Nu-metal is cool now
Fred Durst’s in an A24 movie, Deftones have done a Heaven collab and a new wave of bands have revived the muscular, moshpit-opening guitar sound. So why was the genre out of fashion for so long?
Back in March, a crop of New York scenesters and TikTok stars gathered in the dingy Music Hall of Williamsburg to watch Deftones perform gnarly anthems from late ’90s and early ’00s. The intimate gig was in celebration of Deftones’ collaborative collection with punky clothing brand Stray Rats and Marc Jacob’s Heaven, which counts the teenage daughter of Deftones singer Chino Moreno as a fan.
“We’ve noticed this surge of younger fans getting into our music, which is crazy because we’ve been doing this for 30-plus years,” Moreno told Vogue.
For so long, nu-metal was largely considered uncool. Like, really uncool. The Meet Me in The Bathroom documentary, which is about rise of stylish NYC bands such as The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs after the turn of the millennium, includes footage of Limp Bizkit collecting an MTV award, as if to suggest that rock music needed rescuing by these skinny-jeaned indie kids.
But nu-metal has been tip-toeing its way back into fashion for a few years now. Towards the end of the 2010s, music stars such as Billie Eillish and Lil Uzi Vert were dressing in jeans so baggy they looked like they were reluctantly waiting for their parents to pick them up from a mall in 2001. In 2020, Doja Cat performed a snarling reimagining of her sleek disco hit Say So at the EMAs. Later that year, Papa Roach teamed up with TikTok rapper Jeris Johnson to remix their scene staple Last Resort, which swiftly went viral on the Gen Z‑favoured app.
Now, the cultural renaissance is in full swing. In October last year, it was announced that Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst will star alongside Phoebe Bridgers in the A24 horror movie I Saw The TV Glow. In April this year, the band sold out Wembley Arena, and in August they’re due to play their biggest ever UK headline show at London’s Gunnersbury Park. Later this month, Las Vegas festival Sick New World will bring together classic bands such as Deftones, System Of A Down and Korn alongside younger, trendy nu-metal-inspired acts Turnstile and hyperpop figureheads 100 Gecs. Just last week, Google reported searches for “nu-metal” were at an all-time high.
For teenagers discovering the genre today, it might be hard to appreciate just how stigmatised nu metal once was. Even back in its heyday, the scene’s main players felt uncomfortable about the tag.
Korn were seen as the instigators of the movement, but they never embraced the genre name. The same goes for Rage Against The Machine, System Of A Down and Slipknot, who shared a similar muscular musicality and abrasive energy but refused to align themselves with the scene. Linkin Park, Papa Roach and Deftones also played down their involvement at one time or another.
There’s a lot to be said for the quality of these bands’ best work. Nu-metal preserved heavy metal’s ferocious energy while mixing it with elements of hip-hop and a pop sensibility which helped it conquer the mainstream. Linkin Park’s 2000 debut album Hybrid Theory outsold albums released by Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and N*Sync that same year. Deftones, meanwhile, carved out their own sensitive and experimental sound that taps into post-rock and shoegaze. Lyrically, nu-metal could be cathartic and heavy-hitting; Linkin Park sung about metal health, Korn about addiction, child abuse and bullying.
But nu-metal was often dismissed for its hyper-masculine energy, which wasn’t helped by the riots and arson at Woodstock ’99. Event organiser John Scher was quick to blame Limp Bizkit for the carnage (“Fred Durst is a complete asshole, he was completely out of his mind,” Scher told The Ringer) with footage of the band’s performance of their nihilistic anthem Break Stuff broadcast on news stations around the world. Despite bad organisation, extortionate prices and the fact the band played a full 24-hours before the riots really kicked off, that’s the narrative that’s stuck.
“There was a lot of weird, macho energy in America in the ’90s which culminated in this music,” says 25-year-old Milkie Way, one half of British/Irish nu-metal duo Wargasm. Way discovered the genre via the soundtrack to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater PlayStation games and has just finished supporting Limp Bizkit on tour across North America and Europe. “People just started to reject that macho energy as we moved into the 2010s.”
So why’s nu-metal resonating so strongly right now? Of course, there’s the longstanding theory that all culture has a twenty-year cycle. Linkin Park know that better than most. The band recently released an expanded anniversary boxset of their second album Meteora. A previously unreleased bonus track on the boxset called Lost has ended up charting higher than anything the band had released in over a decade.
“There’s this youthful confusion to [nu metal],” Linkin Park member Mike Shinoda says. “Back then, we were still inventing our own rules. It’s not quite naivety, but there was this excitement and eagerness in everything we did. That still connects with people who weren’t there in 2003, but the nostalgia of it connects with the people who were.”
For years, Bring Me the Horizon were the only band on the radio flying the flag for metal-meets-pop, taking heavy influence from Deftones and Linkin Park, but now, there’s a new wave of bands recreating nu-metal in their own image like Spiritbox, Loathe, Wargasm, Scene Queen, Code Orange and Scowl.
Elsewhere, cutting-edge, genre agnostic artists such as likes of Ashnikko, Rina Sawayama Poppy are have merged moshpit-opening riffs with pop music, Nova Twins racked up a Mercury nod for their nu-metal inspired debut album and 100 Gecs regularly drop reworked ’00s anthems during DJ sets and included Bizkit-esque turntable scratches on recent song Billie Knows Jamie. Even Sam Smith used a snarling metal remix of Madonna’s Human Nature during their celebratory Gloria tour.
“The scene is taking all the bits we liked from the ’90s and ’00s but adding to it and bringing in new thoughts, new opinions,” says Wargasm member Sam Matlock. “There’s just a different attitude now and there’s a load of women involved, so it was always going to sound better.”
“It’s easy to reject and criticise nu-metal, but taking it and turning it into something different is far more fun,” continues Way. “One of the things I love about Limp Bizkit is how they still treat the whole thing like a house party,” she adds, with Wargasm shows taking on a similar energy. “We write music for catharsis and for people to forget about all the fucking shit that’s going on.”
Matlock speculates that nu-metal’s first wave broke the mainstream due to a darkening socio-political climate. The US was reeling from the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, and in 2001 it would endure George W. Bush’s presidency as well as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Is there a comparison to be drawn with the 2020s?
“It does feel like everything is fucked at the moment. The anxiety levels around the world are so weird right now,” says Matlock. “It’s no wonder that people want aggressive, angry music.”
Correction: this article initially stated that Limp Bizkit were scheduled to perform at Finsbury Park. It was amended 4th May.