Alternative metal (also known as alt-metal) is a music genre that infuses heavy metal with influences from alternative rock and other genres not normally associated with metal. Alternative metal bands are often characterized by heavily downtuned, mid-paced guitar riffs, a mixture of accessible melodic vocals and harsh vocals and sometimes unconventional sounds within other heavy metal styles. The term has been in use since the 1980s, although it came into prominence in the 1990s.
Other genres considered part of the alternative metal movement included rap metal and funk metal, both of which influenced another prominent subgenre, nu metal. Nu metal expands the alternative metal sound, combining its vocal stylings and downtuned riffs with elements of other genres, such as hip hop, funk, thrash, hardcore and industrial.
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The genre is generally considered a fusion between alternative rock and heavy metal, although Allmusic states "alt-metal is a far-reaching term that has been used to describe everyone from Hammerlock to Neurosis to Ministry to Limp Bizkit". They also remarked that alternative metal was originally "a style united by its nonconformist sensibility rather than any immediately classifiable sound."
One of the main characteristics of alternative metal and its subgenres are heavily downtuned, mid-paced "chug"-like guitar riffs. However, funk metal bands often use a more conventional riffing style influenced by 1980s thrash metal. Alternative metal features clean and melodic vocals, influenced by those of alternative rock, in contrast to other heavy metal subgenres. Later bands frequently incorporated vocal styles that alternated between clean singing, growls and screaming. Examples include alternative metal bands associated with the nu metal movement, such as Korn and Deftones, who have been described as having "bipolar vocals".
Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1990 "Just as rock has an alternative, [left] wing-bands like the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr.-so does metal. Alternative metal is alternative music that rocks. And alternative metal these days can reach 10 times the audience of other alternative rock. Jane's Addiction plays an intense brand of '70s-influenced arty metal; so does Soundgarden. In fact, the arty meanderings of Sab and the Zep themselves would be considered alternative metal." Houston Press has described the genre as being a "compromise for people for whom Nirvana was not heavy enough but Metallica was too heavy."
The first wave of alternative metal bands emerged from many backgrounds, including hardcore punk (Bad Brains, Rollins Band, Life of Agony, Corrosion of Conformity), noise rock (Helmet, The Jesus Lizard, White Zombie), Seattle's grunge scene (Alice in Chains, Soundgarden), stoner rock (Clutch, Kyuss), sludge metal (Fudge Tunnel, Melvins), gothic metal (Type O Negative) and industrial (Godflesh, Nine Inch Nails). These bands never formed a distinct movement or scene; rather they were bound by their incorporation of traditional metal influences and openness to experimentation. Jane's Addiction borrowed from art rock and progressive rock, Quicksand blended post-hardcore and Living Colour injected funk into their sound, for example, while Primus were influenced by progressive rock, thrash metal and funk and Faith No More mixed progressive rock, R&B, funk and hip hop. Fudge Tunnel's style of alternative metal included influences from both sludge metal and noise rock.
The origins of the genre can be traced back to funk rock music of the early to mid-1980s, when alternative bands like Fishbone, Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers started mixing heavy metal with funk, creating the alternative metal subgenre funk metal. Other early bands in the genre also came from hardcore punk backgrounds. Bands such as Faith No More, Jane's Addiction and Soundgarden are recognized as some of the earliest alternative metal acts, with all three of these bands emerging around the same time, and setting the template for the genre by mixing heavy metal music with a variety of different genres in the mid to late 1980s. During the 1980s, alternative metal appealed mainly to alternative rock fans, since virtually all 1980s alt-metal bands had their roots in the American independent rock scene.
The emergence of grunge as a popular style of rock music in the early 1990s helped make alternative metal more acceptable to a mainstream audience, with alternative metal soon becoming the most popular metal style of the 1990s. Several bands associated with the genre denied their status as metal bands. Helmet drummer John Stanier said "We fell into the whole metal thing by accident, we always hated it when people mentioned metal in conjunction with us." Saby Reyes-Kulkarni of Pitchfork Media stated "bands like Faith No More, Soundgarden, Primus, Helmet, the Rollins Band, and dozens more were initially marketed as quasi-metal acts. This was only possible in a climate where record labels, journalists, and college radio DJs understood that the metal audience could embrace new, albeit arty variations on the form." The alternative music festival Lollapalooza conceived by Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell, helped bands associated with the movement such as Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Primus, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains gain exposure. The progressive rock-influenced band Tool became a leading band in the alternative metal genre with the release of their 1993 debut album Undertow; Tool's popularity in the mid-'90s helped kick off an era of bands with alt-metal tendencies also classified in other genres like industrial (Nine Inch Nails) and rap rock (Rage Against the Machine). Many established 1980s metal bands released albums in the 1990s that were described as alternative metal, including Anthrax, Metallica and Mötley Crüe.
In the latter part of the 1990s, a second, more aggressive wave of alternative metal emerged; dubbed nu metal, it often relied on hardcore punk, groove/thrash metal, industrial and hip hop influences, as opposed to the influences of the first wave of alternative metal bands, with this style subsequently becoming more popular than regular alternative metal. It resulted in a more standardized sound among alternative metal bands, in contrast to the more eccentric and unclassifiable early alternative metal bands. Korn, a band formed in 1993, released their self-titled debut the following year, which is widely considered to be the first nu metal release. MTV stated that Korn "arrived in 1993 into the burgeoning alternative metal scene, which would morph into nü-metal the way college rock became alternative rock." Stereogum similarly claimed that nu metal was a "weird outgrowth of the Lollapalooza-era alt-metal scene". During the late 1990s and early 2000s, nu metal was prevalent in the mainstream, with bands such as Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Slipknot and Staind all attaining success. AllMusic has compared nu and alternative metal's commercial success during this period to the rise of the glam metal phenomenon in the 1980s, stating that it is "ironic, given alternative metal's vehement rejection of hair metal's attitude." Some nu metal bands managed to push musical boundaries while still remaining commercially viable, such as Mudvayne (who combined progressive elements) and Deftones, who have incorporated post-hardcore and dream pop influences.
Joel McIver believes that the band Tool is important to the development of this genre; he wrote in his book Unleashed: The Story of Tool, "By 1996 and '97 the wave of alternative metal spearheaded by Tool in the wake of grunge was beginning to evolve into nu-metal". However, Tool's vocalist Maynard James Keenan was quick to separate himself from this movement saying "I'm sick of that whole attitude. The one that puts Tool in with [nu] metal bands. The press... can't seem to distinguish between alternative and metal." Other alternative metal bands considered influential to the nu metal genre such as Helmet have also tried to distance themselves from the movement.
A number of bands from the nu metal era — such as System of a Down, Godsmack, Glassjaw, Karnivool and Deftones — are still primarily classed as alternative metal, due to lacking specific elements associated with the nu metal genre. In 2016, Jason Heller of Vice wrote "The term alternative metal still pops up from time to time, but it’s no more relevant or meaningful today than alternative rock. Instead, it’s a relic. But the brief, nebulous era of alternative metal in the late 80s and early 90s remains a snapshot of a vibrant time when a brash new generation of heavy-leaning bands threw everything against the wall to see what stuck."
Either way, industrial metal generally possesses greater aggressive force than straight-ahead industrial, which helped the style cross over to metal and alternative audiences accustomed to guitar-driven music. Industrial metal lyrics also mirror the darkness and aggression of standard heavy metal, although the sensibility is filtered through the personal alienation of punk and alternative rock...In the wake of NIN's success, a number of similar-sounding bands popped up on alternative radio, and toward the end of the decade, a number of popular alternative metal bands appropriated industrial metal's electronic production touches into their hybrid of aggressive music styles.
Rap-Metal seeks to fuse the most aggressive elements of hardcore rap and heavy metal, and became an extremely popular variation of alternative metal during the late '90s...In spite of projects like 1993's much-hyped Judgment Night soundtrack -- which featured all-star teamings of artists from the rap and rock worlds -- crossover collaborations faded as the '90s wore on. At the same time, rap-metal began to draw influences from alternative metal -- specifically, bands like Helmet, White Zombie, and Tool, who relied on crushingly heavy sonic textures more than catchy songwriting or immediately memorable riffs. The thick sound and the lack of melodic emphasis fit rap-metal's concerns perfectly. With the exception of Rage Against the Machine's angry left-wing politics, most rap-metal bands during the mid- to late '90s blended an ultra-aggressive, testosterone-heavy theatricality with either juvenile humor or an introspective angst learned through alternative metal...
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