The Nu Metal Years Part 2: The Guantanamo Diaries
Bands didn’t exactly make it out to rural Dorset much. Until a local dry ski slope started putting on all-ages punk shows, the only band I could see play live was The Wurzels. Then Follow The Leader came out – I was big into KoRn already, but this, it had cover art by Todd McFarlane and Fred Durst was on it (I was young, okay?). It was more polished than Life Is Peachy and the hooks dug in deeper. I managed to persuade my dad to drive me and three friends to London to see KoRn play Wembley Arena, and this was a big deal. I knew what concerts were in abstract, but a production of this magnitude, played in front of 12,500 people who were mostly like me, was a huge thing for me. And there were girls – goth chicks, punks my age with dreadlocks, not the rosy-cheeked farmer’s daughters and tightly-wound girls from the estate that I had known back home. I mean, obviously I didn’t talk to them, but I at least knew that they existed. We were far to the back and right, watching everything at an awkward angle, but the seething mass in the mosh pit was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
So the first band I ever saw live turned out to be P.O.D, KoRn’s support act, a Christian nu-metal band known mostly for that once-ubiquitous ‘Alive’ song but still plugging away four albums later. And that’s something I can never live down.
Over and Over Again, Just Like Before
If KoRn were Nu Metal’s progenitors, Limp Bizkit its frat-boy id and Deftones its (relative) street and art cred, then Linkin Park were its cold, commercial logic. Formed in 1998, and like KoRn kids from a nowhere California town (Agoura Hills, significantly more suburban than Bakersfield), LP could be considered the quintessential second wave Nu-Metal band. By their first release, 2000’s Hybrid Theory, they as musicians and music fans as a whole had come to term with Nu-Metal. It was a major commercial force by the turn of the millennium, with millions of units shifted and multiple Grammys under its belt. There were bandwagoneers since the beginning, and I covered a few of them in the last feature, but Linkin Park might be the first time that anyone set out to become a Nu Metal band, and only a Nu Metal band, and really meant it.
Their history: born as Xero, grew up as Hybrid Theory, graduated as Lincoln Park, changed to Linkin Park to secure a domain name from an actual park. Several members left when their demo failed to get them a record deal. So cred. Much integrity. Original vocalist Mike Shinoda recruited Chester Bennington from a nu-grunge band and the competitive ‘Whitest Name Possible’ circuit after being told to by a record company executive (because Art). They circulated their demo via an online ‘Street Team’ who made sure that it ended up in all the hottest message boards, but their ultimate goal of signing to a major label like a bunch of fucking assholes still eluded them. Until, of course, that record executive who exposed Chester Bennington to the world like weaponised anthrax at a major airport became vice president of Warner Brothers Records and signed them to a deal that continues to this day.
Their debut album, Hybrid Theory, has now sold over ten million copies, meaning that it gets ‘Diamond’ status. The singles from that album, particularly ‘In The End,’ were absolutely huge, getting airplay where nobody else in the genre could. It wasn’t like they were doing anything that their predecessors weren’t doing, but they were doing it better: Bennington’s vocal register is closer to emo than radio-unfriendly Cookie Monster, Shinoda is a better rapper than Fred Durst by a significant margin and while neither are as good at spittin’ flows as say, any actual rap artist, Shinoda was at least able to take the broad-strokes angst in Bennington’s verses and translate them into rhyming couplets that don’t fall apart. In the song ‘Faint’, from Meteora, he actually gets off a few not-bad rhymes, and the processed violins over the verses sound pretty decent.
None of them were boy-band pretty, but they were at least approachable for a younger female audience in a way that Slipknot were Slip-not (hiyo!). Somebody at Warners must have noticed this, because the protagonists of their videos are more often than not young and female. It’s a common trope in Nu-metal videos to have a high-school aged proxy for the despair of multi-millionaire forty year olds – such as in this KoRn video, in which a young Aaron Paul teaches his bullies a lesson by bringing a prostitute to Prom and vomiting what appears to be enormous quantities of semen on to everybody. That’ll show ‘em. Linkin Park’s avatars are female, and in the videos for ‘Numb’ and ‘Crawling’ both victims of domestic abuse. Now, it’s difficult to know what to feel about men co-opting women’s pain, but NO IT ISN’T AND THAT’S ABSOLUTELY A DICK MOVE.
Linkin Park have been remarkably stable throughout their career, with no break-ups or fall-outs and none of the band members dropping to drink or drugs. They’ve released a straight-up rock record and gone back to Nu-metal and, although record sales are nowhere near their early 2000s peak, they’re still shifting units and filling stadiums, because that’s what they were built to do.
A Popular Band
Idiosyncratic to the point of dadaism, ugly as every single fuck, System of a Down were the anti-Linkin Park while still not being, y’know, all that good or anything.
Formed in 1992, if they were luckier, or just more photogenic, they could have been part of Nu-metal’s first wave. Like Linking Park, the nucleus of the band was a pair of high-school friends and, like Linkin Park, they ran through the same circuit of ‘Sign me! Sign Me! For the love of God sign me!’ shows in L.A, originally under the moniker Soil. They recorded four demos, all of which are online if you care to find them, and soon found a sponsor in the bearded, compression-loving form of Rick Rubin.
While he never gained the genre-Godfather status of Ross Robinson, Rubin produced System’s third demo and signed them to his American Recordings label, which had started out as Def Jam and put out some of the records that defined hip-hop, as well as a little album called Reign in Blood, which you may have heard of. And Johnny Cash. He also served as producer on System’s first album, self-titled, which has now gone platinum. The album spawned two singles: ‘Sugar’ and ‘Spiders’.
Nu-metal had always flirted with weirdness, from the cover of War’s ‘Low Rider’ on Life is Peachy to whatever the fuck Wes Borland thinks he’s doing, but when ‘Sugar’ hit it was like we were getting a transmission from another planet. The chorus was a big, dumb, down tuned mess like all Nu-metal, but the verses could have been from Primus or Mr. Bungle. The video was garbage, but it was different garbage, and for once politics were creeping in to Nu-metal. Admittedly, these were politics portrayed with the same nuance and subtlety that the genre used to handle emotion, but these were the days of No Logo and the Battle of Seattle. ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’ was as good as we were going to get. (The album’s cover did better, featuring a section from a collage by the great anti-fascist satirist John Heartfield.)
Their self-titled album was big, not Linkin Park big but big, but the follow up, 2001’s Toxicity, was a monster. Partially, this is because the time was right: it was released on September 4th of 2001, less than a week before 9/11, and though in retrospect it might seem that the attacks would have primed American audiences for patriotic country ballads, and in part they did, a section of the music buying public big enough to keep Toxicity in the number one slot wanted something dramatically different. Toxicity had Middle Eastern rhythms and songs about the CIA rigging elections with drug money- after the relatively prosperous and stable nineties, the so-called ‘End of History’, Toxicity was an acknowledgement that nothing had really changed, and that got people interested. There was also a song about a pilot and a horse looking into each other’s eyes, because why not?
The LAPD played their part too. Toxicity was to be launched with a fans-only show in an L.A parking lot. Three thousand people were expected to arrive, ten thousand actually came, and the police decided that there was no way the show was going to happen. Rather than let the band themselves calm the audience down and thereby avoid a confrontation, they took down the band’s banners and told everybody to go home. They may as well have just asked them to riot.
Windows were being smashed and rocks thrown at police in a seven block radius. There were several arrests and hospitalisations. Nothing on the scale of Woodstock a couple years before, but still big enough that it was on every TV news network. System’s guitarist Daron Malakian recalls:
“We turned on the TV and on every channel broadcasters were going, ‘There’s riots in Hollywood.’ And there were pictures of Serj’s and my face coming up. The TV people said, ‘They came to see these guys.’ So I didn’t like what I saw going on in the streets, but I also looked at it and I was like, “Y’know, this is really gonna help make us a popular band.”
He should have given himself more credit. The rioting wasn’t major news outside of the U.S., where Toxicity has sold ten million units, compared to two-point-seven in the U.S. Toxicity regularly appears on lists of the best albums of the decade and is one of Blender magazine’s 500 CDs You Must Own. Because people are still buying CDs, I guess.
Where Linkin Park were professionals getting a job done, System’ were having intra-band fights that ended with band members in hospital. Their follow-ups to Toxicity, Steal This Album and the split-double-album Mesmerise and Hypnotise saw Malakian take an increasing share of songwriting duties from vocalist Serj Tanakian, who released several experimental albums as a solo artist. In 2006, the band went on hiatus, returning in 2010 to tour and play festival dates but not, as of yet, to record new material. Throughout their career they have used their platform to raise awareness of the Armenian genocide, which is still not acknowledged as having happened by the Turkish government, and many other nations, despite it being the event that caused the word ‘genocide’ to be coined. If they fade away into an occasional touring band and a host of side projects then they at least have this, and Toxicity, to be proud of.
Linkin Park’s appropriation aside, Nu-metal always had a huge blind-spot when it came to femininity. Race too, but that’s another matter entirely. There were and still are a lot of women in to Nu-metal, and not because they found Chester Bennington cute or because the girl in the ‘Numb’ video reflected their pain and sadness, but because they liked the music. I’d argue that there would probably be a few more women at a KoRn show than there would be in the audience for a more legit band in the black, death, sludge or doom genres, though the gap between the two is shrinking every day.
There were a few bands with female members, Evanescence being the most well-known, Guano Apes being… Guano Apes. Kittie were and, as far as I’m aware, still are the only wholly female Nu-metal band, and are one of very few all-female bands working in the metal genre as a whole (Eight Bells and my now broken-up Calgary homegirls Mares of Thrace being the only one that immediately comes to mind aside from solo artists). In Nu Metal and, hell, rock music in general, taking in everything from Bowling For Soup to Burzum, all male bands are the norm, bands with one or two female members less common, all female bands rare to the point that when they appear it’s a thing.
Kittie came out of London, Ontario in the mid-to-late nineties. The core of the band has always been sisters Morgan and Mercedes Lander, vocalist-guitarist and drummer respectively, and a cast of bassists and guitarists that rotates with an almost Spinal Tap-ish frequency. Their first album, 2000’s Spit, was… well just watch:
I made it forty-two seconds. Who can beat my record?
The album received okay-to-good reviews when it was released, and remains the band’s best seller. Produced by Garth Richardson, who has worked with The Jesus Lizard and the Melvins (and Taylor Swift), it has the same low-end rumble as its contemporaries, the same use of sampling and effects. They were as good as the average bands in the genre – as good as Spineshank, Trapt or Mudvayne, all produced by Richardson (can somebody with a little more experience with Hebrew numerology than me check that his name doesn’t add up to six hundred and sixty-six?).
Richardson also produced their second album, Oracle, which was released a little under two years after Spit. Morgan and Mercedes had begun writing the songs that ended up becoming Spit when the former was fourteen and the latter even younger, and it’s an understatement to say that it shows. Even though their albums were released two years apart, the songs were written close to five, and when you’re a teenager, that’s an eternity. Morgan said in an interview that when writing the first album she “listened to bands like Nirvana, Silverchair, and Alice in Chains. Now we listen to stuff like Cannibal Corpse and Nile.” I could have said the same thing.
Oracle was closer to death metal than nu-metal – the awkward rapping was gone, for one thing. Three years later on Until The End, they were straight-up death metal, and three albums later they continue to be a death metal band – not one of the greats by a long shot, but their fan-base is big enough that it funded a documentary about the band twice over and can support the band’s continual touring. They even run their own label, X of Infamy, the X replacing the word ‘K*ss’ since a heavily made up Detroit-based hard rock band have apparently trademarked the word for touching lips and threatened to sue. Speaking of makeup and asshats, Kittie played the Gathering of Juggalos in 2011.
Aside from Slipknot, few bands have gone from Nu-metal deeper into the darker reaches of extreme music. Fewer still do so under their own steam, independent of even indie record companies. Most go the opposite direction, into standard rock music. I’m not about to argue that 2016’s Kittie are a great band, personally I’m not a fan of their music even in its current form, but they’re playing music that they care about in a genre that still has a deep misogynistic streak. That alone makes them worthy of respect.
The turn of the century was easily the creative, critical and commercial peak for Nu-metal, and it was all downhill from there. In a short period Disturbed, Papa Roach, Slipknot and Drowning Pool rose to international prominence and sold millions of records. All are still going concerns, still capable of headlining festivals and selling albums in the hundreds of thousands.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi was born in Mauritia in 1970. An exceptional student who was granted a scholarship to study engineering in Germany, he broke away from his studies to fight with the Mujahadeen fighting against the Communist government of Afghanistan, at that point freedom fighters supported by the CIA, later the Taliban. Slahi didn’t stay in Afghanistan long enough to behead rape victims in football stadiums – he went back to Germany, then to Montreal, where, in his version through coincidence, in the U.S’s version through design, he worshipped at the same mosque as one of the bombers involved in a plot to attack Los Angeles International Airport on New Years eve, 1999. He also had a brother-in-law who was part of Al Qaeda’s shura council, providing religious guidance directly to Osama bin Laden, though he resigned in protest of the September 11th attacks.
Slahi was back home in Mauritius at that time, and voluntarily came forward to help the Mauritian authorities and the FBI with their enquiries. On November 20th of 2001, he was detained indefinitely, questioned for seven straight days and, when he wouldn’t give his questioners what they wanted, renditioned to a CIA black site in Jordan. Labelled an ‘enemy combatant’, the rules of law no longer applied to him, and his Jordanian captors subjected him to eight months of intense physical and psychological torment before he was finally sent at first to Bagram Airbase, then to Guantanamo Bay. There he was subjected to escalating interrogation, first by the FBI, then by the Defense Intelligence Agency, subjected to extremes of hot and cold, sexual humiliation, mock executions, isolation, beatings and threats that his mother would be gang-raped in front of him. He cracked, as anyone would, and told his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear, no matter how outlandish.
To deprive him of sleep guards would play loud music on repeat for hours, even days on end. Mostly it was songs intended to be irritating – Sesame Street tunes, Britney Spears, the Bee Gees. Sometimes it was songs that the guards enjoyed, and there was no song they loved more than Drowning Pool’s Bodies. Tank crews were playing it as they bulldozed Fallujah, it was the theme song to the WWE summer slam – if somebody found Nazis running a meth lab in the CD case it would actually be the American Midwest. Every time you play Bodies, a skin cell on Donald Trump’s face goes a shade more orange, or so the legend goes.
Although he is no longer subjected to interrogations, Slahi is still not a free man, even though his release was ordered in 2010. His book, Guantanamo Diary, was a New York Times Bestseller.
Drowning Pool’s bassist Steve Benton said of the use of his band’s music as a means of breaking a human being’s will:
People assume we should be offended that somebody in the military thinks our song is annoying enough that played over and over it can psychologically break someone down. I take it as an honor to think that perhaps our song could be used to quell another 9/11 attack or something like that.
I’m just going to leave that quote there.