as “art,” as “heavy,” as “extreme” at the time.
In 1997, Shai Hulud released Hearts Once Nourished With Hope and Compassion (was is it with the long titles?). 1998 saw Vision of Disorder release the abrasive Imprint (featuring Phil Anselmo on “By the River”) and Cave In’s Until Your Heart Stops. Much of the extreme music around today wouldn’t exist without Botch’s We Are the Romans, released in November 1999, and Poison the Well’s Opposite of December, released the next month. In 2001, there came From Autumn to Ashes’ Too Bad You’re Beautiful and yes, I didn’t forget – Jane Doe from Converge. Other very important bands would include Coalesce, Overcast and Today is the Day, and though they sit in a category of their own, 1999 also saw Calculating Infinity from The Dillinger Escape Plan (the one with “43% Burnt” on it). Each band had their own distinctive flavor, but they all shared a few key attributes: heavy metallic riffs, a hardcore aesthetic and an alternative or post-hardcore sensibility (there was a dash of emo and post-rock in there too, another source of derision from certain listeners).
Though I call these bands and records influential now, they were virtually unknown outside the hardcore scene. You wouldn’t hear “The Broken Vow” or “Set Your Body Ablaze” on your morning commute while listening to 92.3 K-Rock (can you imagine!?). But they reached enough people that many bands began to fuse this style with a more self-consciously “metal” identity. With debut albums emerging in 2000 and 2001 (respectively), Killswitch Engage and Unearth would be two of the earliest bands to build a following.
It’s only fitting then that Killswitch Engage and Unearth played at This is Hardcore 2014. After a decade of changing the world of metal for the better, the movement had come home.
As I write this, I realize I’ve just made the critics’ main point for them: that the NWOAHM really came from a set of bands in the hardcore scene who appropriated elements of metal for their own purposes, not from the metal scene itself. This is true in many ways, but it shouldn’t exclude this movement from being part of the metal story.
By analogy: British literature is the foundational, core canon of literature written in the English language. But this doesn’t exclude its American variant from being part of the wider canon. It may come with its own history, unique dialects and collective experience, but the writers will gladly acknowledge the British works as the foundational texts. Norton will often set the two into separate anthologies, but few would argue that they belong on different shelves.
Still, the NWOAHM is often faulted as a “fusionist” heresy that damaged metal and polluted it with unnecessary outside influence. But this complaint ignores the fact that much of extreme metal is rooted in the fusion of classic metal and the abrasive sound and attitude of bands like Discharge and The Exploited. Without this dialectic between styles, metal would have simply run its course, becoming stale and stagnant like rock music did in the mid-70s. There would be no thrash metal (alright, alright, “speed metal” if you insist) and thereby no death metal or grindcore either. As for black metal, with bands like Hellhammer and Bathory citing Discharge as a crucial influence, much of the style’s crude barbarity was clearly inspired by the sounds of early crust and street punk. It's undeniably “metal music,” but the introduction of new influences allowed the story of that music to continue.
Metalcore merely flipped the equation. Instead of metal bands playing in a way that showed how much they loved punk, followed by a series of genres inspired by that innovation – you had hardcore bands playing in a way that showed how much they loved metal, giving the genre a new lease on life.
As a metalhead whose early concert-going years were spent in the punk and hardcore scenes, the metalcore explosion of the mid-aughts almost felt too perfect. For fans of both metal and hardcore, there was something for everyone to admire…or complain about. But at least there was something to argue about again – in the present tense. The fusion of metal and punk in the 80s caused plenty of grumbling and conflict (even fistfights), but it’s through this animosity-turned-admiration that great records were made. And for all the absurdities like the army hats, sideways haircuts and bird artwork on the album covers– anything was better than spikey blond hair and JNCO jeans. Again to be fair, there could be a nu-metal version of this article, but it would take a writer a little more older and jaded than myself.
Some bands even achieved near crossover status. Shadows Fall sold over 200,000 copies of The War Within – “What Drives the Weak” and “Inspiration on Demand” even cracked the top 40 of Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart. By the end of 2007, Killswitch Engage’s The End of Heartache was certified Gold by the RIAA, something unthinkable in the 90s. Lamb of God’s Ashes of the Wake sold nearly 400,000 copies, and their 2006 follow-up debuted in the top ten. And with all the buzz around them, Unearth, Mastodon and Trivium steadily became big names as well. In late 2007, Between the Buried and Me released what many of us, even at the time, recognized as a defining creative statement of the era: Colors. And all of this just as the music industry saw its fortunes collapse.
And the NWOAHM shouldn’t just be reduced to “metalcore.” Bands as diverse as The Red Chord, The Black Dahlia Murder, Every Time I Die and Norma Jean all came to prominence around this time. Some people even throw Down and Superjoint Ritual into the mix, if only because it fits conveniently in the timeline. It was certainly an exciting time to be a metalhead, especially one hosting a college radio broadcast.
However, so long as they kept the screaming vocals, the NWOAHM would never match the commercial success of nu-metal. But it did show that a very specific concoction of extreme music could gain a large audience. Combined with the increased access to bands through social media, this began the decentralization and fracturing of the metal audience we see today. Around 2005, a new variant of the style swapped Gothenburg melodic riffs for the dissonance of old-school death metal, creating what we now know as deathcore. This was followed a few years later by the Meshuggah-inspired sound of “djent,” with the simultaneous emergence of the poppier "verb-the-noun" bands and all varieties of "-core" offshoots – and on and on it goes with "vest metal" and "black-gaze." For better or worse, the crushing of the late 90s consensus of nu-metal and post-grunge had by 2010 given way to absolutely no consensus at all.
And by then, most of the VFW-sized metalcore shows I went to felt staged and stale, as if everyone had their cues to start moshing (i.e. usually when the guitarists started doing that stupid alternating foot hopping thing), dominated by bands ripping off the same riffs and breakdowns over and over again, bands who had probably never even heard of Botch or Coalesce. But that's how these things play out.
With the dizzying array of genres competing for attention, there is no central “thing” happening in metal today, only a series of many things making up a greater and steadily more confusing whole. The NWOAHM was both the last movement that brought a large swath of metal audiences together, and the one which allowed it to break apart. As this only mirrors what’s happened to music on a grand scale, the bands themselves are completely blameless. There are both good and bad aspects to this, though it's long-term effects remain to be seen.
There’s a difference between honoring and appreciating the past, and the self-pity of wishing it would come back. This is why the New Wave of American Heavy Metal was so important. For millions of metal and hardcore fans, it meant we didn’t have to wish it was 1986 or 1992 again, but could be glad it was 2004! It made us feel at home with the rest of extreme metal, that we were part of the story, rather than a disingenuous re-enactment of it. It disproved the smug attitude of music journalists who had written metal off in the mid-90s. And for at least some of us, it was that ideal place where fans could identify with the best the past had to offer, while still celebrating what's happening right now.