Alternative Metal

ALTERNATIVE METAL (1985-present)

Alternative MetalAlternative Metal (also known as Alt-Metal or Hard Alternative) is a sub-genre of Rock music and Heavy Metal with influences from its parent-genre Alternative Rock and other genres not normally associated with Metal. Alt-Metal bands are often characterized by heavy guitar riffs, melodic vocals, sometimes harsh vocals, unconventional sounds within other Heavy Metal genres, unconventional song structures and sometimes experimental approaches to heavy music. The term has been in usage since the 1980s, although it came into prominence in the 1990s. It has spawned several sub-genres, including Rap Metal and Funk Metal, which have both influenced another prominent sub-genre, Nu Metal, which expands the Alternative Metal sound, commonly adding influences from Hip Hop, Groove Metal, Grunge and sometimes Industrial Metal.


The origins of the genre can be traced back to Funk Rock music of the early to mid-1980s, when Alternative bands like Fishbone, Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers started mixing Heavy Metal with Funk, creating the Alternative Metal sub-genre Funk Metal. Other early bands in the genre also came from Hardcore Punk backgrounds. Bands such as Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden are recognized as some of the earliest Alternative Metal acts, with all three of these bands emerging around the same time, and setting the template for the genre by mixing Heavy Metal music with a variety of different genres in the mid to late 80s. During the 1980s, Alternative Metal appealed mainly to Alternative Rock fans, since virtually all 1980s Alt-Metal bands had their roots in the American independent Rock scene.

The emergence of Grunge as a popular style of Rock music in the early 1990s helped make Alternative Metal more acceptable to a mainstream audience, with Alternative Metal soon becoming the most popular Metal style of the 1990s. Several bands associated with the genre denied their status as Metal Bands. Helmet drummer John Stanier said “We fell into the whole Metal thing by accident, we always hated it when people mentioned Metal in conjunction with us.” The Alternative music festival Lollapalooza conceived by Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell, helped bands associated with the movement such as Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Primus, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains gain exposure.

The Progressive Rock influenced band Tool became a leading band in the Alternative Metal genre with the release of their 1993 debut album Undertow; Tool’s popularity in the mid-’90s helped kick off an era of bands with Alt-Metal tendencies also classified in other genres like Industrial (Nine Inch Nails) and Rap Rock (Rage Against the Machine). Many established 1980s metal bands released albums in the 1990s that were described as Alternative Metal, including Anthrax, Metallica and Mötley Crüe.

Faith No More is often credited for inventing the Alternative Metal genre

Faith No More is often credited for inventing the Alternative Metal genre

In the later part of the 1990s, a second, more aggressive wave of Alternative Metal emerged; dubbed Nu Metal, it often relied more on Thrash Metal, Groove Metal and Hip Hop influences, as opposed to the influences of the first wave of Alternative Metal bands, with this style subsequently becoming more popular than standard Alternative Metal. It resulted in a more standardized sound among Alternative Metal bands, in contrast to the more eccentric and unclassifiable early Alternative Metal bands. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Nu metal was mainstream with bands such as Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Staind all attaining mainstream success. Some Nu Metal bands managed to push musical boundaries while still remaining commercially viable, such as Mudvayne (who combined progressive elements) and Deftones, who have incorporated Post-Hardcore and Dream Pop influences.

Joel McIver believes Tool to be important in the development of this genre and wrote in his book ‘Unleashed: The Story of Tool’ – “By 1996 and ’97 the wave of Alternative Metal spearheaded by Tool in the wake of Grunge was beginning to evolve into Nu-Metal.” However, lead singer Maynard James Keenan was quick to separate himself from this movement saying “I’m sick of that whole attitude. The one that puts Tool in with [Nu] Metal bands. The press… can’t seem to distinguish between Alternative and Metal.” Other Alternative Metal bands considered influential to the Nu Metal genre such as Helmet have also tried to distance themselves from the movement.

Certain bands associated with the Nu Metal movement — such as System of a Down, Godsmack, Karnivool and Deftones — are still classed as Alternative Metal, due to being closer in sound to Alternative Rock.


The genre has been described as part of Alternative Rock and Heavy Metal. Bands tend to feature clean singing, influenced by those of Alternative Rock, in contrast to other Heavy Metal sub-genres. However, more recent bands have also incorporated vocal styles like growls and screaming. It features aggressive guitar riffs as well.


The Alternative music festival Lollapalooza

Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1990 “Just as Rock has an Alternative, [left] wing-bands like the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr. – so does Metal. Alternative Metal is alternative music that rocks and Alternative Metal these days can reach 10 times the audience of other Alternative Rock. Jane’s Addiction plays an intense brand of ’70s-influenced Arty Metal; so does Soundgarden. In fact, the Arty meanderings of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin themselves would be considered Alternative Metal.” Houston Press has described the genre as being a “compromise for people for whom Nirvana was not heavy enough but Metallica was too heavy.”

The first wave of Alternative Metal bands emerged from many backgrounds, including Hardcore Punk (Bad Brains, Rollins Band, Life of Agony, Corrosion of Conformity), Noise Rock (Helmet, The Jesus Lizard, White Zombie), Seattle’s Grunge scene (Alice in Chains, Soundgarden), Stoner Rock (Clutch, Kyuss), Sludge Metal (Fudge Tunnel, Melvins), Gothic Metal (Type O Negative) and Industrial (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails). These bands never formed a distinct movement or scene; rather they were bound by their incorporation of traditional Metal influences and openness to experimentation. Jane’s Addiction borrowed from Art Rock and Progressive Rock, Quicksand blended Post-Hardcore, Living Colour injected Funk into their sound, while Primus were influenced by Progressive Rock, Thrash Metal & Funk and Faith No More mixed Progressive Rock, R&B, Funk & Hip Hop. Fudge Tunnel’s style of Alternative Metal included influences from both Sludge Metal and Noise Rock.

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