When so-called nü-metal emerged in the late '90s to usurp alt-rock's role as the heavy guitar music of choice for young Americans, a lot of progressive impulses got swept away in the transformation. During alt-rock's mid-'90s heyday, female artists (Hole, PJ Harvey, the Breeders, Alanis Morrissette, Garbage, etc.) were able to carve some space for themselves on commercial-radio playlists and on concert stages. But by the time Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst was encouraging his mook-rock minions to "Break Stuff" while flames rose and women were getting raped at Woodstock '99, a "no girls allowed" policy was getting instituted at "modern rock" stations around the country. And along with this macho aggression, Limp Bizkit and contemporaries such as Godsmack, Slipknot, and countless others that have already slipped into history's dustbin reinstated the worst of pre-alt '80s metal (politics was passé, bigger was better, and bowing to the biz was definitely back) with none of the redeeming qualities of that era (like its sense of humor and good-time guitar riffs).
In the last couple of years, some interesting shifts have occurred among this fan base, bridging the often-opposed alt and metal impulses of the past decade. It may have started with Linkin Park, whom detractors correctly disparage as metal for consumer-crazed mall kids but whose connection to hip-hop feels less forced than Bizkit et al. and whose therapy-rock at least rejects the calculated theatricality of the class of '98. And this past year, the biggest rock story was Little Rock's Evanescence, goth-metal Christians fronted by an actual woman, one who pointedly takes no guff from chauvinistic radio jocks and other creepy bizzers. Evanescence (often described as a marriage of Tori Amos and Linkin Park, which sums up the genre truce nicely) have taken this new meld of mid-'90s alt-rock and late-'90s nü-metal platinum to the Grammy stage, and though I might have previously considered the concept of "Christian goth-metal" my worst musical nightmare, I say more power to them.
Those looking for other signs of progress along this front are advised to venture to the New Daisy Theatre next week, where two other key bands in this transformation -- AFI and Thursday -- will take the stage. Neither band will ever qualify as personal guitar heroes of mine, and they have been only modest critical successes. But the kids love 'em. I'm guessing the average age at the Daisy this week will be younger than this 30-year-old critic by a solid decade.
One of the biggest differences between punk (where alt-rock is rooted, of course) and (mainstream) (American) metal has always been the DIY principle. Metal has a history of bands woodshedding, shopping demos to major labels, and waiting for someone to make them stars, something that's pretty much unheard-of for punk bands. In punk, by contrast, bands tend to put out records on their own or on indie labels and hit the road without obsessing over whether they'll "get signed." This is the route that both AFI and Thursday, unlike most of the popular heavy bands of the late '90s, took to their present stardom.
Though all the band members are still in their 20s, AFI has been around for a decade, much of it spent as a So-Cal pop-punk band, releasing five albums on Offspring frontman Dexter Holland's Nitro label while honing the goth-inspired sound they showcase on their major-label debut, Sing the Sorrow. New Jersey's Thursday came out of the East Coast emo and post-hardcore scenes, releasing the wildly popular indie album Full Collapse on Chicago punk label Victory and touring hard for several years. Both bands built up credibility and fan bases before moving on (and up?) to the majors, touring together a couple of years ago as part of the Warped Tour's traveling punk-rock carnival then becoming mass-cult stars via MTV. And one can't help sense that this shared punk heritage informs the ethical bent that makes each band seem like a far more progressive and healthy obsession for their teen-heavy fan base than the nÅ-metal bands they're replacing.
It's no surprise that both punk-bred bands cite the Cure as an influence, because each band's ability to tap into the same kind of swooning romanticism is a key to their popularity with a certain segment of the teen audience -- one that seems a little more sensitive and arty than what Limp Bizkit and Slipknot once attracted.
The mix of goth, AOR, and pop-punk that AFI harnesses on Sing the Sorrow is perhaps one of the most unlikely yet right-sounding mixes in current mainstream rock. And the key is the band's ability to unite seeming opposites: darkness with hopefulness; punk integrity with AOR bombast. Singer Davey Havok looks sort of like Glenn Danzig's girly kid brother, but rather than bark all the time, he can also prettily flutter a lyric like "Reach out and you may take my heart away" over a bed of AOR hooks. Combine that with delirious goth forboding like the album overture, "Miseria Cantare -- The Beginning," and it'll get you as far as Evanescence. The difference is that AFI's punk roots give it an engine that keeps the music motorvating along. The result: perhaps the catchiest, most anthemic, arena-sized goth-metal sound ever.
Thursday, by contrast, is more standard-issue emo-punk, except a little less solipsistic and little harder-edged than the dashboard confessionals of most straight-up emo bands. On their major-label debut, War All the Time, they attend to their adolescent pain with metaphors of perpetual war and temper the personal brooding with descriptions of work-force anomie. Their more politicized approach and T-shirt-and-jeans style is perhaps a better fit with most thinking-adult music fans. Except that this thinking adult isn't so sure.
Lyrically, romantic morbidity hasn't been my thing since the 10th grade, so lines like "We start to bleed/And we dance in misery" (AFI) and "Alone is all we are/Even when we feel this close/It's just a lie we believe" (Thursday) tap only into my empathy for the hormonal chaos of youngsters who take them seriously. But this onetime Smiths fanatic does respond more to the snappier beats, snazzier hooks, and more florid emotions of AFI. So while I'll nod along approvingly to Thursday next week, it'll be the headliner I'll raise my lighter for.