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Holt On Loosely: The Battle for Nü Relevancy

nothingface

On April 21, 2017 I awoke to the news that Matt Holt, lead singer of Nothingface, had died at the age of 39. A statement released by the band after his passing said, in part “He had been battling a degenerative illness for several years.” Though I didn’t know him personally, the general gist of coverage of the band around their 2005 breakup and 2 subsequent reformation attempts was that he, like so many of us, had his share of demons to exorcise.

Nothingface have been out of any sort of limelight for well over 10 years. Their only current connection to the rock-metal mainstream is that their guitarist, Tom Maxwell, founded the much maligned hick metal cash-grab Hellyeah with Vinnie Paul from Pantera and a couple of the dudes from Mudvayne. As you can imagine this has not done much to cement his or Nothingface’s place in metal lore. I would bet it has done the opposite. Be that as it may, I still find it necessary to pay tribute to a talented musician who died way too young with far too little being said about him. Hopefully in the process of doing that I can also fire an ICBM in the war of ideas that nü metal bands are, and of right ought to be in Heavy Metal Pantheon.

“What I object to is the abandonment of the swing rhythm that is essential to jazz. There is no way that anyone can be a great jazz musician playing along to funk or rock rhythms. It just ain’t gonna happen.” – Wynton Marsalis, talking about Jazz Fusion

If you know anything about jazz, you’ve probably heard the name Wynton Marsalis. He is the artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center, which makes him one of the foremost authorities on “classic” jazz. Despite his vast knowledge of jazz history, and the fundamentals of music in general, his the above quote clearly evidences that he completely disregards Fusion and its contributions to the history of Jazz (which is significant). John McLaughlin was good enough to play with Miles on Bitches Brew and with his own Mahavishnu Orchestra and even dabble in Indian classical music in Shakti. I find the idea that he, and hundreds of other fusion musicians of all instruments can’t play jazz because they can also play to funk and rock rhythms borderline heresy. I feel the same about nü metal and it’s relationship to the heavy metal canon.

IO has touched on this topic before, but where that article was pushing the idea that nü metal must be reckoned with as an influencer of modern bands, I want to take that much further. What I’m saying is that any sort of crossed-arm, vestie, ghostbro, troo-dinosaur, nothing-after-93 bullshit that you’ve been saying about the ‘94-’04 bands not being metal is Sean Spicer-level willful ignorance at it’s finest. Just because we love metal, doesn’t mean people who don’t or are into a different kind of flavor of it have to get something right about it’s sonic chemistry. Though we could dweeb out about the minutiae of different bands and where they fit into the heavy metal lexicon, it’s totally unnecessary. Much like fusion very much belonging in the canon of jazz, this is a musical truth. Just because you saw Metallica with Cliff or got into metal after your Thrice cover band broke up doesn’t mean you get to tell me the shit I grew up on wasn’t metal. As I type this, I can feel the the reactionary brains of would be readers grinding like the clutch in an old Chevy Cavalier. It’s time to stop tripping over the rest of the cro-magnon knuckles dragging on the pavement. We’re gonna evolve.

The proof to this equation is as simple as making a playlist. First Song: “”Eyeless” by Slipknot. Next “Rapture” by Morbid Angel. Then “Got the Life” from Korn and finally “”One by One” by Immortal. Take this playlist and play it on the stereo during you next Thanksgiving dinner, or at the next wedding you have to go to where one of your homies is marrying a girl he hates. After you’ve successfully nuked the party, take a survey from all normal people without an extreme music fetish. See if they can pick out the nü metal, from the black metal, or the death metal from the nü metal. My guess is they’d rather be hearing “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, “Don’t Stop Believin”, or “Don’t Stop Me Now” because if we were fun at parties we wouldn’t have had to get into metal in the first place.

Metal nerds are always quick to throw up nü metal’s genre hopping gumbo as a point of derision. RAP ISN’T METAL. TECHNO ISN’T METAL. DADDY ISSUES AREN’T METAL (are you kidding?). We’re all guilty of this at some point. Especially in those early years of defining your metal identity. Lester Bangs said Black Sabbath was “ just like Cream… but worse.” A dude I was in a band with wrote off Metallica after And Justice For All… for being too commercial. Atheist famously had to quit after Elements because of how much Death metal crowds hated them, and then guitarist Kelly Shaefer started the nü metal band Neurotica. No scene is immune. People are also ready to hang all the bands just because some bands did stuff that was laughable. But that also happens in every scene. I mean people still listen to ambient black metal even though Burzum exists and puts out records, but I digress.

I got into Nothingface though a friend who caught them on the radio randomly one night. Sometime a few weeks later, my girlfriend and I made our way to the Sam Goody and I found a copy of Violence. When I got back to my work that night, I threw it in my discman immediately and was greeted by “Make Your Own Bones” and it’s moody octave-y intro building slowly into cascading tom fills that would be right at home on The End Complete. As the crescendo breaks, instead of overdrive, it downshifts into a mechanized groove that sounds like a Punch Press smashing a pile of discarded vertebrae. Then this voice comes in with this man-with-a-gun timbre breathing anger as fire, “I know you’re innocent no more…you’ll see in time that you’re not immortal.”

“Goddamn” I thought, “this is fuckin sweet.”

The fifth track, the pseudo title-cut “Can’t Wait for Violence” is one of the pinnacles of nü metal’s stylistic contributions to the genre overall. If Big Four thrash metal is normal Jeff Goldblum at the beginning of ‘The Fly’, “Can’t Wait for Violence” is the mutated creature pulling the shotgun to it’s head. The intro in a 10 second off kilter arpeggiation that testament would’ve turned into a 5 minute etude. This is followed by a balls to the wall thrash riff, downtuned played with a sneaking powerful groove instead of the tried and true rudimentary bass-snare. The riffs keep coming and the chorus has a moody AIC quality that manages add dynamics instead of feeling like “oh here come the clean vocals”. It’s just great metal. It’s one of my favorite records of the era, and it holds up in a way a lot of that stuff doesn’t. I had all the nü metal staples by that time, but Nothingface were that band that I was hearing in my 15 year old head, but hadn’t heard yet. You only get a few bands do that to you in your lifetime.

In the Spring of ‘03, they released their 4th album Skeletons. Soon after, I went to see them at the Shelter in Detroit with about 50 or 60 other people. After the show, my posse and I found them on the front steps of St. Andrew’s Hall (historic Detroit club above the Shelter) lamenting another day on the bus. We struck up a conversation with them, as they were clearly despondent about a good many things, but mostly by the lack of attendance at the show. I asked holt how the tour had been so far and he wasn’t exactly thrilled. He then proceeded to drop mad science on me about the industry and its machinations.

“This fucking industry’s rigged man… our label’s a bunch of fucking crooks that refuse to spend any money on promoting our record and then complain when we aren’t selling…They don’t care about exploiting musicians because they know there’s also a hundred other bands that would be willing to take the place of a band they gave a deal to.”

You see could the pain and frustration in his eyes. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it., but it definitely stayed with me. Bill Gaal, their bass player was very talkative and chatted with to us about gear, filling in the pauses of holt’s seething anecdotes. I tried to be optimistic and told Holt we thought the show was one of the best we had seen (and for me it still is). He handled the unwieldy compliment graciously and then tapped me on the arm and said quietly, “Hey man, do you know where I could get some vicodin?” I said no awkwardly and referred him to my friend standing on the other side of the circle.

Skeletons was another underrated record that their label TVT, failed to get behind fully, as the label was dissolving in financial troubles. It was more eclectic, more songy, but also had brutal songs about murdering molesting priests (“Here Come the Butchers”) and calling out their peers and the industry itself (“I Wish I Was a Communist”). But for me the most telling songs and one of Holt’s best vocal performances was the track “Incarnadine” that begins with a pummeling franticness and then lopes between acoustic softness and maniacal pleading with the lyrics “Tonight it all turns black again so you can hide inside your fucking mind and cry because you’re still alive”.

In the years since Skeletons, Nothingface has been relegated to the delete bin of life next to Mahogany Rush, Dangerous Toys and Stuck Mojo. Bands that enjoyed a modicum of popularity in their time, but never really reached the point where their success was able to sustain itself into a proper career for their constituent musicians. There have been other bands that were in this bin too at one time, but were able to be pardoned because their time served and ability to reinforce the coolness of people who are rediscovering them. Pentagram, Manila Road and Crowbar are some of the latest examples. I believe Nothingface will be one of latter bands in another 10 or so years. Whenever the full on neo-nü metal wave takes hold. Until then, their story and success is pretty much forgotten. Just another mid-tier band, eating around of the edges of an industry that had no patience for their art.

Their story affects me, because I realize that my own band and nearly every band that is covered on this website is living some version of this story. Nothingface did it way bigger. They sold nearly 100,000 copies of Violence, hit #24 on the Billboard heatseekers, played Ozzfest, Tattoo the Earth and tons of tours. They got the kind of exposure that is rarely bestowed upon bands these days. They were lucky, but not lucky enough. That bittersweet failure was the look I saw in Holt’s eyes that afternoon in 2003, but wasn’t able to pinpoint. He was putting everything he had into the thing he loved the most and it just wasn’t enough. The idea of getting to the level that they did in the years where the record industry was doing the most business in it’s history, is a feat in and of itself. The pain of that fall is something I couldn’t imagine. His death compounds that empty feeling for me. He didn’t get enough time to have another career or a family or other passion come to bear fruit. He is yet another fallen soldier in the Humanities Wars that we artistic types have been waging with society since the Renaissance. Painters, sculptors, writers musicians and comedians with the irresistible impulse to create, fighting battle after battle with those who seek to either exploit us or erase us. Matt Holt fought that fight, and helped me and many others learn how to fight it too. I hope death is more peaceful for him and he’s now allowed to say that he’s metal without some jean jacketed asshole or kid with ear-gauges saying “Well, technically…”

-David Peterman

David Peterman plays guitar and sings in Lansing-area progressive death metal band Satyrasis. Their 2015 album …Of the Dead was one of the editor’s top ten albums of that year. Follow Satyrasis on Facebook.

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