Halfway through Wargasm’s “God of War,” the riotous guitars and bass drop out and vocalist Milkie Way states: “It’s riffy as fuck – nu metal is definitely coming back!”
The single dropped in 2019, but that line was undeniably prescient. Over the past two years, nu metal has bubbled back to the surface across the music industry: partly thanks to a culture of nostalgia, which has also driven the re-emergence of Y2K genres like pop-punk and emo; partly thanks to the last few years of political unrest – reflected in social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, plus the inequalities exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19 – that have fuelled an anger that has always been integral to rock, punk and metal, and partly because a lot of disparate scenes, moments and micro-trends have eventually coalesced into a “thing”.
But, unlike the polarised landscape of the 00s, nu metal in 2021 isn’t confined to any one scene. Some artists only dip into it for a song or two, while others incorporate it into their overall sound. As a result, nu metal’s influences can be felt everywhere from hyperpop, to chart-friendly pop, to alternative acts like Loathe, Tetrarch and Cassyette, to artists like Nova Twins and Ashnikko who bridge the gap between the underground and the mainstream.
It’s in the roaring riffs of Bree Runway’s “Little Nokia”; the industrial crunch of Rico Nasty tracks like “Smack a Bitch” and “Rage”; the dark, sludgy backdrop to Poppy’s 2020 album I Disagree. Limp Bizkit’s return to Lollapalooza this year (serendipitously taking place days after the release of a documentary about Woodstock ‘99) led elder millennials to re-evaluate and revisit their work just in time for their first album in a decade, while younger generations began digesting the genre for the first time and putting their own spin on it. Back in January, TikTok star Jeris Johnson teamed up with Papa Roach for a remix of “Last Resort”, while sonic anarchists 100 gecs recently ‘reanimated’ Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer”.
“It was half a joke but it was half-legit because we did, at the time, feel like it was coming back. And now it feels like that even more so,” Way tells me, reflecting on the lyric. Wargasm’s own sound is aggressive and restless, moving between punk, metal, hip-hop, pop and electronic music – something that reflects the nature of nu metal in 2021 in general, which is, in part, a product of the dissolution of genre boundaries that has taken place over the last decade. Rock music in general has expanded to encompass more genres and experimentation, including a blend of hip-hop and rock that comes in different flavours, whether it’s emo rap or trap metal. Altogether, it’s a more diverse type of nu metal, both in the genres it blends with and the artists that make it – who are, you may have noticed, predominantly women, non-binary people and people of colour.
“There's this infusion, [this] eclectic mix, of what nu metal is,” Nova Twins’s Amy Love says about the current wave of nu metal. “It hasn't got much boundaries, which is really fun about what's happening now, and that's why it's exciting.”
Artists of marginalised identities who make guitar-based music are often excluded from rock or alternative spaces, but artists from different backgrounds are gaining more visibility. “It's becoming more diverse and it's nice to see people of colour, everyone who felt that they couldn't be a part of it is now a part of it. They’re leading it,” Love says.
In some ways, it’s a continuation of the diversity that was present in nu metal from the beginning. The Y2K scene was not as overwhelmingly straight, white and male as other genres of rock, which may have been why some critics or more hardened metal fans wrote it off at the time. “[Nu metal] wasn’t smart music, but there was something really visceral and culture blending that was important,” Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda reflected in a 2020 interview with Metal Hammer.
Elsewhere, Rage Against the Machine used their music to speak out against white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism and police brutality, while System of a Down addressed the prison-industrial complex, the Iraq War and the Armenian genocide. “I believe that the fact that nu metal was noticeably more diverse than much of the mainstream rock or heavy metal bands of the era was a contributing factor to the way it was dismissed and denigrated,” writer Kim Kelly told Mel Magazine. “There were a significant number of people of colour, queer folks and women involved in the genre’s heyday.”
However, it’s also fair to say that nu metal at its most commercial embodied male aggression and whiteness, and seemed to even co-opt Black culture. Nu metal incorporates rap and hip-hop, both of which are Black art forms (rock music itself has its origins in Black culture, even though it’s often associated with whiteness). Many nu metal artists were not Black, taking influence from Black culture without supporting its community and without an understanding of the context or politics. In fact, nu metal was often deeply apolitical, taking genres that had been used to speak out against systemic oppression and instead using them to get plain old angry at, well, whatever they wanted. At the same time, Black artists and fans remained underrepresented and unwelcome across rock music.
Today’s nu metal flips that stereotypical white male aggression on its head, taking on a new dimension as a vehicle to speak out against misogyny and racism. Nova Twins’ “Bullet” calls out men harassing women through the lyrics, “It's my body, it's my mind, do what I want with it / Cat caller on the street / Why do you always bother me?”, while Yonaka’s “Clique” captures the frustration of men talking down to women, with lines like, “You think I'm pretty? You think I'm cute?” and “You think I should be seen but shouldn't speak?”
“We had to fight, being two Black women in the rock industry, where we turn up to festivals and nobody looks like us,” Love explains. “There were no women on these bills whatsoever and we've seen how it's getting better, and we still got a way to go. I think that makes you angry, that makes you furious – then you put it in the songs.”
Rina Sawayama describes her experiences with racial microaggressions on “STFU!”, which contrasts loud nu metal verses with a piano-pop chorus as she softly sings “shut the fuck up” over and over again. “For queer people, for people of colour, that rage is real,” Sawayama said of the song, speaking to gal-dem. “And you can’t really talk about it or show that rage before you find community – and then you can laugh about it, humorise it… I think rage and humour can sit side by side.”
The exaggerated displays of masculinity associated with 00s nu metal at times felt toxic, but at others bordered on satire. “To me, it's like WWE wrestling in [that] it's so camp, but the people who do it take it so seriously,” Way suggests. “Mudvayne take it so seriously as an art form. They're outwardly so uber-macho, but I think it almost goes in on itself [and becomes] so macho that it's… not. I think it's just camp and hilarious.”
Today’s nu metal artists are tapping into that same performative anger, while again playing with gender stereotypes. “You can have fun with it,” Yonaka’s Theresa Jarvis says. “It's not literally like, ‘I'm gonna fucking kill you!’ It's a tongue-in-cheek ‘fuck you.’” Ashnikko’s anti-hater diss track “Maggots” embodies that energy perfectly, pairing gross-out lyrics like “You're the maggots in my meat” with a child’s voice exclaiming “P. U. you smell!” In the outro, they reference the precise tension of women making heavy music – that, because of gender roles, women are told to be gentle, polite and “nice”, instead of loud and aggressive.
The second rise of nu metal doesn’t necessarily pave the way for bands like Wargasm or Nova Twins topping charts; rather, it signals a musical culture more open to genre-blending. It shows artists and fans across the board embracing a form of guitar-based rage that is no longer seen as inherently masculine or belonging to any one identity. Instead, the new nu metal uses different genres to help purge the collective fury of existing in societies that are increasingly hellish – but isn’t afraid to have some fun with it.
“The thing about nu metal was always that it's inherently very rage-y,” Way says. “It's about ‘I'm angry at this, I'm angry at that, I'm gonna rap about it’. Everyone's pretty mad right now at a lot of things – and rightly so.”