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New Wave Of American Heavy Metal

Written by Dux, September 2010

very decade or so has its permutation of metal that emerges as the preeminent sound; that generation's "scene," if you will. With the deathcore sound and culture in full swing as this decade's newest trend in metal, I thought it would be an appropriate time to reflect on last's: the New Wave of American Heavy Metal.

ome of you may be scratching your heads as to what I am talking about. The term refers to the crop of aggressive metal bands that came up at the turn of the century and undoubtedly takes its inspiration, at least in nomenclature, from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal label used to classify the second wave of metal in the late '70s/early '80s. Unlike its forbearer, the term has not caught on as ubiquitously as a means to describe its scene and sound. At this point in time, I am unaware who originally coined the term, but it has shown up with some frequency on message boards and web articles, as well as in Metal: A Headbangers' Journey.

generally dislike the use of undescriptive labels to categorize bands. However, unlike a genre name, the NWoAHM refers less to a sound and more to a movement and era. Admittedly, there are certain stylistic elements that the classification carries with it, but there is far too much variety among its bands to use it just as a means of speaking sonically.

nough semantics. So what exactly is the New Wave of American Heavy Metal? The term refers to the second wave of young, purely American bands playing heavy, aggressive metal, with the first wave presumably being the thrash and death acts of the 1980s (Metallica, Slayer, Testament, Possessed, Morbid Angel, and Death, to name a few). Following in the extreme metal tradition of its predecessors, the NWoAHM combines the sharp, palm-muted riffs and melodic solos of thrash with the throaty, screamed vocals and breakdown/stomp riff sections of hardcore.

he origins of the NWoAHM are murky, as there is some debate whether or not the classification was applied retroactively by metal critics or whether there was an actual established scene and culture during its inception in the same way that there was for previous metal movements like Bay Area thrash or Norwegian black metal. In any event, the bands practicing its work ethic and sound were seen as something of an antithesis to the complacent state of modern rock music during the late '90s/turn of the decade, namely: alternative rock and nu-metal. '90s aggressive bands Pantera and Machine Head (whose origins lay in the thrash band Vio-lence) have often been cited as the progenitors of what would become the New Wave of American Heavy Metal aesthetic and sound.

s far as locale is concerned, there wasn't really a centralized location. The Boston area of Massachusetts produced many noteworthy bands including Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, Unearth, and All That Remains, with many members starting off as friends and playing in various less successful projects during the scene's formative years. California also was home to such acts as Avenged Sevenfold, As I Lay Dying, and Atreyu. Despite these small pockets, the geographic area was widely dispersed, with bands coming from all over the US.

uperficially, many would term the sound "metalcore," which is not far off the mark for the majority of the groups in the movement. However, the NWoAHM has its foot planted far enough in the camp of heavy metal to remove it from the sound of the bands of the second wave of metalcore (Hatebreed, Converge, Earth Crisis). Indeed, many of the bands of the NWoAHM would eventually be classified as "melodic" metalcore, and would be considered the third wave of metalcore in addition to its designation as the NWoAHM.

he adjective "melodic" comes from the NWoAHM's comparative lack of dissonance to its predecessors, and greater emphasis on hooky guitars and catchy choruses. Once the metalcore practiced by NWoAHM bands began to become more commercially viable circa 2004, the emphasis on cleanly-sung bridge and chorus sections began to increase. The cleanliness of such sections ranges from poppy crooning (Trivium, Killswitch Engage) to more mid-range, on-key shouting (Shadows Fall) approaches, but is a staple of nearly all bands in the movement. Furthermore, many bands would go on to incorporate conventions of the Swedish melodic death metal sound of the '90s, utilizing the dual-harmonized leads and tremolo picking of bands such as In Flames and At the Gates. Metal author Garry Sharpe-Young describes its use as a "marriage of European-style riffing and throaty vocals."

hough many bands would adopt the musical attributes previously spoken of, there have been a few to break out of the mold and separate themselves from the pigeonholing metalcore tag. Lamb of God for instance, the harshest of the NWoAHM bands, started off as a groove-infused metalcore outfit that has never used sing-songy vocals or melodic leads, eliciting comparisons to Pantera, and has progressed into a full-on modern thrash outfit. Another example on the other end of the spectrum is Mastodon, who started off as something of a sludgey mathcore band with spastic starts and stops and screamed vocals, who have since matured into a legitimate progressive metal act in their own right.

he subsequent generation of metalcore has taken the extremes of the NWoAHM to new boundaries. The latest trend in extreme music, deathcore uses full-on growled death metal vocals, a high level of technicality, and a lack of the more mainstream-accessible songwriting of what came before it. Though it has effectively brought aggressive metal back into a niche audience of people who have acquired the taste for its brutality, it as commercially popular, if not moreso, than the NWoAHM, appearing in Hot Topics and having its own entrenched scene culture.

he NWoAHM has largely moved away from its more trendy, metalcore roots, with many brands attempting to make their sound more timeless and mature. Most new releases from bands of the movement could be considered something of a neo-thrash sound, albeit separate from the Bay Area-inspired revival happening parallel to it. Either way, the movement is credited almost singlehandedly for bringing riff-centric metal back into the American mainstream post turn of the century.

Dux - September 2010