Alternative metal might sound like it refers to a style of music that could not be categorized or did not receive mainstream or commercial recognition. While it’s true that alternative metal isn’t really a traditional sub genre of metal and isn’t a specific style or sound like other categories such as thrash metal or death metal, I would argue the essence of alternative metal comes from thinking outside the box and a need to raise your middle finger to the music industries’ need for pigeon-holing. Alternative metal does however have its roots in much of the early new wave of heavy metal and punk rock music from the 70’s and 80’s and many of the bands that I will mention in this feature went on to become household names and some have even made comebacks or have stayed around for a few decades and continued to make exceptional music.
A lot of the emphasis in alternative metal came from the bass lines by incorporating funky grooves that defined the stylistic musical features of the category. The other key components that drove the genre were a sense of rebellion, anger and even humour and subject matter and lyrical themes ranging from political dissent, celebrity idolizing and philosophy.
Early beginnings of alternative metal (mid-to-late 80s)
The 80’s are known for its over saturation of hair metal bands, power ballads and stadium rock anthems but from the underground music scene of San Francisco came a band by the name of Faith No More. Their lyrics made fun of the cheesiness of the 80’s and sarcastically chastised all the celebrities behind big charity events such as Live Aid with their song “We Care a Lot” on the 1987 album ‘Introduce Yourself’. The song contained a distorted heavy riff with a funky bass line that defined the origins of alternative metal. Original singer Chuck Mosley promptly left the band and was replaced by Mike Patton in 1988 becoming the permanent front man and later forming other groups that would come to define what alternative metal was and still is. Both Chuck Mosley and Mike Patton used harsh and clean soaring vocals and even rapped some of their lyrics making their vocal style very left field and completely different to the bands of the time.
By the end of the decade a few more bands mainly from Los Angeles were coming into prominence creating music that used Led Zeppelin guitar riffs with funky bass lines such as The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Janes Addiction but they both were never considered metal and were labeled instead as alternative rock along the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins.
There were however two significant African American bands during the late 80’s that were easily defined as alternative metal, New York City’s Living Colour and Los Angeles’s Fishbone. Both had real music credentials and were able to reimagine what metal could sound like; Living Colour even had a hit single with their song “Cult of Personality”.
Alternative metal really takes off (1990s)
The 90’s began with the explosion of grunge; the success of this popular movement in music lead to entire sub genres of metal especially in underground music scenes across America. The rise of industrial metal becomes popular amongst the youth with Ministry, Prong, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and White Zombie leading the pack. Kyuss were the first band to break out of the desert rock scene, opening up for Metallica in Australia and sludge metal band The Melvins gained cult status. In Los Angeles two bands in the live music circuit were about to take over the world: Tool and Rage Against the Machine; some might argue these were the two defining alternative metal bands of the 90’s.
Tool was influenced by 70’s progressive rock band King Crimson whilst fusing dark tonal metallic riffs that were apocalyptic sounding. Tool made progressive music sound contemporary giving it an alternative edge that made the 90’s the decade of ambitious music and sonic groundbreaking. Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut gave the metal world a real shake up challenging what was possible sonically and lyrically. Front man Zack de la Rocha came from a hardcore band called Inside Out and could scream like no other vocalist could. Zack used a hip-hop style to deliver his lyrics that were politically charged and inspired a generation of young people to get active in protests and demonstrations. Guitarist Tom Morello’s playing was original and broke genre boundaries; a fan of Black Sabbath and Kiss, Morello’s riffs could ignite a riot but Rage Against the Machine used metal riffs that had a funky bass line underneath making them an incredible band to witness live in a mosh pit whilst giving the finger to wherever injustice reared its ugly head.
This hybrid of funk, hip-hop and metal eventually became what’s known as nu-metal, a way for record labels to cash in on the success of groups like Rage Against the Machine and Faith No More which was ultimately authentic and true to those pioneering bands. In an interview the singer of Korn Jonathan Davis said that Faith No More directly influenced their music and influenced countless of other bands along the way.
In 1995 Australia held a music festival called Alternative Nation that was designed to bring alternative metal bands to play in one bill. The lineup featured Faith No More, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Primus and Body Count amongst others but ticket sales were low and the festival was cancelled after just one year. However this was not to be an end to an era, as the 90’s made way for the new millennium popular films like The Matrix used “Wake Up” by Rage Against the Machine and The Deftones’ “My Own Summer” in the soundtrack proving just how popular the genre was.
More bands continue to break the mold (2000s)
The 00’ saw a tone of nu-metal bands coming to the forefront and amongst these were a few artists that freed themselves from the constructs of the genre. The first was System of a Down, discovered playing at the Viper Room in Los Angeles by legendary producer Rick Rubin back in the 90’s. The band gained huge success with their 2001 album ‘Toxicity’ and would gain a global fan base. What made System of a Down alternative was their chaotic music, jumping from speed metal to Armenian folk music in the same song. Similar to Frank Zappa in the 70’s or Mike Patton in the 90’s System of a Down front man Serj Tankian would scream outlandish sentiments and was particularly outspoken about the Armenian Genocide that directly affected all the members of the band. System of a Down established a new metal musical vocabulary and even though some critics tried to categorize them as nu-metal the labeling just wouldn’t stick.
Systems of a Down’s contemporaries were Incubus who also started in the 90’s but dominated the charts and radio airwaves in the early 00’s. Incubus did include the nu-metal trademark of a DJ but they did it in a more sophisticated manner than most nu-metal bands. They also didn’t rap but they did incorporate funk elements and were directly influenced by the 90’s alternative metal bands; they toured with System of a Down and Mr Bungle as part of the 2000 Sno-Core tour.
Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine had both broken up by the turn of the century but the members of Rage joined up with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and formed Audioslave a band that released three critically acclaimed albums. On the other hand Tool were still going strong and James Maynard Keenen had also started a splinter band called A Perfect Circle. Just like Audioslave It featured musicians who had played in other well establish bands however they disbanded in 2004 with indefinite hiatus only releasing 3 albums.
Other notable bands that applied the alternative metal philosophy were Disturbed and Rammstein. Disturbed was also lumped into the nu-metal category yet they never rapped or used a DJ, you also could not include them with commercial post grunge bands such as Nickelback or the Foo Fighters as they were heavier and used more metal imagery than those bands. They shared the same groove with some of the 90’s bands and covered “Killing in the Name” and “Closer” on their live shows several times. Rammstein a band from Germany fell into the industrial metal category in the 00’s but was completely ignored by commercial radio even though they were the biggest export from their country and were headlining festivals along side Tool, Slipknot and Disturbed.
Alternative metal originally started as an open canvas but it quickly developed into so many sub genres that it became a very broad church and by the end of the 00’s the term had become redundant as everything had been done and the music industry was sinking fast with album sales in decline and digital downloading and streaming becoming the norm.
The future of alternative music and metal
In this decade it can be said that rock music and alternative metal are dead or on life support. However for metal fans of the 90’s it is possible to find solace in nostalgia as Faith No More released a new album in 2015 titled ‘Sol Invictus’, their first in 18 years. Rage Against the Machine without Zack De La Rocha has turned into a new band called Prophets of Rage fronted by Chuck D of Public Enemy and B Real of Cypress Hill and they are about to release their debut album produced by Brendan O’Brien which is eagerly anticipated, the album is likely to be released later this year. We are still however waiting for a new Tool album, as it has been more than a decade since their last release ‘10,000 Days’. We also haven’t had any new music from System of a Down.
As the bands of the 90’s and 00’s used their music as a reaction to what was going on at the time, it is now up to younger bands to take the flag of the great alternative metal groups of the past and start a fresh creating something again that is new and relevant to our times.
I’ve compiled a list of 20 alternative metal albums that are essential to listen to if you want to familiarize yourself with the genre:
- Living Colour – ‘Vivid’
- Faith No More – ‘The Real Thing’
- Rage Against the Machine – ‘Rage Against the Machine’
- Body Count – ‘Body Count’
- Helmet – ‘Meantime’
- Tool – ‘Undertow’
- Fishbone – ‘Give a Monkey a Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe’
- Primus – ‘Pork Soda’
- Melvins – ‘Stoner Witch’
- Nine Inch Nails – ‘The Downward Spiral’
- Deftones – ‘Around the Fur’
- Incubus – ‘S.C.I.E.N.C.E’
- A Perfect Circle – ‘Mer De Noms’
- System of a Down – ‘Toxicity’
- Rammstein – ‘Mutter’
- Tomahawk – ‘Tomahawk’
- Audioslave – ‘Audioslave’
- Disturbed – ‘Ten Thousand Fists’
- Karnivool – ‘Sound Awake’
- Dead Letter Circus – ‘This is the Warning’