I’ve looked at this kind of thing before, but from a different viewpoint (024: Changing Direction), where bands changed direction decisively for what they would likely protest is “artistic reasons”. I’m taking a different tack this week, and it is inspired by a few things (like many of these posts, they are frequently in the works for some time!), but the impetus this week has been thanks to the shitfit caused by one or two prominent industrial bands daring to incorporate other influences, and, you know, not being KVLT or something.
Mainly, but not exclusively, this is a post about cynical leaps into other styles to resurrect or jumpstart careers, or to make a suddenly unfashionable band “cool” again. The reason I say mainly is because there are some bands here who had no need to do such a thing, but incorporated other styles without losing what made them great in the first place.
The poster boys – and frankly the band whose ultra-downtuned sounds who kickstarted the rather maligned genre – for nu-metal endured something of a torrid time after the backlash against the sound that they helped to inspire. Like other related artists, by the third (mega-selling) album they were guest appearances aplenty, rap cameos, and a sense that it was more contrived than ever. So, they seemed to retreat into a period of relative irrelevance, appearing in the middle of festival lineups and never really exciting. So it was one hell of a shock when they returned a year or two back, having collaborated with Skrillex and other dubstep/”EDM” artists, with an album that worked far better than we might have expected. The Korn styles were still there, but with a monstrous electronic undercarriage that, needless to say, appealed to a perhaps wider audience than would otherwise have heard it – cynical perhaps, yes, but this was one outreach that commercially worked, and also by my reckoning gave Korn’s songwriting something of a shot in the arm too.
Machine Head were a band that really, really didn’t need to lower themselves into nu-metal, surely? Apparently someone thought they did. After spending the mid-nineties giving metal a shot(gun blast), with two blistering albums and various metal anthems created almost instantly (and most of which still endure today) – not to mention their consistently brilliant live shows – as they reached 1999 they started co-opting the sounds of less-heavy, more fashionable peers, maybe in an attempt to remain “relevant”, with quasi-rapping, ballads and even a fucking awful 80s cover on The Burning Red (and Rob Flynn’s hair at the time. Oh god). Things got worse with the appalling Supercharger, where the transformation was all-but-complete and fans left in their droves. The thing is, on the The Burning Red at least, there were some brilliant songs, it’s just a shame they were followed by such dross. There was a happy end, of course, with one of the finest resurrections of any metal band in the form of The Blackening, where they went back to their roots, ignored any fashions and ripped out a metal album that had everyone’s jaws on the floor. In between was an album that, it transpires, was a stepping stone towards it (Through The Ashes of Empires), which while by no means perfect was worth it alone for the monstrous opening track Imperium – for good reason a fixture in their live sets nowadays.
One of the more unusual about-turns came at the turn of the 90s. Up to that point, Die Krupps had been EBM pioneers in Germany, creating hard-hitting EBM (with added metal percussion), and after collaborating with Nitzer Ebb to amazing effect in 1989, they then turned their attentions to their love of Metallica (!) (and of which more about in a moment), releasing a Tribute to Metallica, that saw them add guitars to their heavy electronic sound. Future releases then took up this idea, creating an enormously influential industrial-EBM-metal hybrid, a template that especially during the 90s was an idea much copied (and for many more cynical reasons than a love of a metal band, that’s for sure!). Things came full circle in the last decade, as after they reformed for a second time, they revisited their backcatalogue for their twenty-fifth anniversary, and re-recorded the old EBM tracks with added guitars…and it sounded amazing, especially live.
One of those bands that followed in Die Krupps’ wake by using guitars was Front Line Assembly. Prior to 1994 they were an exclusively electronic outfit, albeit one that probably kicked harder than many metal bands. All that changed when they enlisted Devin Townsend to provide guitar assistance on Millenium, a single that got them an awful lot of airplay on MTV at the time, and when the album arrived it turned out that the whole album was an ultra-heavy, guitar-laden industrial hybrid, and it was brilliant (it even included a track with guest rapping, and another sampled a whole Pantera riff). Crucially, Bill Leeb and his cohorts have never let the band’s sound stand still, since returning to all-electronics for a while, bringing in drum’n’bass (the bruising Buried Alive from Artificial Soldier), more guitars and most recently, looking to EDM/dubstep stylings, which has been where a number of “fans” have kicked off bigtime. In my view, AirMech was a fascinating experiment, the first all-instrumental FLA album, and it’s mixing of “traditional” FLA-style industrial soundscapes with brutal dubstep drops was a resounding success in my view. What has apparently caused more of a backlash, though, is the band daring to take a similar route with the forthcoming new album, with new single Killing Ground effectively being Caustic Grip-era FLA updated for twenty years on, with more bass, added dubstep, yet more bass, and it sounds great. Knowing the band’s history, of course, this is no cynical move – this is simply an artist keeping his ear to the ground and adding styles into the mix where it is felt appropriate – what is amazing how none of it ever feels forced.
One of the more unexpected successes in the Britpop era was that of Lush. Originally one of the earlier “shoegaze” bands, relying on woozy walls of guitars with the twin female vocals being something of an afterthought, hidden in the mix, they were a Camden fixture for years, without really ever gaining too much in the way of wider success. All this changed in early 1996, when the band returned with a sound that had turned on it’s head. The guitars had been turned down a bit, moving the sound into more of a power-pop vein, I guess, but the big surprise was the pushing to the front of the mix for the vocals. Needless to say, it all sounded a bit Britpop, but was a welcome female voice in a male-dominated scene, and Single Girl in particular was an outstanding pop song. It is still hard to escape the feeling that this was a deliberate move to get one more hit, but it worked. The whole thing was tinged with sadness, though, when drummer Chris Acland killed himself only months later, stopping the band in it’s tracks.
Blur were another band who pre-dated the Britpop movement, and indeed were probably closer to the “baggy” movement with their first album Leisure, that appeared as baggy was vanishing down a druggy toilet. They never exactly kept to one style – Modern Life is Rubbish seemed more bothered about the sixties at points than the present day, while Parklife was a memorable in the heart of the Britpop age – but following the nadir of The Great Escape (and by this point it was clear that the heady rush of the Britpop time was over), the band clearly had their sights on other things, and the shambling, US alt/indie-rock influenced self-titled album was the result. More than a bit of a debt to Pavement (amongst others), and at the time bands of that ilk were a hell of a lot “cooler” than Britpop, that’s for sure. Even more ironic was that this pandering to the US turned out to be a good career move after all – Song 2 became a sports anthem at stadiums, on TV coverage and just about anywhere else it could be used. The “Woo Hoos” were the sound of the band laughing all the way to the bank.
Perhaps one of the more cynical in this list is this entry, in my own personal view. Pendulum seemed to burst out of nowhere onto the drum’n’bass scene, with a string of singles that absolutely slayed dancefloors (Blood Sugar and Slam in particular), and of course that definitive remix of The Prodigy’s Voodoo People. But the thing was, the Aussie ex-pats behind them were previously in a metal band, and so the story goes, heard particular track in a club, and suddenly wanted to do drum’n’bass. Their success quickly saw them outgrow the drum’n’bass scene, move into the mainstream and frankly this forced them to water down their sound, becoming an awful, weedy emo-drum’n’bass hybrid that swiftly lost it’s appeal (even if their live shows remained a huge draw).
What was then really interesting was the band going on hiatus, only for Rob Swire and Gareth McGrillen to reappear under the guise of Knife Party, which could charitably be described as Pendulum gone dubstep, as otherwise they use the same tricks they did before. And for me, this is something of a cynical switch to ensure they can release music that is “fashionable”. Let’s be honest, they won’t be the first and won’t be the last, though…
Back in the days PG (post-grunge) and before nu-metal, there was a period when about three (very) different genres all were hugely popular at once in the alternative scene. There was industrial metal, there was rap metal, and then there was US pop-punk. The latter remained on the airwaves for a long, long time, and indeed some of the bands went to bigger, more popular realms, and none more so than Green Day. Originally three bratty kids from California, they hit the big time with Dookie and in particular the single – but more than anything, their disaffected, sunny sound and frequently hilarious lyrics clearly struck a chord with an enormous number of teens. Over the past twenty years they have somewhat lost their original sound – although I wouldn’t honestly expect a band of now forty-somethings to be writing the same material now! – but their move into emo textures and almost prog-rock-operas for me was always a step too far.
One phrase I hadn’t mentioned until this entry was the words “sell out”.
So, onto Metallica. Revered by many, their earlier material helped to revitalise thrash metal in the late 80s, but it would seem that someone – many blame Bob Rock for it, I suspect him, the band and their record label all had a part – decided that Metallica needed to make their sound somewhat more…palatable…to move to “the next level”.
The result was what is known as The Black Album, which sounds huge, is stuffed with metal anthems, and appeared ready-made for stadiums, and was promptly labelled “sell out” by many aggrieved metal fans (and, it might be said, also was a realisation of where the wind was blowing in metal/alternative circles at the time). The thing is, this was as good as it got, Metallica never reached the heady heights of the 80s again…and managed to alienate most fans with their stand against Napster, which nowadays make them look like Luddites fighting the automation of the mills.
The good thing about mentioning the Napster debacle is that I can show this wonderful parody of Metallica, on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”…
Coming from the melting pot of punk-era New York City in the late-seventies, the initially punk-sounding band evolved astonishingly quickly, taking in influences from pretty much every direction, but most importantly new-wave, disco and reggae, and they helped to break down barriers between different genres in a number of cases. But none was more important, perhaps than their song Rapture. By this point there had been rap/hip-hop songs becoming big hits, but the inclusion of the rap interlude in amongst this track really helped to take the still fledgling genre mainstream – after all, this was the first song even featuring rapping to top the charts in the US, and also the first rap video on MTV – so while it hitched onto a cool new sound, it arguably did an awful lot to bring a burgeoning new genre to wider attention.