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Whatever happened to the New Wave Of American Heavy Metal?

Ten years on from the genre’s prime we look back on the pioneers of the new breed of US metal

By 2002 even the mainstream had had enough of nu-metal, which had slowly mutated from its exciting early adventures into overblown banality. During the ensuing hangover a roster of bands would give metal a much-needed kick up the arse and set forth the pathway for the scene that continues to this day. It was collectively dubbed the New Wave Of American Heavy Metal, and 2004 saw it set the benchmark.

Stylistically the NWOAHM cast a fairly large net, covering everything from Hatebreed’s metal-plated beatdowns, the ambitious progressive sludge of Mastodon, The Acacia Strain’s nihilistic bludgeoning to the glam-heavy posturing of Atreyu – seemingly if you were an upcoming band from the States who could play a bit, you were in. 

However, the epicentre of the movement was the incestuous New England hardcore scene. From the ashes of local heroes Overcast and Aftershock came Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage, melding the aggressive hardcore they grew up on with their well-earned musical chops and appreciation of the melodic death metal riffs and leads that Swedes At The Gates, Soilwork and In Flames had spearheaded in the mid-90s. Emerging from the underground alongside Unearth, All That Remains, God Forbid, Ohio’s Chimaira and vicious West Virginian neighbours Lamb Of God, labels like Metal Blade, Century Media and Roadrunner soon began circling, snatching up the cream and unleashing them on the wider world to ever-increasing acclaim.

As well as finally bringing the guitar solo back with fiendish aplomb (and popularising that funny kung fu thing kids in the pit are still so fond of), there was a renewed emphasis on celebrating metal’s heritage, with influences proudly worn on sleeves. The twin leads of Priest and Maiden were intrinsic to Unearth and Chimaira; the riffs and double-bass drum assault of thrash was reenergised by Shadows Fall and God Forbid; Lamb Of God were proudly touted as the new Pantera; Californians Bleeding Through explored the atmospherics of black metal; and the ambitious Avenged Sevenfold tried to combine it all.

With landmark releases such as the sublime melodies and optimism of Killswitch’s Alive Or Just Breathing and Lamb Of God’s visceral As The Palaces Burn setting the underground alight, the NWOAHM big guns stepped up from support acts to headline respectable venues, earn valuable festival slots and in 2004 contribute to a rich banquet of formidable releases that proudly marked the wave’s peak: The End Of Heartache, Ashes Of The Wake, The Oncoming Storm, Gone Forever and The War Within. More were to follow in in 2005 with As I Lay Dying, Chimaira, A7X and a couple of kids from Florida by the name of Trivium all continuing the upward curve.

However, like all movements before and since, the NWOAHM soon became old hat as successive legions of acts saturated bills and column inches with the same formula of monotone breakdowns, rehashed At The Gates riffs and, increasingly, soppy cleanly sung choruses. The metalcore scene that emerged is arguably as popular as ever, creating a wealth of offshoots from deathcore to the electronica-obsessed bands that are currently metal’s vanguard; and it’s not outlandish to suggest that a new generation of fans were turned onto the rejuvenated metal icons of the 80s, many of whom are now in rude health. But with so many identikit bands watering down the As I Lay Dying tunes and often being victims of style over substance, the legacy of NWOAHM has been irrevocably tarnished.

Furthermore, with the odd exception, most of the movement's stalwarts have succumbed to the rigours of touring and a fickle scene, or are still gallantly plugging away making music that they love, albeit to audiences much smaller than they deserve or second fiddle to those they’ve directly influenced.

So ten years on, Metal Hammer would like to raise its horns and salute the NWOAHM Class Of 2004 and relive some of its greatest moments...

Chimaira – Pure Hatred

The latest casualty of the NWOAHM breed, Mark Hunter’s metallic warriors will always be remembered for this hostile anthem from the tail end of 2003.

Killswitch Engage – Rose Of Sharyn

Alive Or Just Breathing kicked down the doors, but it was the arrival of Howard Jones and The End Of Heartache that launched KSE into the stratosphere.

Lamb Of God – Now You’ve Got Something To Die For

Still flying the flag for metal at the highest level, Richmond’s purveyors of ‘Pure American Metal’ really never looked back after 2004’s Ashes Of The Wake.

Shadows Fall – The Light That Blinds

Small wonder than Jonathan Donais is now holding court in Anthrax, with his spectacular playing helping The War Within break the US top 20.

God Forbid – Anti-Hero

It was 2005’s formidable concept piece IV: Constitution Of Treason that marked the Coyle brothers and co’s creative peak, but there’s no denying the blinding urgency of this cut from Gone Forever.

Unearth – This Lying World

One of the most energetic live bands of the NWOAHM, Unearth were masters of delivering undeniably catchy breakdowns that demanded you lose yourself in the pit.

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