April 20, 2024

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Who are the “Big 4” of nu-metal? We examined 12 prime candidates for the mythical title

Along with post-grunge, pop-punk, emo, post-hardcore, and metalcore (all at varying times), the years between 1994-2004 (at least as far as rock subgenres were concerned) were led by nu-metal. Coinciding with CD sales ramping up (they peaked in 2000) and the enabling of the genre to appear on MTV and at high-profile festivals, bands like Linkin Park, Korn, Deftones, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, Incubus, P.O.D., and dozens more helped make the genre a mainstream force.

There’s also the notion of a subgenre of music having a “Big 4” – generally speaking, the 4 bands that best represent the genre at hand. For thrash metal, it’s usually known as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax (with special mentions given to bands like Testament, Death Angel, Exodus, Sepultura, Overkill, Kreator, and more). Grunge usually is considered Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains. For other subgenres, it’s usually more difficult – as an example, you’d probably get 100 different answers if you asked someone what the “Big 4” of metalcore was, for instance. But if you were to ask a random selection of people what the “Big 4” of nu-metal was, you’d probably get similar answers (though likely with at least slight differences).

There’s many reasons for this. One, the number of nu-metal bands that had major commercial success is relatively small. There’s tiers to this, to be certain. For every Korn and Limp Bizkit, there was often a band with either an unmarketable name (Ultraspank) or that arrived a year or two too late (TrustCompany). And in the latter two cases, they were still pretty successful – TrustCompany scored a Gold record with their debut and Ultraspank managed to get their song “Five” on the PlayStation game 3Extreme. Others, like Pressure 4-5 and The Union Underground, gained an initial burst of fame playing on Ozzfest lineups.

There’s also the matter of the fact that some of these bands and albums were very poorly promoted, even on major labels. For example, bands like Pulse Ultra and their 2002 debut album Headspace realistically should have been a hot seller. Its accessibility and obvious Tool // progressive // alternative influences made “Build Your Cages” a solid hit, even appearing on Need For Speed 2: Hot Pursuit. Unfortunately, there was never a follow-up released due to poor sales – as changing tastes and record label shuffling often bit these bands in the rear before they ever had a chance.

With that said, it’s fairly easy to whittle a potential Big 4 Of Nu-Metal list to around 20 bands or so. What they all have in common is notable cultural impact, high(ish) album sales, and bonus points for long-standing appeal that lasted longer than the genre’s peak itself. And we’ve presented some compelling arguments for each band to be considered for your hypothetical list. Here goes.

Linkin Park

To be honest, you probably can’t make a list of this sort without Linkin Park. They are one of the highest-selling bands in history, hold a prominent place in mainstream pop culture anytime they make a movement, and undoubtedly are one of the most successful rock bands of the new millennium. They’re a band that, even in their infancy, understood both their audience as well as the influence they’d have on a younger generation. On their debut album Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park channeled the frustration that comes from interpersonal relationships and overcoming the odds into an album where every song could’ve been a hit single.

It helps when you have a vocalist duo in Mike Shinoda and the late Chester Bennington that prove to be instantly recognizable. So too, are the various influences the band integrated over the years, with their sonic evolution being at least highly interesting (if imperfect). They’re one of a handful of bands in the genre to integrate prominent electronic influences into their music in an organic fashion, and all 7 of their studio full-lengths peaked in the top 3 of the Billboard 200. They have one of the most dedicated fanbases any band could ever hope to have (which dates back to their days even before Hybrid Theory was released). Linkin Park certainly were never afraid of writing pop-influenced songs either – much of their song structures are crafted with it in mind. Linkin Park is so popular that their 2002 remix album, Reanimation, is the fourth highest-selling remix album in history. And plenty of new bands are being inspired by their influence as well. What more really needs to be said?

Slipknot

One of the most extreme bands to ever win a Grammy Award, Slipknot are so big now that they host their own (usually) yearly touring festival in Knotfest, and also have a rabid fanbase that spans from young to old (…just like Linkin Park). They’re one of the most notable bands to wear masks, and unlike Mudvayne, they’ve never ditched them. Their 1999 self-titled debut album was fueled by their stint on that year’s Ozzfest tour, where word-of-mouth spread quickly for their chaotic live show, and it eventually became the first album on Roadrunner Records to be certified RIAA Platinum. It’s difficult to find a Slipknot song that doesn’t have a ton of profanity or nihilistic + dark themes, yet they’re still immensely popular. Later on, the band pulled back and dropped slower songs like “Snuff”, which endeared them to a new audience.

Beyond just the band’s image and overall heaviness, Slipknot have also endured their own share of controversies, where their use of profanity and dark lyrics were targeted by conservative groups for apparently being “demented”. Their supposed “feud” with fellow masked nu-metal band Mushroomhead (who might be a good candidate for this list if they had received the popularity they arguably deserved) was also a big part of the scene. Good times.

Deftones

Oh boy, you knew it was coming. Deftones’ relationship with the nu-metal tag has always been a tenuous one, with their 2000 album White Pony intentionally veering away from the genre descriptor. They’ve loudly disassociated with the genre in numerous interviews as well. Still, the label is still connected to the band mainly through stylistic similarities and influences to their peers at the time, and there’s no doubt that they were part of the movement overall. Even 1997’s Around The Fur brought forward more textural guitars and obvious shoegaze influences, the latter of which nobody else was really doing in that scene at the time. Few albums could claim to be as much of an artistic triumph as White Pony, with the band’s signature sound turned on its head with more shoegaze, dream pop, and electronic influences integrated in a way that still seems sinister, yet beautiful.

Besides the band’s constantly shifting (though still iconic) sound from album to album, there’s also the matter of both their longevity and overall influence on the scene. Their popularity has never really waned from a commercial and critical perspective, and their overall influence is felt in many, many popular bands and musicians of today. It would take forever to list them all, but the likes of Loathe, Teenage Wrist, Glassjaw, Spiritbox, Fightstar, Vein.fm, Vexes, Thrice, Poison The Well, Circa Survive, Trade Wind, Sleep Token, Moodring, Narrow Head, and dozens more note Deftones as a key influence on their sound. And many more count them as an influence simply for the fact that they’re willing to wildly shift their sound from album to album, even when the reception might be uncertain (the shift from ATF to White Pony, especially).

Limp Bizkit

On sheer album sales and pop culture influence alone, it’s hard to topple what Limp Bizkit accomplished between 1997-2003. One of the most controversial bands in the scene at that time, almost everything Limp Bizkit – and especially vocalist Fred Durst – did was guaranteed to bring the ruckus. One of the best bands to ever market themselves effectively, they also embraced file-sharing and Napster to the point where Napster actually sponsored a free tour for the band in 2000. It then led to their third full-length album, Chocolate Starfish, becoming one of twenty albums ever in the Soundscan era (post-1991) to sell one million copies in its first week of release.

It should also be known that guitarist Wes Borland is quite the innovator when it comes to his instrument, and provided a key reason to see the band in their earlier, more raw days. And critical perception of the band has shifted as of late, with Limp Bizkit even inviting bands like Wargasm and Scowl on tour with them as part of their support for the next generation of stars. Fred Durst appearing in Zoolander and alongside the likes of Christian Aguilera at the 2000 MTV VMAs also showed their obvious place in pop culture at the time. Plus, how could a band that was singing about chainsaws and skinning asses raw not do well? What an era, tbh.

System Of A Down

They haven’t put out a full-length album since Hypnotize // Mezmerize topped the charts in 2005, but System Of A Down have always worn their Armenian heritage on their collective sleeves. Even from an early age, their music wasn’t afraid to tackle subjects like war (“War?”) and the prison industrial complex in the USA (“Prison Song”). One of nu-metal’s weirdest and most off-kilter bands, they borrowed heavily from the Faith No More // Mr. Bungle playbook in terms of overall sound and unpredictability.

While they were pretty popular after their 1998 self-titled debut dropped, it was 2001’s Toxicity that caused the band to explode. Songs like “Chop Suey!”, the title track, and “Prison Song” proved that metal of this kind could be weird AND popular, melodic yet still heavy. The only real problem is that they haven’t released more music since 2005, outside of a couple new songs. But considering how popular they still are, maybe it’s not necessary for System Of A Down to do so.

Korn

A list like this can’t really be complete without the band who released (arguably) the first nu-metal album, and in any case, popularized the genre. Inspired by the likes of Primus and Faith No More as well as hip-hop, Korn’s 1994 self-titled debut album was both menacing and percussive in a way that no band had really combined beforehand. When you have a vocalist as unique as Jonathan Davis, of course, almost anything is possible. When the first line of the first song of your debut album asks “are you ready?”, you’d better pray that you can deliver – and it became a mantra. Sophomore album Life Is Peachy kept the good times rolling, and much like Linkin Park did, Korn was one of the first bands to utilize the Internet to get closer to their fans as well.

It wasn’t until the band’s third record, Follow The Leader, that Korn would hit the big time. A major part of pop culture, the band appeared all over MTV’s TRL and took their talents to the arenas. “Freak On A Leash”, “Got The Life”, and even the band’s next albums like Issues and Untouchables would become fan favorites. Their longevity has been solid, too, with later albums like The Serenity Of Suffering and The Paradigm Shift being notable successes.

Mudvayne

Want to hear something absolutely hilarious? Mudvayne became a cult favorite despite the first song of their first ever EP in 1997 being named – wait for it – “Poop Loser”. It almost sounds like an early Korn outtake where nobody in the band imagined they were being recorded. Or maybe they did, who knows?

Anyway, there’s a lot more at play here. Mudvayne’s Ryan Martinie is one of the most talented bassists of our era, in any genre. There is no doubt that his contributions to Mudvayne’s sound and development played a major role in their critical acceptance. Technically proficient and ridiculously heavy on their 2000 debut album L.D. 50, the band’s prominent makeup also gained the band a quick fanbase. Dissecting their debut full-length is a bit difficult, but in a good way. Tracks like “Death Blooms” and the meme-worthy “Dig” hint at progressive metal and math metal influences, while the Chad Gray highlighted “Under My Skin” is a track that pushes the band’s hip-hop and rhythm influences to the front.

While Mudvayne headed in a more streamlined direction on later albums, their 2005 single “Happy?”, off their album Lost And Found, ended up being the band’s highest-charting single. Despite its commercial acceptance and melodic nature, bassist Ryan Martinie was a major part of the song, and especially the album. 3 RIAA Gold records, at least one highly influential album, and their emergence a few years back to tour and possibly record new music is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider how the band integrated even funk metal into their early music (not an easy thing to do with a band that played a decidedly heavier style than most). While

P.O.D.

Almost every music genre has a prominent Christian wing to it. P.O.D. was nu-metal’s biggest entry into the genre, and they experienced tremendous success on 1999’s The Fundamental Elements Of Southtown and 2001’s Satellite. Somewhat unique was the band’s integration of reggae influences into their sound, as well as hardcore punk influences carried over from their early days. P.O.D. always wore those influences on their sleeves, with H.R. of Bad Brains actually featuring on “Without Jah, Nothin'”. Not content to be a knock off brand of a nu-metal hybrid, P.O.D. are the rare band who wear their faith on their sleeve, yet aren’t overly preachy. Oddly enough, the band endured targeted criticism from the Christian market multiple times, for everything from supposed “occult” album covers (on Southtown and their 2003 self-titled album) to the use of the word “fuck” on the scathing track “I Am”. Authenticity is certainly a tag that can be applied to P.O.D., for their contributions to hard music.

Satellite will always remain the band’s biggest moment, though. Released on the day of the September 11th terrorist attacks, tracks like the timely “Youth Of The Nation” (which referenced the Columbine and Santana High School shootings) and “Alive” (the chorus says exactly what the song is about) provided a positive (and realistic) counterpoint to nu-metal’s often negative lyricism. While the band hasn’t really had an album that matched Satellite’s cultural impact since then, their discography has still had some interesting moments – in particular, their album Testify, which featured a then-unknown Katy Perry on “Goodbye For Now” and rising reggae star Matisyahu on both “Roots In Stereo” and “Strength Of My Life” showcased their versatility. And they’re one of the most successful Christian-affiliated bands in history, even though P.O.D. manages to have a wide variety of fans of different faiths. If you want an album that makes you feel truly alive, Satellite is up there with the best.

Incubus

Where Incubus truly falls on the nu-metal spectrum is up to the individual listener entirely. While the band quickly abandoned most pretenses of the genre upon the release of 1999’s Make Yourself and especially on 2001’s Morning View, there’s no doubt that 1997’s S.C.I.E.N.C.E. proved to be one of the most creative albums of the era. Armed with one of the most diverse palettes in music, the album combined jazz, funk metal, alt-rock, hip-hop, trip-hop, and a few other genres to create something that still sounds fresh and exciting today. Lyrically, Incubus also quickly set themselves apart with songs about nonconformity and embracing the day you’re given, again a departure from the genre’s usual lyrical tropes.

Incubus also knows a thing or two about staying power and evolution. They have one of the most interesting mixes of popularity (Brandon Boyd is the kind of frontman you’d make in a Create-A-Player mode, with enough star power to drive megahits like “Drive” and “Pardon Me”) and longevity, with their evolution on the aforementioned albums being particularly interesting (though imperfect). 2006’s Light Grenades might well be the band’s most interesting modern full-length album, and to us that’s actually an underrated one considering how many different sounds can be found on the record. There’s no denying the holy trinity of records Incubus released between 1997-2001 were exciting ones, even when they veered toward more of a poppy alt-rock direction. And even though Brandon Boyd clearly stated that being lumped in with nu-metal wasn’t something the band was into (they were, after all, just kids playing music that reflected their influences at the time), there’s also no doubt that Incubus played a major role in the scene itself.

Sevendust

Sevendust are kings of consistency, having amassed over a dozen full-length albums (their 14th full-length drops in June 2023) that are similar, yet have distinct stylistic differences. Lajon Witherspoon and company fit almost every box you could possibly want in a band of the genre. Longevity? Sevendust have one of the most dedicated fanbases in all of music – there’s fans that routinely travel to see the band play multiple times on a given tour. Success? There’s a lot of it. Sevendust have experienced the following…

*A Grammy nomination (in 2016 for their song “Thank You”)
*3 RIAA Gold records (for their first three albums)
*Between 1999’s Home and 2018’s All I See Is War, all the band’s full-length studio albums peaked at least in the Billboard top 30, overcoming industry changes and the decline of nu-metal’s popularity in 2003-2004
*Opened for Metallica in 1999 for multiple shows
*Woodstock ’99. Enough said.
*Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger explained why it’s tough following up Sevendust at a live show, if you know you know.
*Appeared on the Scream 3 soundtrack with their song “Fall”. Nu-metal and post-grunge AF.

Outside of a window from 2005-2008 where Sonny Mayo replaced guitarist Clint Lowery, Sevendust have maintained the same lineup since their 1997 self-titled debut album. Their sound doesn’t really have a ton of hip-hop influence (it does, but not to the point of many nu-metal acts). Rather, Sevendust’s sound is rooted in the balance of melodic and heavy groove that is often replicated, but never duplicated. The individual members of Sevendust all bring something special to the table, to be sure. Besides the aforementioned vocal talents of Lajon Witherspoon, whose soulful vocals (God that phrase descriptor is annoying, but it’s accurate) are awe-inspiring, there’s Morgan’s rose intelligent + polyrhythmic drumming and screaming – a true dual threat. Few drummers can match the energy he brings to the band’s live show each night – and the magic of Sevendust is, of course, their live show.

Guitarists John Connolly and Clint Lowery, as well as bassist Vinnie Hornsby, provide the rhythm and riffs that can only come from a band that’s talented and seasoned. Sevendust have never shied away from talking about topics like racism (live staple “Black”), drug use (“Wired”), and interpersonal relationships (“Face To Face”), and they’ve always done it through various styles. Some more aggressive than others, of course. They’re also one of the few bands of the scene adept at acoustic songs (having done so on multiple occasions), and they outlasted numerous trends over the years to become one of the most respected bands around. Even their newer material is very compelling, with 2015’s Black Out The Sun being a particular highlight.

Disturbed

Okay, the Down With The Sickness memes are funny as hell. There’s just SO many of them. But all jokes aside, what’s not a joke is just how successful Disturbed have been over the years. While their 2000 debut album The Sickness didn’t sell like hotcakes out of the cake, it eventually became a big hit – led by iconic vocalist David Draiman and his chin piercing. Let it be known that the band wants to drop plates on your ass.

On Believe and especially Ten Thousand Fists, though, the band started to break away from nu-metal – pursuing a more streamlined metal direction. It was at this time that they started to become mainstays in terms of popularity – in fact, from 2002’s Believe to 2015’s Immortalized, Disturbed scored 5 straight albums that reached #1 on the Billboard 200. Needless to say, they’ve had a lot of staying power over the years, even despite changing trends.

Static-X

Few bands took industrial metal influences to the heights that Static-X did, especially on their 1999 debut album Wisconsin Death Trip. You’d be hard pressed to find nu-metal that was made for the dance floor more than songs like “Bled For Days” and the Queen Of The Damned highlight “So Cold”. The late Wayne Static was a late bloomer as far as finally making it big with Static-X, not reaching stardom until his 30’s. But that really doesn’t matter. Delivering catchy and heavy industrial metal with accessibility is not an easy task – it’s something that’s been a rarity over the years.

Papa Roach

Infest, the 2000 debut album from Papa Roach, landed the band a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Going 3x Platinum and led by the massive single “Last Resort”, the band was immediately catapulted into major popularity. Thankfully, Infest also wasn’t a one-single wonder – “Dead Cell” and fan favorite “Between Angels And Insects” showcase convincing Jacoby Shaddix choruses and sharp guitar riffs that it’s not a surprise it went 3x Platinum.

They’ve also got the longevity thing down as well. Papa Roach have managed to evolve with the times in ways many of their peers simply did not adjust to, with livestreams and collaborations from up and coming stars (In This Moment’s Maria Brink, Sueco, and Jason Aalan Butler all come to mind). Even when the band’s inevitable shift to hard rock // glam rock came about a few albums into their career, it mostly worked for Papa Roach. Yet since then, they’ve released some interesting material – check out the mental health anthem “Help” if you need proof of the band tackling an important topic in a timely manner.

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