While you might see a lot of praise written about 1986 with its Reign In Blood and Master Of Puppets, or even a celebration of 2006 which saw Bullet For My Valentine’s The Poison and In Flames’ Come Clarity, it’s unlikely the year in the middle will receive as much love.
This is, of course, absurd. 1996 represented the centre-point of the swinging axis in metal’s timeline. A time where no sub-genre was truly in charge, but where all kinds of brilliant heavy music was being made.
The start of the ‘90s had seen grunge wrestle power from the (increasingly ludicrous) hair metal bands of the time, but with Kurt Cobain sadly no longer with us and a glut of second rate chancers ready to urinate on Seattle’s legacy, many of the original guard of grunge began their death rattle. Often with powerful results.
Sitting atop the pile is definitely Alice In Chains’ superb MTV Unplugged session. Those who believe Nirvana delivered the ultimate Unplugged statement have obviously never felt the spine-tingling chill that Layne Stayley inspires on this record. It’s especially potent if you can watch the live footage, seeing Stayley bawl that all-powerful voice from his withering, frail shell during Down In A Hole is like watching the start of Up and the end of Toy Story 3 simultaneously. If you don’t cry, you’re hardly human.
Soundgarden bowed out soon after too, but not without giving the world the much underrated Down On The Upside. Often sounding like a band caught in a maze trying to escape their own prison of grunge, this record still features brilliant oddities like the banjo, bluegrass thrash of Ty Cobb, the country twang of Burden In My Hand and the prophetic, apocalyptic Blow Up The Outside World. Which is as good a way to go out as any.
One of Seattle’s cruelly-ignored sons released their finest album in ’96, Screaming Trees ended the year hating each other, supporting Oasis and with some dude called Josh Homme playing live guitar with them… oh, and by giving us Dust. A quite beautiful record, and one that captured both Mark Lanegan’s inner demons and whiskey-soaked drawl perfectly for the first time. Dying Days, All I Know and Witness should have been massive. But they sadly weren’t.
Althoguh, that could be blamed on things stirring in other areas. As traditional metal faltered commercially, a new group of bands were giving the underground some of the most exciting sounds heard in history. And it was one of the old guard that brought it to the wider world’s attention, Sepultura went to the outback and worked on a new sound that paid homage to their… er… roots while still bringing in new sounds with the almighty Roots. More reliant on groove and spirit than pure brutality and technicality, Roots still seethes with hostility on the likes of Ambush, Spit and Attitude, while the addition of House Of Pain man DJ Lethal, Faith No More’s Mike Patton and Jonathan Davis of Korn on the haunting Lookaway still sounds like a huge risk today. Plus, it’s got Roots Bloody Roots on it! What more do you want?!
It has been said that Roots producer Ross Robinson got the job thanks to his work on the first Korn album, and he was at it again with the soon-to-be anointed ‘Godfathers of nu-metal’ in 1996 on their Life Is Peachy album. Seen by many as ‘the middle one’ in amongst their classic self-titled debut and the breakthrough Follow The Leader, Life Is Peachy still helped build the cult of Korn even further with_ A.D.I.D.A.S._ earning a chart placing and some MTV rotation. But, really, there’s more to it than that. Who wouldn’t want to hear Jonathan Davis screaming ‘Why don’t you get the fuck out of my face! UUUUGGGHHH! NOW!’ as he did on Good God in the live environment today? Add the excellent Chi, Mr Rogers and a manic cover of Ice Cube’s Wicked featuring Chino Moreno from Deftones guesting, and you’ll see Life Is Peachy was a killer record.
If Korn were feeling the pressure of following up a much loved debut then imagine the weight on Rage Against The Machine’s shoulders. Their Rage Against The Machine of 1992 is still regarded as one of the finest debuts ever recorded, so, with a fanbase rabid for more after a four year gap, the intensity to deliver on Evil Empire was fierce. By the time the opening one-two of People Of The Sun and Bulls On Parade had given us a genuine pair of classics, the anxiety mellowed and vanished completely as the liquid riffs of Tom Morello were doused in bile by Zack De La Rocha on Down Rodeo.
Another band following up a surprise commercial success were Type O Negative. After becoming the first band on Roadrunner records to sell a million records (with Bloody Kisses), Peter Steele and his band of not so merry men dropped October Rust on an unsuspecting mainstream media. The cheeky, psychedelic, doom-pop of my My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend actually ended up on British Saturday morning telly when it slithered its way into the chart. But this was no gimmick, October Rust is packed with the kind of dry, sardonic, expertly crafted, gothic metal that made the band so loved. From Love You To Death to their industrialised cover of Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl, Type O came up trumps again.
Britain was getting in on the act too. Metal fans could have just idly sat by and watched as Britpop dominated our landscape, but possibly spurred on by the success of Paradise Lost, who played the last ever Donington Monsters Of Rock festival that year with Ozzy Osbourne and a newly reformed Kiss, we Brits began to strike back against the indie monopoly.
Pitchshifter released their most accessible album so far, Infotainment, which took their Ministry and Godflesh worship and melded it with big riffs and even bigger political ideas.
We all know what a force of nature Benji Webbe is in 2016, Skindred being one of our most beloved acts, but in 1996 his previous band Dub War were challenging perceptions and utilising his versatile pipes with The Wrong Side Of Beautiful. They missed out on a top 40 single by one place with Enemy Maker, making them a clear contender for right band at the wrong time.
Finally 1996 saw the real beginning of the most unlikely of mainstream success stories as Cradle Of Filth released Dusk And Her Embrace and began their ascent to damn near the top of the metal foodchain armed with a gothic, black metal style, a lot of fake blood and that t-shirt.
But all that was only a storm in a teacup of controversy compared to witnessing the birth of rock’s largest enfant terrible in 1996. Marilyn Manson became the Antichrist Superstar, and in the process gave every weirdo teen in the world a new hero while giving middle America their boogeyman for the next decade. And although the package, the concept, the mythology and the myths surrounding Manson at that time were all part of the charm, it’s on The Reflecting God, Angel With The Scabbed Wings and, of course, The Beautiful People that Manson left his most indelible of footprints.
Manson wasn’t the sole cult born that year either, with the release of second full-length Aenima, Tool went from well-respected alt-metal band to genuine crossover artists with an obsessive fanbase to boot. Stinkfist took over MTV, Third Eye blew everyone’s mind, and Tool steered themselves well away from the pack and off into their own little world forever more.
Even though there were success stories peeking through in the mainstream, really metal in 1996 was flourishing deep underground. In Flames began to perfect the Gothenburg sound on second album The Jester Race, which would ultimately lead them to being one of the most name-checked inspirations in modern metal.
Eyehategod gave a pure shot of New Orleans, sludge-filled hatred to the world on Dopesick. Opeth couldn’t have been more out of step with dying grunge or the embryonic nu-metal with Morningrise’s epic, progressive elements melding with their early death metal stylings.
With the ambition to go toe to toe with Cradle Of Filth, Dimmu Borgir employed more keyboards to their icy, black metal on Stormblast. And Neurosis totally ditched their ‘80s crust-punk style to give the world the throbbing, black hearted Through Silver In Blood, an album that gained them a slot on the inaugural Ozzfest and even scared Slayer fans shitless.
Speaking of which, what of the old guard? The party line to tow is that Nirvana killed metal, which seems like a pretty silly thing to say when you look at the list above. And, if that were true, why were Slayer still able to fill Brixton Academy that year in support of their Undisputed Aggression album? One of the lost gems in the Slayer catalogue, it did get them into a spot of bother with former Minor Threat frontman Ian Makaye over their… ahem… ‘re-wording’ of Guilty Of Being White. But, grievances aside, if the thought of the fastest of the thrash bands tearing through songs by The Stooges, TSOL and D.R.I. doesn’t excite you then check your pulse immediately.
If Slayer were doing okay for themselves then you could quadruple that notion for Pantera. There might have been a few sticky moments there on the ill-fated co-headline tour with White Zombie, but with the release of The Great Southern Trendkill, landing slap bang at number 4 on the Billboard album charts, the Texans weren’t blunting their edges for anyone. Quite the opposite, in fact. With Phil Anselmo in his most ferocious form and the riffs of Dimebag Darrell as neck snapping and powerful as ever, there is an argument that TGST is the Pantera connoisseurs’ album of choice. Anselmo’s grindcore, death and black metal love comes to the fore (he even let Anal Cunt singer Seth Putnam loose on the opening title track) as the Abbott brothers indulge in their Southern rock upbringing to create both the most extreme and most melodic album of their career.
The biggest band of them all though were still Metallica. And, five years after becoming bigger than any metal band could ever have dreamt, they followed up The Black Album with the controversial Load. Derided at the time for its artsy cover art and photography, more hard rock and country influences and, quite pathetically, the fact that the band members had cut their hair. Listening back to songs like Ain’t My Bitch, Bleeding Me and the epic, ten minute The Outlaw Torn today it’s hard to quite fathom what all the fuss was about. Load ain’t Kill ‘Em All, no, but it’s a great hard rock record nonetheless.
This is all before we even scratch the surface of rock, with Rocket From The Crypt melding garage punk, old school rock ‘n’ roll and cabaret showmanship on Scream, Dracula Scream while punk legends Social Distortion dropped the snarling, grit of White Light, White Heat, White Trash.
The expansive, pre-grunge rockers Failure out-Tooled Tool with Fantastic Planet, brit-rock luminaries Terrorvision gave the UK rock chart plenty of attitude on Regular Urban Survivors. Girls Against Boys’ double bass, serial killer, sex rock was getting ever more threatening on House Of GVSB and Ministry blew our minds, ears and stomachs again on Filthpig. 1996 wasn’t just Oasis and The Spice Girls.
So that was 1996 – the unloved middle child of ’86 and ’06. But a link, a thread, a signifier to where metal and rock was and where it would go during a time of great uncertainty. And although there were some classic records released that year, maybe one that slipped through the net gave us the best indicator of what would happen next in metal. In 1996 Slipknot, unpolished and unrecognisable from twenty years down the line, self-released Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat. to no great fanfare or overture. Inspired by the bands of the past, with a desire to be the future. Rather than being dead, the next evolution of metal was just lying in wait.