The weatherman has advised we dress for the 90s today – by which he means that temperatures will be nudging a scorching 95˚F (35˚C), and we should all be liberally coated in sunblock and wearing white. Unless, of course, you are one of an estimated 85,000 people attending the highly anticipated Sick New World festival at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds, in which case, black from head to toe is the order of the day. With the Festival Grounds located at the far end of the Vegas strip, there’s a long walk in the heat, a dark swarm of people converging on the site from every direction, and long lines to get in.
Still, the view’s impressive, with the famous Circus Circus Hotel & Casino looming large. It was here, in the early 70s, that legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson made a name for himself on his drug-addled quest to find the heart of the American dream, commenting, as he did so, on the fading embers of 60s counterculture. Perhaps one of his most important and moving passages, known now as ‘the wave speech’ talked of how that generation believed they would prevail over the ‘forces of old and evil’. Such is the beautiful naivety of youth. No small wonder that future generations were angry. Some 50 years later, the hippies are long gone, their place taken by subsequent generations of freaks and rebels who saw themselves sitting outside of mainstream culture.
In the late 90s and early 00s, it was the turn of nu metal and alternative rock, movements that burned with a countercultural spirit before being commercialised and having the life sucked out of them. But even that was more than 20 years ago. In 2023, nostalgia rules, and for one blazing day in May, that era lives once more in the Las Vegas Festival Grounds. Sick New World is nu metal’s answer to When We Were Young – the hugely successful emo revival festival held here last year, headlined by My Chemical Romance and Paramore.
Today’s headliners are System Of A Down, and the 50-band undercard features Korn, Deftones, Incubus, Evanescence, Papa Roach, Coal Chamber, P.O.D., Sevendust, Alien Ant Farm, Soulfly, Hoobastank, Kittie and Orgy, plus a selection of other big bands from the era and a smattering of new ones. Even the poster artwork, featuring a doll-like creature with its mouth sewn up, recalls Korn’s 1999 album Issues. Is this what the counterculture looks like in 2023? Let’s go in and find out…
Walking into the Festival Grounds, across a purple carpet leading to what’s essentially a huge car park, we’re struck by how young the crowd is. While Gen X and millennials are in attendance, Gen Z-ers are everywhere – perhaps indicative of nu metal’s recent resurgence. Opening the festival are Santa Cruz five-piece Scowl, on the Sick Stage, who fall into this category. They might be a hardcore punk band who formed in 2019, but they’ve toured with Limp Bizkit and have a healthy respect for late 90s/early 00s culture.
“Nu metal rules!” enthuses green-haired singer Kat Moss, as we catch up with the band backstage in an airconditioned tent. “I fuck with nu metal and all types of music. But I think when it comes to genres and labels, sometimes things just stick, and nobody involved in that world had any intentions of it. We all enjoy nu metal, and I would say it’s influenced us in the way of, ‘Do what you want, have fun, and fuck the rest.’"
When Scowl toured with Limp Bizkit, they found them to be “super nice” and unfairly vilified; last year’s two Woodstock ’99 documentaries painted Fred Durst as a rabblerouser who knowingly goaded jocks into causing trouble.
“It’s funny,” says Scowl bassist Bailey Lupo, “because he talks about how he was never friends with people like that. I think there’s some satirical moments that the jocks didn’t catch, and the whole time, they were poking fun at the jocks.”
Limp Bizkit have undergone a revival, their 2010s career slump reversed by Fred Durst’s knowing ‘Dad Vibes’ look of a white wig and slacks, the release of 2021’s Still Sucks after a decade-long wait, and a string of party-starting tours.
At the same time, there’s been an explosion of nu metal in popular culture, whether it’s newer bands taking influence from the sound (Spiritbox and Loathe are playing today), viral songs and clothing trends on TikTok, or the soundtrack of Netflix’s recent horror/comedy Beef. Is nu metal popular again?
“I think guitar music is getting popular again,” says Kat. “Young people are craving that energy. There’s a lot of reasons to be angry in this world, and nu metal has a place in that.”
Stepping out into the heat once more, we find that while Kat is angry about “women’s reproductive rights and the fact that black and transgender people have to live in fear”, the audience is more pissed off about the lack of shade and a merch line that must be a mile long. To be fair, there are free water refills, and this is not the kind of hardy crowd who’d cope well with three days of mud at Download. But as the medics start carting sunstroke victims away, it becomes evident that wearing a leather trench coat was not a wise idea. It also becomes evident that jamming a three-day festival line-up into one day doesn’t work.
Fifty band names look impressive on a poster, but you probably won’t get to see more than a handful, especially with the two smaller stages (Sick and Spiral) running concurrently. They’re also side by side, meaning you can often hear two bands simultaneously. Long walks and short set times also mean bands frequently finish before you’re close enough to check them out.
Kittie overlaps with Melvins, who overlap with Mr. Bungle, and so on. Kittie are looking on the bright side: their set on the Sick Stage is well received, not least the debut of a new song called Vultures and crowd favourite Brackish. The band were happy to get a second chance after reuniting at last year’s When We Were Young festival, essentially ending a 10-year hiatus.
“It was the same people who put on Sick New World, and they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, financially and otherwise,” singer Morgan Lander tells us in the press area. “It seemed like a really good opportunity. The line-up was cool, and we just weren’t getting those kind of offers.”
Morgan has seen a new generation waking up to the excitement nu metal’s offered all along. “There’s definitely a resurgence of it,” she smiles. “It didn’t really go away. It was hiding in the depths of southern America for a long time. It just took a bunch of kids whose parents grew up listening to that music to get old enough to like it. A lot of those kids never got to see Kittie play, because the first album [1999’s Spit] was 20 years ago, when nu metal was first happening.”
We go outside to talk to some of the “kids”, pretty much all in their 20s, often dressed in what their parents would have worn in the 90s. Korn shirts and baggy pants are everywhere. Lani is from Huntington Beach, California, and is wearing Disturbia vegan leather clothing. She came here to see Deftones. “I grew up with nu metal,” she says. “My dad listened to it a lot, and I rediscovered it during my teenage years.”
Nu metallers, the next gen, cooking nicely on the barrier Meanwhile, Carlos, from LA, got into nu metal via his brother. Late to the scene, he was confused about which bands were a part of it. “He was into System, and I was a little Catholic boy. I heard, ‘When angels deserve to die’ [the lyric in Chop Suey] and I was like, ‘What? Who says that about angels?!” he laughs. “But it intrigued me. Are Papa Roach nu metal? P.O.D.? System? Korn? I didn’t know they were considered nu metal until I’d already heard them.”
Frankly, it’s kinda weird, and perhaps a little sad. There is no real sense of nostalgia, simply because they weren’t around for the inception of nu metal. With few exceptions, all the bands playing Sick New World have been around longer than the kids, and even some of the newer bands such as Turnstile have been around for more than a decade. Backstage, we see if P.O.D. can offer any insight.
Formed in San Diego, California, in 1992, they were riding the nu metal wave before it even had a name, but had a breakout hit with 2001’s Alive. They’ve consistently released successful records since the genre’s peak. Like many bands, they don’t really care for the moniker, it just happens to be what stuck.
“Everything comes back around, and we’re at that age now where you have 15-year-olds discovering music and going, ‘Hey, I kinda like that,’” grins frontman Sonny Sandoval. “But that’s what music is supposed to do. You’re supposed to be digging in the crates and checking all these bands out. It doesn’t change what we do; we’ve been making music for 30 years. We didn’t even call it nu metal, someone made up that name. We were influenced by punk rock, hip hop, reggae… all kinds of stuff. I guess this was a new kind of metal.”
Is there a difference in the crowd, these days?
“I think these kids are starting to realise that all us old guys were young once, too,” says Sonny, “and we were in the moshpit and flying off the stage. For a while, it seemed like that scene kinda died, and I don’t know why. We’re an energetic band and we love getting involved, even if it’s 120˚. We wanna get busy!”
The truth is, the kids are not getting particularly ‘busy’ today, the heat having taken its toll – something Sonny acknowledges when they open the main, Purple Stage. “You’ve gotta be safe, drink lots of water, have a good time,” he says. “Thank you for supporting all these years, and thank you to all you newbies who are out today listening to us!”
Then they play Alive with a guest spot from Jinjer singer Tatiana Shmayluk – she’s married to their drummer, Alex Lopez – in a nod to the following generation. We head over to catch Ministry (representing 90s industrial today along with Filter, Skinny Puppy and Stabbing Westward) whose set is running 15 minutes late and cut short by two songs, due to what Al Jourgensen calls “incompetence” on the part of the festival.
Worse is to come. Bodycount are all but unlistenable due to sound issues; The Birthday Massacre suffered the same problems earlier in the day and stormed offstage. Cradle Of Filth’s headline set on the Sick Stage will later be delayed by 30 minutes, only to be unceremoniously cut due to curfew restrictions. Power off, lights on, go home.
With tickets starting at $250 (£200), this is not good value by any measure. $17,000 (£13,500) for a VIP cabana is not what metal, nu or otherwise, is about. Or maybe it is, in 2023, since they all sold out. But hey, you get to skip that merch line.
For all the gripes, Sick New World has its moments. Korn are magnificent, with nine of their 14 songs from the 90s. The crowd sing the opening riff of Blind and, as expected, a proper pit kicks off. There’s a snippet of Queen’s We Will Rock You during Coming Undone, and Metallica’s One during Shoots And Ladders. Incidentally, Jonathan’s wearing Adidas again.
Headliners System Of A Down play a massive 31-song set, kicking off with Prison Song – “SICK NEW WORLD!” screams guitarist Daron Malakian during the intro, before Serj Tankian has even sung a note – and including rarities like Darts and Peephole. They sound great, but there’s a feeling they’re dialling it in. Perhaps it’s because, unlike Korn, they haven’t released an album in 18 years (since 2005’s Hypnotise).
“I noticed that nobody’s pitting very much,” says Daron before Suite-Pee. “Is pitting not allowed in this motherfucker? Are they telling you not to pit? I’m telling you to pit.”
It gets a cheer, but nothing more. On a good day, System Of A Down can fill your heart with joy, or make you shed a tear. Tonight, they’re something to watch, something to dance to, if you still have the energy. It’s not life-changing as it once was. As nu metal once was. At the end of Toxicity, people start to drift away, before realising there’s another song.
And then, 85,000 people all try to leave at once, skint and sunburned. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of elation, just a need to go home. Except that Uber want $95 (£75) for a $12 (£10) ride, just like Sick New World wanted $18 (£14) for a $3 (£2.50) beer. Instead, we head to a Korean restaurant already packed with festival-goers who had the same idea. Order something cheap and keep hitting the refresh button until prices go down. Again, there is no sense of elation, just exhaustion.
Hunter S. Thompson came to Las Vegas half a century ago as part of his search for the American Dream. Back then, he found only the fading remnants of the 1960s counter-culture, a pallid imitation of what it once had been. Fifty years on, it turns out little has changed.