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Alternative metal

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Alternative metal

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Alternative metal is an eclectic form of rock music that gained popularity in the early 1990's alongside grunge. In many instances, it can be accurately described as a fusion of heavy metal and alternative rock, especially the indie rock of the 1980's. It is characterized by some heavy metal trappings (most notably heavy riffs), but usually with a pronounced experimental edge, including unconventional lyrics, odd time signatures, unusual technique, a resistance to conventional approaches to heavy music, and an incorporation of a wide range of influences outside of the metal music scene.



The term is used as a very loose categorization, but is usually used to describe artists playing a style of metal which is considered either a unique approach to metal music or difficult to define as strictly metal or alternative. Faith No More is a good example of a band in which both criteria apply.

Heavy metal is an essential component of the music, but it was very different from the thrash underground of the 1980s. Initially alternative metal appealed mainly to alternative rock fans since virtually all 80s alt-metal bands had their roots in the American indie underground scene. Alt-metal bands commonly emerged from hardcore punk (Corrosion of Conformity), post-punk/gothic rock (Jane's Addiction), noise rock such as the "pigfuck" sound of Big Black and Sonic Youth (Helmet, White Zombie), grunge (The Melvins, Soundgarden), industrial music (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails), and other movements in the indie underground scene, although it was not uncommon for bands to incorporate a wide variety of influences (such as Soundgarden, who lists Bad Brains, Bauhaus, and the Butthole Surfers as major influences). These bands never formed a distinct movement or scene; rather they were bound by their incorporation of traditional metal influences and openness to experimenting with the form, usually by way of their eclectic influences and uncommon approaches. For example, Jane's Addiction utilized performance art and a bohemian aesthetic, Corrosion of Conformity, The Melvins and the now defunct grunge band Soundgarden had a fondness for subverting '70s metal, and Faith No More injected funk and rap music into their brand of alternative metal, while Primus incorperates funk, progressive rock, elements of thrash metal and punk rock, and an obscure Residents-esque touch in to their form of the genre.

The grunge movement of the early 1990s, which itself was a combination of 70's metal like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and underground punk, helped increase the audience for such bands, and these artists were as comfortable playing to alternative rock fans on various Lollapalooza line-ups (itself founded by Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell) as they were opening for metal bands like Metallica. With the changing of the musical landscape by the popular breakthrough of alternative rock, "alternative metal" became a new phrase used to describe bands in the early 1990s who managed to make relevant Nirvana era music that, as metal historian Ian Christe states, was "heavy without necessarily being metal". Newer bands emerged in this era with their distinctive takes on metal: White Zombie, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry started the industrial wave, combining techno-like beats and heavy guitars, Tool immersed itself in prog-rock influences, Rage Against the Machine was as informed by hip hop and post-punk agitprop such as Gang of Four as it was by metal, and Helmet molded a background in jazz and noise-rock/post-hardcore influences into a highly influential strand of intense rock music.

As the 90s progressed, alternative metal's sound became more standardized as newer bands drew inspiration for the same collective set of influences that included RATM, Korn, Nine Inch Nails, and Helmet. Helmet in particular, with its downtuned riffs and aggressive dissonance, created the sonic template for the nu metal movement. The chief distinctions between alternative metal and nu metal, aside from the generic sound, are the latter's tenuous (or even non-existent) connection to the underground rock scene and the DIY ethos that informed the musical approaches of past alternative metal bands, as well as the reluctancy of alternative metal bands to explicitly align themselves under the heavy metal banner.

Alternative metal subgenres

As the term "alternative metal" was used to refer to bands with a unifying characteristic despite their tendency towards different sounds, subgenres of alternative metal, unifying bands with other sonic and aesthetic similarities, occurred.

Funk metal

Main article: Funk metal.

Bands who fused funk and heavy metal styles were referred to as funk-metal. These bands, who often also drew upon hip-hop and punk as influence, started cropping up in the mid-80s. Extreme, who were influenced by the era's focus on glam metal, lost popularity when public focus changed to grittier music and appearance. However, this did not diminish the growing popularity of the style's instigators, such as Faith No More (formed 1982) or Red Hot Chili Peppers (formed 1983). These are generally considered the first alternative metal bands. Primus was another popular funk metal band. Funk metal continued to grow in popularity until the 90s, when its final popular act, Rage Against the Machine, would become one of the biggest influences on nu metal.

Industrial metal

Main article: Industrial metal.

Industrial metal was another substyle that came into being in the 80s. Industrial bands like Ministry started the style by incorporating hard guitars on their 1988 album The Land of Rape and Honey. Within a year, the style was found all over the world. KMFDM also started using metal guitars and departed from their electronic industrial roots, and the goth scene spawned a range of acts who, following Ministry's lead, fused their gothic rock, punk rock, heavy metal and industrial tendencies to solidify the genre. Fear Factory, an industrial death metal band, formed in 1990, and like Rage Against the Machine became a staple influence of nu metal. The style is the most surviving of alternative metal, particularly in Germany, with bands like Rammstein and Megaherz leading a still-thriving scene.

Punk metal

Main article: Crossover thrash.

Bands with a basis in punk rock also adopted heavy metal influences. Although punk and metal had cross-pollinated since the original '77 punk explosion (other crossover genres include Grindcore, Speed metal, Thrash metal, Metalcore and Grunge), a particular wave of bands with a root in hardcore punk evolved a tendency towards metal. This movement was led by Corrosion of Conformity, but also included Suicidal Tendencies and Stormtroopers of Death. As well as being an influence on nu metal, particularly its riffing, this subgenre also inspired a later wave of metalcore bands.

Other styles

Alternative metal bands sometimes also had a basis in gothic rock (it is important to note, however, that gothic rock-alternative metal bands are entirely separate from the metal subgenre gothic metal) or post-punk, indie rock, noise rock and grunge. These bands, however, were all from a specifically alternative rock background, and so were not assigned substyles but simply referred to as alternative metal.

See also:


  • Christe, Ian (2003). Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal. HarperCollins. ISBN 0380811278.

External links

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