The NWOAHM Debut Albums – A Definitive Ranking
Killswitch Engage grace the current cover of Revolver magazine dressed as characters from Star Wars.
This took me aback, not because of how tasteless and completely unrelated to music it is (this is Revolver, purveyors of the Hottest Chicks in Metal, after all), but because I didn’t know or chose not to notice that Killswitch Engage still have enough clout to land the cover of a glossy national magazine.
The New Wave of American Metal still has pull, even though it’s completely irrelevant to most of the musical discussions we engage in here. Adam D and Jesse Leach will likely tour well into their late adulthoods. As much as we praise our High on Fires and our Deafheavens, it’s likely that bands like Killswitch Engage will be remembered as the American metal groups of this millennium with the most popular appeal, at least until something big takes their place, which does not seem likely.
If these bands are still relevant enough to receive that kind of exposure 15 years into their careers and well past their commercial prime, then understanding the New Wave of American Metal is important, and the best way to understand it may be to examine where it began.
What began as a loosely-associated cadre of young hardcore kids with an affinity for In Flames turned into one of the most commercially significant strains of metal music the US has ever produced. A bunch of these bands (some on this list, some not) were loosely roped together as a movement called the New Wave of American Metal by an article in Revolver. Bolstered by support from Myspace and MTV2’s recently revived Headbangers Ball, the NWOAHM went on to sell some records as well as a whole lot of merch, oust nu metal from the public consciousness, and generally aggravate people like me.
The NWOAHM consisted of a bunch of young men (and some women) who each tried to make a career playing heavy music but selling it as pop (or maybe vice versa). Like many of their American predecessors, they displayed tattoos and hailed from the coasts: California, Massachusetts and even Maryland. Unlike their predecessors, they were a somewhat ethnically diverse bunch (black and Asian frontmen? Yes please), with short hair and fashion sense that didn’t include leather. Judging by their music, they liked thrash beats, Swedish melodies, breakdowns, touchy-feely lyrics, and especially, screaming verses juxtaposed with clean-sung choruses.
So where are they now? Broken up, or on the backburner, mostly. Of those still alive, some, like Lamb of God, have persevered to dominate what remains of the commercial metal market. Some, like Avenged Sevenfold, have successfully transitioned into mainstream rock stardom, whatever that means. Some, like Darkest Hour, are still at it, trying desperately to sell enough records to make a life for themselves. One of them wound up in prison for a very, very long time, because of a fatal cocktail of marriage, steroids and Jesus, with a few other additives.
So what happened to them? First, all movements end, even the good ones. Second, these bands made the fatal mistake of trying to pursue old-school record success in the age of piracy. Their support networks — Myspace, Headbangers Ball, Ozzfest, Hot Topic — either eroded or changed gears. They kept trying to perfect the same sound while their first generation of fans learned to play music and entered the market with their own updated takes on the style. It wasn’t all circumstantial, though, many of these young guns had personality flaws comparable with those of their metal god elders — but didn’t have the good sense to wait until after they made millions before spouting off like miserable jackasses.
More to the point, the records were, by and large, mediocre. Unlike some of my peers, I’m not willing to write the entire movement off in one breath; some of these bands produced great work. I’m fond of Darkest Hour’s entire discography prior to last year, and think Killswitch Engage wrote two or three excellent albums’ worth of pop metal. I think Lamb of God wrote one stone-cold classic. I even admire the ambition that Avenged Sevenfold channeled into City of Evil, though I won’t take the praise past that. The output was largely forgettable and now that the wave is over it’s on its way toward being forgotten.
Which means now’s the time to remember how it all started.
Call it an exercise in self-loathing, but I committed myself to listening to the debut albums by all these bands.
Some notes on process:
A cursory glance at Wikipedia will prove that there’s lots of debate as to what exactly constituted the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. Also, I can only listen to so much of this stuff. Therefore I limited my search to only the 12 bands that seemed, at least in my opinion, relevant on a wide scale when the NWOAHM was at its peak. I excepted Machine Head for having a career that long predated these bands, even though the NWOAHM did rejuvenate their career. I also excluded Hatebreed for being, to my thinking, more of a straight-up hardcore band that marketed itself to a metal audience. Oh, and no Mastodon, even though they were part of the still jaw-dropping Ozzfest 2004 lineup.
I never liked As I Lay Dying, even before frontman Tim Lambesis was convicted of soliciting his wife’s murder. Their take on the style struck me as too repetitive and overly reliant on unpleasant brickwalled production. Those habits present themselves on their first album as well. Beneath the Encasing of Ashes sounds rough compared to the band’s later output, but also sounds pretty slick compared to its peers at this time. To the band’s credit, they sound aggressive here. There’s more American death metal in their formula than on the other albums on this list, as evidenced by the burly guitar tone and especially Lambesis’s vocals. He’s incoherent but bloodthirsty. While the rest of the band is trying to play Pantera riffs, Lambesis is snarling the same way Nergal was at the same time — maybe that’s why he’s at the top of the mix. Aside from attitude, there’s not much going on. As I Lay Dying write boring songs with decent intros (Seriously, “When This World Fades” is awful, but the first 20 seconds belong on an Opeth album), and have from the very beginning.
Phil Labonte is a technically near-flawless vocalist who suffers from a complete lack of performing personality while in his private life being cut from the same douchebag cloth that too many metal elder statesmen are. This is a man so heinously stupid with his choice of words that he has prompted me to question the few ideological aspects we share by virtue of his speaking about them. Still, I can’t deny the man’s talent: he screams with tactical precision. Fat lot of good it does him, too. On Behind Silence and Solitude he sounds too perfect, replicating the same clean bark literally one syllable at a time for an hour. It’s monotonous, and kills any momentum his backing band works at. What they work at sounds the variety of power metal that I don’t like with a few breakdowns added in. Everything about Behind Silence and Solitude is too saccharine. Even when “Clarity” tries to segue into a little progressive jazz bit the band can’t help but launch into some romantic and triumphant guitar acrobatics. They try the same trick again on “Home To Me,” and shoot for Cynic but land at Stryper.
Nearly every band on this list cribbed most of their ideas from a Swedish death metal band, and 90% of the time that band was In Flames. God Forbid at least display more interesting source material — they liked the cut of Meshuggah’s jib. Sure, they employed some clean guitar harmonies (“No Sympathy,” “Heartless”), but for much of its runtime Reject the Sickness is one extended love letter to Destroy Erase Improve. A list of things they borrow from that album: the clean arpeggio bridge, the woozy pick squeals, the ultra hi-gain guitar tone. That’s just on opener “Atonement.” Alternating barked and screeched vocals add some much-needed character. That strategy’s been done to death by umpteen deathcore bands since, but taken in context of its peers it helps Reject the Sickness stand out from the crowd. A little original thinking and songwriting acumen would have helped more.
If all the NWOAHM bands exist on a sliding scale with American hardcore on one end and European melodeath on the other, then DevilDriver sound the most American to my ears — no romantic power metal-ish clean singing or Gothenberg melodies here, just Pantera riffs played at Slayer speed. Instead of arpeggios or more complex note progressions, DevilDriver writes guitar hooks by looping together a few haunting clean notes. To the band’s credit it’s kind of a cool effect, and makes an otherwise knuckle-dragging track like “I Could Care Less” somewhat haunting and memorable. Of course, for that trick to work every other guitar riff in the song needs to be a low-string palm muted chug, which should surprise nobody since DevilDriver founder Dez Fafara also fronted the nu metal outfit Coal Chamber. Sometimes the sense of groove and aggression that Dez perfected in that project serves DevilDriver well: “Cry For Me” is probably the most Coal Chamber-ish song on the record as well as the most immediately enjoyable.
Sounding the Seventh Trumpet begins with a lot of promise. Opener “To End The Rapture” kicks the affair off with some Iron Maiden-ish guitar acrobatics and some decent clean singing from Matthew “M. Shadows” Sanders. It’s pretty stellar for the whole minute and a half it lasts, and then “Turn the Other Way” begins, and the whole affair goes down the tubes pretty quickly. I can see why Sanders needed vocal polyp surgery. His harsh screams sound genuinely painful and unintelligible at the same time. Avenged Sevenfold ought to have doubled down on their melodic guitar and singing segments early on, because their chug-and-pinch-harmonic conception of ‘groove’ riffs does not work. I don’t particularly like Avenged Sevenfold (that said, I also feel they are unfairly maligned, and have written a few genuinely excellent songs which they are unable to execute live), but I see why they followed their music to its current arena rock configuration: “Warmness of the Soul” is one of the better songs here, even if it’s trying too hard to sound like a cut from Use Your Illusion. Then again, judging by the rest of the album, Avenged Sevenfold’s biggest problem has always been trying too hard to be their heroes. That and writing a song about the “Streets.” Never a good idea.
Oh boy. Unearth use the same breakdown twice in the first song. At least the bass is audible (“Stronghold” benefits particularly well from this), and the crossover thrash influence is evident. The stereotype of each and every song ending in a bottom string chugging breakdown seems most true for Unearth. Like God Forbid, they manage to temper their obvious fury into a remarkable level of anonymity, even though they wrote more concise and energetic songs for the most part. The relatively raw production values give The Stings of Conscience a kind of vitality that some of these other albums lack, but it doesn’t do their thin lead guitar tone any favors, which is a shame because Buz McGrath and Ken Susi are playing their asses off on some of these solos — I dig the pealing sweep-arpeggios that open “My Desire.” When Unearth ditches the breakdown shtick for a black-thrash meets In Flames outro, as on “Vanishment,” they manage to get my head banging.
Lamb of God never fit in with the NWOAHM very well and nowhere is that more apparent than on their first (or second, if you count Burn the Priest) album. Lamb of God tapped Steve Austin to produce the album alongside drummer Chris Adler, and it shows. The band has never sounded so distorted and noisy, they could almost be a completely different band. Play this album softly and all you can hear is throbbing distortion and Chris Adler’s ultra-loud clanking drums. This was the band’s first record with lead guitarist Mark Morton, and while his sonic preferences and melodic solos would come to define the band’s later sound, his solos are pretty buried on The New American Gospel, except for the still-great introduction to “Terror and Hubris in the House of Frank Pollard.” Randy Blythe is one of extreme metal’s most talented vocalists now, but he still sounds relatively hollow here. Even in this formative stage, however, Lamb of God wrote more viscerally intense music than their peers, even if most of these early songs sound incoherent compared to what they would go on to accomplish.
The financial powers that be must have taken an interest in Trivium before their first album dropped, because Ember to Inferno sounds slick compared to its contemporaries. Vocal and guitar overdubs give this album a punch that Unearth lacked only two years prior. Going back to the sliding scale idea, if DevilDriver are the most American band on this list, then Trivium sit closest to the European side. The shadow of In Flames looms large over Matt Heafy and his cohorts here (the solo that ends “To Burn the Eye” is particularly Gelotte-esque). There’s even a digital string-and-piano closer to the album. It’s derivative, but the incessant Euro-worship is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of Heafy’s instincts are on-point. If one were to release this album under a different name with a few acoustic guitar interludes and/or a slightly more black metal guitar tone, it would sound contemporary. Listen with an open mind and hear that Nechochwen and Obsequiae are drinking from the same well Trivium once did. Heafy’s trashier side provides needed weight and momentum, as on “Requiem.” At 50 minutes, Ember to Inferno is long for an album of this style, and wants for variety by the end.
Sadly, Shadows fall have the unfortunate luck of being the second album on this list to feature vocals by Phil Labonte. The band dumped him after Somber Eyes to the Sky and went on to record a few much better records, but as it stands, this is their debut. Of course he’s the weakest part of the proceedings. Musically, however, Shadows Fall deliver for the most part. I’m predisposed to enjoy them because of all the bands I examined they have the most classic metal in their DNA. Ozzy Osborne and Iron Maiden worship shows up all over the guitar leads on Somber Eyes to the Sky. The two part centerpiece, “Lead Me Home”/”To Ashes” sports some memorable songwriting, with multiple parts that switch gears from folky and gothic to aggressive with ease, even shifting from 4/4 to 3/4 time a couple times. “Eternal” might have the most blasts and tremolo picks of any song on any record on this list. Still, the songs tend to overstay their welcome a bit, and Labonte is a one-dimensional and uninteresting vocalist.
NWOAHM bands lived and died by their drummers. The right drum pattern can make a boring chugga-chugga riff sound murderous. Kudos to Ryan Parrish for injecting the right amount of fury into Darkest Hour. It helps that Mike Schleibaum does not write boring chugga chugga riffs — he fretted, muted and arpeggiated more quickly than any of his peers on this list in 2000. Still, the NWOAHM had a limited vocabulary, and most of these albums struggle to find enough ideas to flesh out their usually brief runtimes. Together Schleibaum and Parrish keep The Mark of the Judas moving forward for its whole 40 minute runtime. Parrish borrows a few moves from the pop punk songbook to great effect, such as the bouncing verse beat of “A Blessing in Tragedy.” John Henry does his best Tomas Lindberg impression throughout. it’s nasty, but also a bit too on-the-nose considering how much The Mark of the Judas sounds like a lost At The Gates album. Still, there’s greater sins than doing a good impression of Slaughter of the Soul.
This is the NWOAHM band I’ve spent the least amount of time with. I’m aware of them mostly as a result of their keyboardist, Marta (who didn’t actually play on their debut) being featured in Revolver's Hottest Chicks in Metal issues so often — a disgusting practice, but one that probably fueled a lot of Bleeding Through’s name brand recognition. On Dust to Ashes, though, none of that’s really apparent. Honestly I’m surprised how much I liked listening to it. For being just another band synthesizing Swedish death metal and American hardcore, they strike a great balance between the two — Dust to Ashes rips up until the odd clean vocal bridge on “Just Another Pretty Face,” and continues to thrash thereafter. The outro to “III Part Two” is almost ambitious enough to justify the stupid song title. Sadly, the momentum evaporates by the last third. In retrospect I might have pegged Bleeding Through as the most talented student in the class, with one notable exception...
This is how to make an entrance: no intro, just a great riff played with conviction at 00:01. Of all these albums it sounds the best — punchy and aggressive. Killswitch Engage has a six pack you could wash clothes on. Adam D’s double bass drums pound and rattle with terrifying precision and his songwriting is lean, and muscular. The album is a light chopped salad of only the most fun rhythmic bits of other, pre-existing metal genres, including Slayer’s buzzsaw triplets, Metallica’s big tom buildups and accents locking-in with the vocal patterns, In Flames’s double-harmonic riffs played on the up-beat. Best of all, Killswitch Engage uses the chunky melodic riffs that Catharsis employed without the self-absorbed preachiness. Even the throwaway song, “Prelude,” still rocks hard, with stop-on-a-dime mutes. It gets two minutes worth of mileage on one three second chug pattern. This is songwriting economy at its finest—so fine, in fact, that Killswitch re-recorded tracks from this first record for almost a decade after its release. Most of the vocalists on this list sound amateurish, but Jesse Leach had force and a knack for enunciating. His cleans, mostly breathy moans, need some work, but the formula that would propel this band to success is there intact. It's still odd to hear a man screaming his lungs out about “forgiveness” and “compassion” in such plain language, but given how fixated Killswitch fans are with the band’s lyrics it must be an effective strategy. I’m simply not the target audience. Killswitch Engage isn’t without a few gaffes. “Temple from the Within,” an otherwise great opening salvo, resorts to the rock and roll fadeout (why stifle momentum after one track?), and the song “Numb Sickened Eyes” is kind of a non-starter. Overall, however, I can see why large labels signed Killswitch as soon as possible, even when metal was in a tailspin. This is the Kill Em All of the NWOAHM. Too bad Killswitch fell into sappy routine much more quickly than Metallica did.