Among the heavy metal subgenres most likely to turn the average underground ‘head into a piping hot cup of haterade, groove metal (sometimes referred to as post-thrash, closely related to alternative metal and industrial metal) surely sits at or near the top of the list. Blamed for contributing to the death of thrash, the spawning of nu metal and for bringing scores of jock-strap-polishing meatheads into the scene (among other things), groove metal is quite possibly the most battered and beaten of the genre’s red-headed stepchildren. However, its most heinous crime in the eyes of most NWN! message board-dweller types is that it is a product of the nineties, that decade where everything went to shit for a legion of ’80s-worshipping metal miscreants, many of whom continue to dab at bitter tears with the unwashed corners of their patch vests while clutching at their Nihilist demo cassettes to this very day.
Truth be told, I enjoy groove metal for the very same reasons that many metalheads hate it. I was a teenager during the nineties, and that decade shaped my perceptions of much of what I love to this very day, including heavy metal. As I’ve written before elsewhere, I didn’t discriminate between styles back then (with the exception of hair metal, but to be honest even some of that was ok at the time), and I fortunately had no one around to fill my head with the “if you like this band, then you’re not allowed to like this band, blah blah blah” nonsense that goes on all too often in the underground, which in turn allowed me to develop an appreciation for this oft-maligned metallic subgenre in relative isolation.
I grew up with bands like Pantera, Prong and White Zombie; they feel like they’re “my bands,” moreso than any dusty ’80s relics, and as a result hold a special place in my heart. Besides, how can you call yourself a fan of music and not enjoy a good groove every now and then? I’m not saying every groove metal band ever is worthy of your attention; as with anything it’s about 1% wheat and 99% chaff. For the remainder of this ungodly long article, I’ll be talking (almost) strictly about the wheat; these bands won’t be unfamiliar to you, but perhaps by the time all is said and done, you’ll think about them in a different way. Furthermore, this is by no means meant to be a comprehensive/definitive history; it’s more about how I perceived groove metal’s development as a fan growing up in the Midwest with limited access to bands and information. So, without further ado…
While some might argue that Louisiana’s Exhorder invented the grooving, pit-friendly post-thrash sound that would eventually cause a shitstorm (they’d been doing it since 1985), there can be no doubt that Pantera popularized it. Hard to believe these Texans were a glam metal band prior to releasing their fifth album,1990′s groove metal ground zero Cowboys from Hell (Exhorder’s debut full length Slaughter in the Vatican came out just a week earlier that same year), which featured hard-hitting tracks like “Psycho Holiday” and “Primal Concrete Sledge.” Phil Anselmo’s gruff, drill-sergeant-esque vocal delivery and Dimebag Darrell’s ultra-precise, highly rhythmic riffs instantly became a hallmark of the subgenre that would go on to be copied by legions of bands. Most fans didn’t have the first clue about Pantera’s Aqua Net-addled past (myself included, although I wouldn’t discover Pantera myself until 1992′s Vulgar Display of Power), embracing them as “the next big thing,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
Pantera wouldn’t release their masterpiece until four years later in the form of Far Beyond Driven, which is quite possibly the greatest groove metal album of all time. It’s thick as a brick and heavy as all hell thanks to Terry Date’s production, but it’s also dark, ugly and lyrically fucked up (see: “Good Friends and a Bottle of Pills,” for just one example), a musical portrait of the seedy, strung out and sexually perverted white trash underbelly of America circa 1994. Whether it’s a condemnation or a celebration of that lifestyle is open for interpretation, but the neck-snapping riffage the band unleashes on classic cuts such as “5 Minutes Alone” “I’m Broken” and “Slaughtered” are more likely to have you dragging your knuckles and wanting to fight, fuck, smoke or snort anything that moves rather than debating the merits of Anselmo’s lyrical prowess. Far Beyond Driven was Pantera at the peak of their powers; subsequent albums would yield diminishing returns, but there can be no question that they were the undisputed kings of groove metal during their thirteen year reign.
Pantera and Exhorder weren’t the only bands riding the groove during the nineties; the East Coast was home to an especially strong contingent that included the likes of Helmet, Prong, Biohazard, White Zombie and John Bush-era Anthrax. Being that groove metal was a thoroughly modern construction, as opposed to other throwback styles of metal which were in various states of popularity/decline at the time, it made sense that it would find footing in a bustling stronghold of modernity such as New York City. Also, in spite of the music’s Southern roots, its cruel rhythmic precision shared a gritty urban edge with the darker side of industrial music (in fact the two would go on to cross-pollinate), again pointing towards large, modern cities as a hotbed for the stuff.
While we’re discussing the initial rise of groove metal’s popularity, the impact of the quartet of NYC scumbags known as White Zombie cannot be overestimated. Their 1992 major label debut La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 went platinum by 1994 (’92 – ’94 were arguably the subgenre’s peak years) on the back of now-classic track “Thunderkiss ’65″ and it’s accompanying music video, which was in near constant rotation on MTV at the time. I personally remember buying the album, taking it to a friend’s house and listening to that track over and over again, not because it was the only good song (the album’s packed with them), but because there was just something so utterly mesmerizing about the combination of J. Yuenger’s guitar playing, which juxtaposed ultra-crunchy chug with Hendrix-like freakout leads, Rob Zombie’s acid-rap-meets-the-Cryptkeeper vocal cadences, and the weird B-movie samples woven into its fabric.
White Zombie would release not one but two groove metal monoliths; 1995′s Astro-Creep:2000 was an equally masterful effort that was even groovier than its predecessor, leaning in more of an electronic direction with increased use of loops, samples and all manner of synthetic bleeps and bloops. The album is best remembered by the world at large for the Phillip K. Dick-inspired track “More Human Than Human,” which is probably the quintessential example of the cross-pollination that was taking place between industrial/electronic music and groove metal at the time, as opposed to the more full-on industrial sounds of metallic-leaning bands like Ministry, KMFDM and Die Krupps.
Prong began life in 1986 as a thrash/crossover band, but emerged as one of groove metal’s most proficient purveyors with 1994′s devastating Cleansing. This album saw the addition of ex-Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven, which was bound to have an effect on the band’s direction; one can certainly hear echoes of KJ throughout Cleansing, but Prong guitarist/vocalist Tommy Victor’s razor-wire riffs are far more metallic and exacting than anything the English post-punkers would ever attempt. Whereas Killing Joke were interested in sowing the seeds of dissent (and occasionally making you dance), Prong were bent on total fucking destruction.
Cleansing is mostly known for the minor hit “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck,” but the album is a marathon of machine-like guitar-work and face-crushing rhythms with plenty of other highlights, including scorching opener “Another Worldly Device,” the raging “Cut-Rate” and the trippy “Not of this Earth.” Drummer Ted Parsons has gained some acclaim having also done time in Godflesh, Killing Joke and Jesu, but Victor remains one of the most underrated guitarists in metal, capable of peeling off those aforementioned cyborg-riffs like it’s no big deal, but he is also quite adept at adding interesting textures and nuances when the songs call for it, as evidenced by the more mellow and atmospheric “Home Rule” and “Sublime.”
Prong would go full-on electro/industrial metal for their following album Rude Awakening, much to the chagrin of most fans, but they are nonetheless one of the benchmarks by which all groove metal bands should be judged, and Cleansing remains one of the best examples of how to execute the style correctly and compellingly.
I’ve already written extensively about Helmet’s Meantime, an album that falls neatly between groove metal and alternative rock, so I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on it here; my earlier write-up is easily accessible and can be considered a companion to this piece for our purposes. I will say that what’s most impressive about Meantime is how un-fucking-believably tight the band is; the way Helmet circa 1992 locked into a groove and stomped it into submission is on a whole other level from any other band we’ll look at over the course of this article. You could set your watch to these motherfuckers back in the day.
Like Pantera and White Zombie, Helmet is another band that played a key role in helping bring the groove to the masses, thanks largely to MTV playing the living shit out of their video for “Unsung” (which if I’m not mistaken was a Buzz Clip), but also due to their crossover appeal. Helmet were most certainly metallic, but they also had just enough of an accessible alt rock vibe that they could be embraced by the guys that were more into the whole grunge thang (which was really just another permutation of heavy metal in disguise anyway). Sure, they could be abrasive and pummeling, but guitarist/vocalist Page Hamilton also had a hell of an ear for catchy riffs and refrains, as evidenced by the aforementioned “Unsung,” as well as “In the Meantime” and “Better.” To this day, Meantime remains a seminal work that’s profoundly influenced everybody from Napalm Death (more on them later) to the Deftones and is essential listening for anyone seeking to understand/appreciate groove metal.
Groove metal might have been born in the South, and the East Coast may have had a larger quantity of noteworthy bands, but the West Coast brought us groove metal’s number two (number two as in “second,” not number two as in “shit,” mind) flagship band, Oakland, California’s Machine Head. Formed by ex-Vio-lence guitarist Robb Flynn in 1992, the band unleashed their debut album Burn My Eyes in 1994 via Roadrunner Records, the label that would go on to become the central hive of groove metal’s bastard child, nu metal. Machine Head’s sound recalled Pantera, but since Pantera was never a thrash band their groove was more pure, whereas Flynn’s outfit still had a few toes firmly in the thrash pool, which helped to distinguish them from the elder statesmen.
I distinctly remember a lot of people talking about Machine Head like they were going to blow up into the next Pantera after Burn My Eyes came out; they certainly had the riffs and the songs, songs like the one-two opening punch in the face of “Davidian” and “Old.” They also brought some interesting innovations to the table, namely some ungodly heavy breakdowns that put today’s current crop of metalcore/deathcore/whateverthefuckcore kiddies to shame and a dynamic songwriting sense that was probably a hold-over from Flynn’s days as a trad-thrasher. Most importantly though, Machine Head sounded hungry, like they wanted to knock Pantera off of the post-thrash throne and feast upon their entrails; even though they couldn’t manage to KO the Texans, it was obvious that the desire was there, and it infuses Burn My Eyes with an electricity that many groove metal albums distinctly lack.
Rather than capitalize on their popularity, Machine Head released a middling sophomore album (1997′s The More Things Change…) followed by a full-on descent into cliche-ridden nu metal (the utterly dismal The Burning Red and Supercharger), cementing their degeneration from leaders into followers. Though I’m told they’ve moved back in a more metallic direction starting w/ 2003′s Through the Ashes of Empires, I haven’t bothered to check back in with them, as this style of music will always remain for me a product of a very specific time and place.
What we’ve covered so far might lead you to believe that groove metal was a strictly North American concern, but that isn’t entirely the case. In 1993 Brazil’s Sepultura released the crushing Chaos A.D., which marked a drastic stylistic change for the country’s best-known metal export. Abandoning the death thrash hybrid sound they’d perfected over the course of their first four albums, Sepultura were now incorporating elements of groove metal and hardcore with tribal-sounding drum patterns (an aspect they would fully integrate on 1996′s Roots) to great effect on tracks such as “Refuse/Resist” and “Territory.” The songs on Chaos A.D. are generally slow to mid-paced in tempo, which was another major departure for the band, and the stout production scheme courtesy Andy Wallace lent more heft to Sepultura’s sound than they’d ever achieved previously.
While older fans were crying sellout, ‘heads in my age bracket (at least the few other ones I knew of here in the Midwest) were worshipping at the altar of Chaos A.D. as one of the heaviest, most pissed off fucking things we’d ever heard; sure, we were aware of death metal, but let’s be honest, a lot of death metal bands in those days didn’t have the big budget production values that were afforded to a band like Sepultura. Crank up “Propaganda” “Nomad” or “Biotech is Godzilla” today and they’re still likely to smash the shit out of you like an M-1 tank rolling over your prone body.
With this album in ’93 and the aforementioned “Burn My Eyes” in ’94, Roadrunner Records began their transition away from death metal, and the label would eventually help midwife such musical atrocities as nu metal and so-called “post-grunge” (aka Nickelback and all the shit bands that sound like Nickelback). Sepultura and Machine Head are not to blame for nu metal, nor can one really blame Roadrunner for seeing a potential money-maker in signing the bands that they so obviously influenced, but a proliferation of bands inevitably lead to a dumbing down of what Sepultura and MH had already perfected, and the result is two-chord, lowest common denominator bands like Korn and Coal Chamber.
While discussing Sepultura in this context, one must also mention the important footnote that is Nailbomb’s Point Blank. A collaboration between Seps guitarist/vocalist Max Cavalera and Alex Newport of UK noise-makers Fudge Tunnel (who some also consider to be groove metal, although I personally don’t), Nailbomb fused together elements of thrash, industrial and hardcore, and though I wouldn’t exactly call it a groove metal record, there are some pretty gnarly mechanized grooves and plenty of vein-popping aggression, which makes it well worth your time if you’re trawling your way through this stuff. It’s interesting that this album gets a pass from some metal fans who loathe Sepultura’s stylistic one-eighty, in spite of it sharing many traits in common with Chaos A.D.
Featuring a Cuban-American drummer, a British vocalist, a Polish guitarist and an American bassist, Grip Inc. was an international groove metal powerhouse, releasing their debut album, the bulldozing Power of Inner Strength in 1995 via SPV. The aforementioned drummer was of course none other than ex-Slayer skin-beater extraordinaire Dave Lombardo, who had left Slayer following the birth of his first child in 1993. Teaming up with six-stringer Waldemar Sorychta, singer Gus Chambers and bass player Jason Viebrooks, Lombardo whipped up a devastatingly modern sounding thrash album that’s actually more straight-up pummeling than groovy, but Grip Inc. was no doubt lumped in with the groove metal/post-thrash crowd due to the fact that their brand of thrashiness was sleek and futuristic compared to the ’80s Neanderthal thrash of say, Testament or Slayer (more on them later).
Of course Lombardo’s aggressive yet nuanced drumming is bound to be the focal point of any recording on which he’s featured, but the other members of Grip Inc. prove they can hang with the master sticksman and then some on Power of Inner Strength, which is what ultimately makes it such a great record. Chambers’ vocal performance is not only powerful but also a bit more musical than many of his counterparts, his British accent lending the proceedings a punkish scowl that works well with the sharp, brutal tones of tracks such as “Hostage to Heaven” and “Ostracized.” Sorychta, who is probably better known as the producer behind metal classics such as Samael’s Ceremony of Opposites and Unleashed’s Shadows in the Deep (to name but a few), deserves far more credit than he receives for his riffing, which is every bit as memorable and exacting as that of Tommy Victor or Helmet’s Page Hamilton. In fact, I’d say that Grip Inc. as a whole are second only to Helmet and tied with Prong in terms of tightness.
Grip Inc. went on to release three more extremely solid albums before Lombardo permanently re-focused his efforts on Slayer (prior to his recent sacking, of course) and it’s an interesting side-note that the band crafted one of the few post-’90s groove metal albums worth listening to in the form of Incorporated, a recording that’s got plenty of the requisite groove, thrashiness and quasi-industrial sounds, but is also downright progressive by the subgenre’s standards. Incorporating left-field elements such as acoustic guitar, sitar, cello and female backing vocals, the first incarnation of Grip Inc. went out with an album so far ahead of the curve that it’s a damn shame Lombardo went back to spinning his wheels in Slayer, especially when one compares Incorporated to the extremely lackluster Christ Illusion.
Lombardo has stated that in the wake of his second departure from Slayer in 2013 he has reactivated Grip Inc. with Casey Chaos (Amen, ex-Scum) filling the vocalist position, as the goddamn mighty Gus Chambers sadly passed from this mortal coil back in 2008. It will be interesting to see what Grip Inc. sounds like when they finally surface with new material, especially with a polarizing figure like Chaos in the mix, but no matter what they might sound like today, Power of Inner Strength is an underrated/unsung classic of groove metal’s heyday that’s worthy of your attention.
Even death metal and grindcore weren’t immune to the infectious grooves that were sweeping through the metal scene on a global scale, as evidenced by Napalm Death’s 1996 album Diatribes. The UK band’s previous album Fear, Emptiness, Despair saw them heading in a more experimental direction, but Diatribes was beyond a shadow of a doubt straight-up Prong/Helmet-worshipping groove metal, with the exception of the occasional trademark ND blastbeats and Mark “Barney” Greenway’s vocals, which (mostly) retained the death-growl style fans were accustomed to.
I wasn’t in tune enough with the underground circa 1996 to know whether or not longtime fans of the band cried “sellout” when this thing was released (I’m guessing they did, since there are few things metalheads enjoy more than pointing fingers and crying “sellout”), but in my opinion Diatribes was a pretty goddamn ballsy album for Napalm Death to make, especially considering their pedigree as the godfathers of grindcore. But, one important thing to remember about Napalm Death is that prior to settling into their current grindcore/hardcore/death metal hybrid sound with 2002′s Order of the Leech, the band was in a near-constant state of metamorphosis; up to that point they had evolved from hardcore punk to grindcore to death metal, so while Diatribes might have seemed like a sharp left turn at the time, it makes a lot more sense when viewed from the vantage point of being able to examine ND’s entire career arc.
As for the album itself, speaking from a purely personal standpoint it’s one of my favorites in ND’s catalogue, most likely due to the fact that it really does sound like a more extreme version of Helmet; it reeks of the ’90s in the best way possible, and I love the fact that this much-maligned sound was able to infect even the staunchest of underground bands. Not every song on Diatribes is what I’d call a full-on winner, but taken as a whole its mix of accessibility and extremity makes it highly enjoyable, as there are both elements to latch onto and elements that will liquefy your fucking skull. That’s what I look for in just about every metal album I listen to, and Diatribes exemplifies that gold standard as well as if not better than 99.9% of what’s out there.
Circling back to the USA, by 1998 groove metal had run its course, having by then fully degenerated into the dreaded nu metal; White Zombie (Rob Zombie’s subsequent solo albums would keep some groove metal elements alive) and Prong had both called it a day (although Prong would reactivate in 2002), Grip Inc. wouldn’t release another album until 2004 and Pantera was just two years away from releasing their swansong album, the painfully mediocre Reinventing the Steel. Napalm Death had already begun their transformation back into a straight-up death grind band, Max Cavalera had left Sepultura to form the nu metal Soulfly and Machine Head were a year out from the full-blown nu metal of The Burning Red.
Yet somehow Slayer of all bands decided it was a good year for a veteran band to release a groove metal album, the almost universally disdained Diabolus in Musica. Perhaps the Bay Area quartet thought they saw the writing on the wall for thrash once and for all and figured they’d better cast their lot with something the burgeoning nu metal legions could potentially latch onto in order to keep the band relevant/lucrative without doing a complete Limp Bizkit makeover? Regardless of their motivations, the truth is that no matter what direction they attempt to push their sound in, Slayer still sounds like Slayer, albeit in the case of Diabolus in Musica a much groovier, less technical Slayer.
Is Diabolus in Musica a great Slayer album? No. Is it a great groove metal album? Not so much, especially when compared to the other examples we’ve looked at here. But at the same time it’s nowhere near as bad as it is often made out to be, and it’s still an interesting listen, if only because you can’t help but wonder what the fuck they were thinking. If they really were attempting to jump on a bandwagon, they certainly weren’t very good at it, not to mention being four or five years too late.
In 1999, a nu metal band would take groove metal to its logical conclusion. Static-X’s Wisconsin Death Trip could be called nu metal or industrial metal, and I think I even read something where they referred to themselves as “evil disco” (insert face-palm), but the truth is that this album distilled (some might say devolved) everything groove metal had been heading towards into simplicity itself. I’m guessing there are quite a few of you that read THKD who have deliberately never heard this thing, so for the uninitiated let me just put it this way; Wisconsin Death Trip is all groove, all the time. Most of the songs are short and sweet, no bridges, no guitar solos, no bullshit, just thick ‘n’ chunky grooves with industrial bleeps, bloops and loops no doubt inspired by the aforementioned Prong’s Rude Awakening. In fact, Static-X could be seen as Prong stripped of all complexity and sophistication.
Wisconsin Death Trip is a guilty pleasure of mine, and it’s also where groove metal ends for me (again with the notable exception of Grip Inc.’s Incorporated), forever frozen in time. Sure, there are bands out there that carried Pantera’s strain of groove metal forward into the next decade; Lamb of God and Devildriver (another lowest common denominator band featuring Coal Chamber’s Dez Fafara, what a shocker) spring to mind, but those bands are, well, uh, they’re not very good and quite frankly come off as a cheap facsimile of what Pantera was doing, so the less said about them, the better. On the flip side, a lot of the old groove metal sounds frightfully dated now (mainly due to the production), but that’s undoubtedly part of its charm, especially if your formative years were spent listening to it, as mine were.
Regardless of what this stuff spawned and ultimately degenerated into, groove metal seemed pretty cutting edge for its time and proved that metal could still evolve and change beyond the established thrash/death/black/grind axis, even if that evolution wasn’t something that all metalheads approved of. They say everything is cyclical, but I honestly can’t imagine a full blown groove metal revival happening anytime soon, although given the way technology has advanced since the nineties, a band incorporating the industrial/electronic side of things ala Prong or White Zombie could probably do something really cool and interesting with it. Alas, the world may never know, but I’m pretty damn sure I’m ok with that, as long as I still have the classics.
Do you love or hate this stuff? What classic groove metal bands/albums am I missing? Where did I get it wrong? Are there any modern bands doing this style that are worth listening to? Let me know in the comments.