If you're anything like me, the teenage years of your life were spent in the mid-to-late 1990s. While this is unfortunate in and of itself, even worse is that you were exposed to
the horrible musical milieu that existed at that time. You had to un-ironically dance the Macarena, listen to Meredith Brooks' awful song "Bitch" at least 15 times a day, and pretend that the
death of Kurt Cobain changed your life in profound, unspeakable ways (even though you were likely too young to have really appreaciated his band when they were big). If you were more
into the heavier side of music at the time, you likely became familiar with nu-metal, the genre of music typified by bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Slipknot. If I had to describe nu-
metal in a single sentence, it would be "fuck you, dad!" If I had to use two sentences, the second one would be "nu-metal was a more youthful pastiche of the closely related groove metal genre
often featuring rapping, rhythm-based song structures, and other hip hop-derived elements such as turntables and DJs." In short, groove metal was the type of music nu-metal wanted to be
when it grew up.
"Groove metal" is one of those terms that has pretty much been applied retroactively to the bands and artists that now fall under the genre's rubric. Part of the problem in identifying a
particular band as "groove metal" is that most of them at one point would have fallen under a different genre altogether, but the increasing demand for specificity in genre descriptors that we've
seen over the last 15 years or so makes such a category necessary. So what elements mark a band as groove metal? Low, guttural vocals, thrash-type riffs played at mid-tempo speeds, downtuned
guitars, frequent breakdown passages, occasionally funky bass riffs, and lots of double-bass drumming. Most bands of this type are not particularly adventurous musically, and therefore rely to
a great extent on traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus song structures.
While groove metal reached the apex of its popularity in the late 1990s, its origins stretch back to the thrash metal and death metal styles that first came to prominence in the mid-to-late
1980s. For the most part, groove metal is basically the mainstreamed version of these two genres, and thrash in particular. I will note that there exists something of a controversy over what
constitutes "real" thrash metal. Some people adopt the early '80s definition, which refers primarily to a hybrid of speed metal and hardcore punk (what is commonly called "crossover" today).
Most mainstream critics frequently confuse thrash and speed metal, the latter genre being most easily exemplified by the first few Metallica and Megadeth albums; speed metal's main attributes
are fast (usually somewhat melodic) riffs, highly technical guitar soloing, and aggressive vocal stylings. The modern definition of thrash (accepted by the vast majority of listeners and metal
critics) would include fast riffs (generally centered around a palm-muted low E power chord), screamed/shouted vocals, wild (but not melodic or technical) soloing, and blastbeat-style drumming.
It is the third definition that I use when I describe thrash, especially in the context of understanding groove metal.
ANYWAY. Extreme metal in the 1980s seemed to be a contest between bands as to who could play the fastest. It's hard to say who won that battle, but occasionally thrash and death metal bands
would slow things down. Prominent examples of this would be Celtic Frost's classic "Procreation of the Wicked" or the entire Obituary album Cause
of Death. These forays into less quick territory were no doubt to some extent influenced by Black Sabbath's slow, deliberately-paced early material, but the first crop of groove metal bands
were more directly influenced by the American and European thrash bands referenced earlier. Groove metal, if nothing else, was a deliberate response to the popularity of glam metal (usually
called cock rock in less polite circles) in the '80s and early '90s. Bands like W.A.S.P. and Quiet Riot were commercially successful largely because they eschewed the "heavy" part of "heavy
metal" and stuck to more mainstream musical formulations. Their songs featured distorted guitars and goofy falsetto yelps, and lyrical content generally revolved around partying and tender
loving. For obvious reasons, these types of bands never enjoyed any popularity with the more "underground" metal fans.
It's ironic, then, that one of these prissy glam bands would go on to be the Ur-groove metal act. Apparently fed up with the peacocking pretense of the scene, the Houston-based cock rock
band Pantera deliberately shed their stereotypically glam image and sound for the release of their fifth album, Cowboys from Hell, in 1990.
Their new vocalist, Phil Anselmo, still made use of traditionally glam falsetto vocals, but also employed a more aggressive vocal delivery. The riffs were clearly technical and thrash-derived,
but they were generally mid-tempo and featured ample bass. Pantera would cultivate a stripped-down image that would best be described as "tough-as-shit, drunk rednecks." Pantera's sound was
similar to (though some would say copied from) a New Orleans-based band called Exhorder that played in a similar style throughout the late 1980s. However, Exhorder was (and is) much heavier than
Pantera, while the latter band was just polished enough to enter into the mainstream. People wanted commercially-viable heavy music that didn't involve slinging wine coolers or much investment in
flannel, and Pantera happened to be at the right place at the right time. Their hyper-masculine image and sound attracted young and old fans who wanted to belong to something that
required little or no conception of sensitivity and can be seen as something of a reaction to the extremely politically correct climate of the day. Their 1992 followup
album, Vulgar Display of Power, demonstrated a further refining of this type of music with songs like "Fucking Hostile."
Then (as now) the company that best kept its finger on the pulse of commercially-viable heavy music was Roadrunner Records. In the 1980s, Roadrunner was at the forefront of extreme metal
distributors. The biggest acts in the scene were on their label: Death, Sepultura, Obituary, Mercyful Fate, Deicide, and legions of others all proudly released albums bearing the Roadrunner
mark. Starting in the 1990s, however, Roadrunner began to sign bands that emulated (or at least evoked) the Pantera formula. Some acts already signed to Roadrunner changed their sound to be more
reflective of this new style of playing. Others, like the Canadian speed metal band Annihilator, left due to discomfort with the artistic direction of the label. Still others -- such as
basically all of the other bands mentioned above -- left due to Roadrunner's increasing disinterest in promoting their albums that did not feature the then-successful groove sound.
One band that stuck with Roadrunner throughout this period -- and indeed, enjoyed greater success -- was the Brazilian act Sepultura. If one word can be used to describe Sepultura, it would be
"adaptable." The band's first album, Morbid Visions, was one of the first bona fide death metal records ever released. Subsequent albums would develop a more traditional thrash sound,
including Beneath the Remains, which is often considered their best album. In 1993, however, Sepultura released Chaos A.D., their
first foray into the groove metal world. The music was slower and featured churning riffs over African-influenced rhythms. Needless to say, this change positioned Sepultura very well, and they
were probably the most popular band signed to Roadrunner at the time -- due in no small part to the generous promotional budget afforded to them. The heavy rotation for the video of
"Territory" off of this album increased their mainstream exposure as well.
Another significant band in this movement was the horror-themed White Zombie. Making heavy use of samples from terrible movies and featuring a bizarre psychedelic image, this group added
semi-industrial elements to the groove metal movement with tracks like "Thunder Kiss '65" and "Welcome to
Planet Motherfucker." The occasional syncopated rapped vocals would later figure prominently in the development of nu-metal. Like Pantera and Sepultura, White Zombie's first few albums were in a
different style than their later, more commercially successful works. The singer from this band, of course, was Rob Zombie, who would go on to have an even more successful solo career with
similar but more mainstream-sounding singles like "Dragula."
Other prominent bands would go on to change their sound to be more similar to this style throughout the '90s. The speed metal band Anthrax would adopt the groove sound for their albums the
Sound of White Noise and especially Stomp 442. The riffs were still somewhat fast-paced, but were definitely more of the "bounce" variety. This was presaged somewhat by their 1991
collaboration with the rap group Public Enemy "Bring the Noise." This song is often considered a demarcation point in the development of the rap metal
genre, which of course is a component of nu-metal. The riffs are clearly groove metal in style and feature hip hop rhythms and (obviously) rapped vocals.
In 1996, Sepultura released the followup to Chaos A.D., Roots. While I'm not a big fan of Chaos A.D., Roots is deeply offensive to me. First, it is based on the
pretense of getting in touch with one's roots, specifically the indigenous tribal peoples of South America. Unfortunately, none of the members of Sepultura have any such background, making this
about as authentic as the people in the US who falsely brag about having an "Indian princess" as a great-grandmother. Second, it straddles the line between groove metal and nu-metal, with
predictably bad results. Gimmicky appearances from Korn's Jon Davis and all-around musical weirdo Mike Patton add absolutely nothing to the album. Listening to Roots is an exercise in
patience. The band's vocalist and primary songwriter, Max Cavalera, would leave after the release of this album to focus on his new band, Soulfly. Soulfly is a full-blown nu-metal band and
their debut self-titled album featured appearances from nu-metal luminaries such as Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit and Chino Moreno from the Deftones. The less said about Soulfly, the better.
Perhaps the biggest band to go groove were the seminal thrash innovators Slayer. Along with Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax, Slayer was considered one of the "Big Four" of American metal
bands in the '80s and '90s. Early albums like Show No Mercy and Hell Awaits are masterpieces of thrash and Reign in Blood holds the distinction of being the most commercially
successful extreme metal album to date. However, the band found themselves in something of a musical wilderness in the 1990s. They had slowed down somewhat, but the quality of their compositions
was still high and the technical skill demonstrated on their records was still great. By this time, though, groove metal was firmly entrenched as the dominant style, and nu-metal was starting to
become extremely popular. With this in mind, and in a misguided quest to remain musically relevant, Slayer released Diabolus in Musica in 1998. There are no two ways about it: this is a
terrible album that is significantly beneath the capabilities of every member of the band. The riffs are boring and sound like paint stirring. There are few solos and the drumming is generally limp-wristed. Tom Araya for the most part eschews his standard shouted vocals, instead whispering, rapping, and grumbling. While Slayer has yet to make an album as good as their early works,
all of their subsequent releases have been better than this one. Only one song from this album remains in rotation for the band's live performances, demonstrating that even Slayer regards
Diabolus in Musica as a mistake.
It is worth noting, I suppose, that groove metal was essentially past its prime at this point. The late 1990s saw the rise of nu-metal and the resurgence of extreme metal (primarily in Europe),
leaving little room for this type of music. By the year 1999, nu-metal bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Slipknot had basically killed the groove metal genre in the United States. The surest sign
of this was Roadrunner's changing lineup of bands around this time, which mirrored the shift in the early 1990s. Groove metal bands were being passively forced out by masses of nu-metal bands,
signifying the label's desire to stay on the cutting edge of sales. Slayer would try to return to their earlier thrash sound, Sepultura went in a more hardcore route (with a new vocalist), and
bands like Machine Head and Fear Factory would move in a nu-metal direction. Pantera released their final album, Reinventing the Steel, in 2000 as something of a defiant stand
against nu-metal. They broke up not long after its release, representing what I would call the death rattle of this movement.
Of course, as we all know now, the nu-metal genre was more or less dead by 2006. This ironically has led to something of a renaissance of groove metal bands who abandoned that style to play
nu-metal. While they do not enjoy the same degree of popularity as they did in the 1990s, the style of music played by newer bands like Trivium, Gojira, and Lamb of God is at least vaguely
reminiscent of the heyday of groove metal.
So what was it that made groove metal so popular in its day? Why did it reach a level of mainstream saturation that, for example, death metal could not? There were a few reasons, I think. First,
as should be no surprise, the groove metal fanbase was overwhelmingly young and male. Like I alluded to earlier, these were the guys who couldn't find what they were looking for in the vulnerable,
progressive grunge movement. These young men were too socially alienated to be jocks, but they were also too macho to be (as Jewel might say) "fashionably sensitive." On the other hand,
Pantera, later Sepultura, and White Zombie did not make particularly challenging music. It's impossible to sit down and just listen to death metal when you're hanging out with the dudes, but groove
metal songs are by and large predictable and employ the sorts of hooks and structures conducive to headbanging and easily promotable singles. There might have been a partially racial -- but not
necessarily racist -- component as well. Groove metal's popularity peaked around the same time as that of the other main outlet for masculine musical aggression at the time: gangsta rap. It might
have been hard for a testosterone-filled White kid from Idaho to identify with Tupac Shakur, but he could probably see a little bit of himself in someone like Phil Anselmo. Ironically, nu-
metal would absorb a lot of rap fans through its hip hop influences, as the mainstream of that genre would lose its hard edge and eventually become relegated to banal party music.
Like nu-metal, there is not a whole lot of nostalgia or enthusiasm for groove metal today. Some bands continue to play in a roughly similar style, though it has been overtaken to a large
degree by metalcore and more extreme subgenres like black metal. The biggest winner of the groove metal trend was undeniably Roadrunner Records; the owners of that label are extremely smart in
the commercial sense and looking at their current roster is an extremely instructive exercise in figuring out who the most lucrative heavy bands are at any given moment. A close runner-up would be
Max Cavalera, who probably deserves the award for Metal's Biggest Chameleon for his ability to change styles at exactly the right moment to exploit current musical (and financial) trends. The
biggest losers were probably Pantera and Sepultura. Pantera was the most popular and successful band of this type, but could not find a place in the landscape of changing musical tastes. Phil
Anselmo continues to drift aimlessly and there is zero likelihood of a reunion since the band's guitarist, Dimebag Darrell, was brutally murdered on stage while performing with his band Damageplan in 2004. As
for Sepultura, Cavalera's departure ruined the band commercially. He was definitely the main draw and while replacement vocalist Derrick Green is an adequate performer, he lacks the stage presence
or clout that his predecessor brought with him. Of course, Max Cavalera ruined the band musically with Chaos A.D. and Roots anyway, but it is another testament to his survival skills
that Soulfly wound up gaining more fans than his old band.
Obviously, this write-up does not contain an exhaustive list of groove metal bands. Other groups that play (or at one time played) in this style include Clutch, Prong, Overkill,
Nailbomb, Grip Inc. (my personal pick for the best groove metal band), Pro-Pain, and Chimaira.