September 14, 2012

Dubstep and Heavy Metal: Beautiful Synergy or the Death of Both?

Dubstep and Heavy Metal: Beautiful Synergy or the Death of Both?

I turned the dial over to the local rock station and something was going on in my speakers that I didn’t expect from a station that played current rock. It was Korn’s “Narcissistic Cannibal” which is a track produced by Korn, Skrillex, and Kill the Noise. If you know anything about Korn and anything about Skrillex then you already know exactly what this track sounds like without even hearing it. As the day turned into weeks and months I found rock radio was playing this track to death and it got me thinking: when did this happen? When did rock radio suddenly become an avenue for dubstep and metal hybridity?

The dubstep/metal hybrid has now been cemented.

Rock stations have always walked the line with electronic music by playing tracks from Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein, Filter, Powerman 5000, White Zombie, Rob Zombie, and a whole host of others. However with Korn, this was the first time I really took notice of the fact that the metal community was beginning to embrace the dubstep sound. The more hard rock we hear today, the more we are hearing electronic music influences across the board. It seems that every new hard rock album has at least one track that seems completely constructed in Ableton using Massive synth samples all played over the top of tracked drums and guitars.

So what the hell metal and hard rock bands? Are you scared that the music you cherish is not pulling the crowds it used to so you have to latch on to the next craze to stay relevant? Is it really you embracing the dubstep sound, or is it a ploy to get kids out to your shows? Both are valid reasons to incorporate it but we need to get to the heart of how electronic music is seeping into rock in a way that was never really accepted at its inception. Let’s talk history for a second.


So to better clarify what I am talking about and to quell the electronic music aficionados out there, the sound that we are hearing now in this metal and dubstep hybridity takes its influence from industrial rock but more specifically industrial metal. Industrial rock started in the late 70s and reached a stride in Europe and parts of the US in the early to mid 80s. If you want to get real technical here, there was a band called Cro Magnon in the 60s who were experimenting with this sound but they can really only be credited with the percussive elements of the sound rather than the sequencing and synthesizer melodies of what would become industrial metal in the early 90s. There are too many bands to name that most have probably never heard of doing dark and ethereal arrangements during the 80s. Bands like SPK and Throbbing Gristle were doing some intense stuff but it couldn’t really be considered rock. In fact a lot of the industrial bands using guitars were very anti-rock and roll. Some artists from the post-punk movement were hoping on board but their sound was too stripped down to be considered anything other than punk or a dark homage to Frank Zappa. Fast forward to 1988, Cleveland, Ohio, and a budding producer named Trent Reznor.

Nine Inch Nails planted the seeds for future rock and electronic hybrids.

Reznor and his band Nine Inch Nails were doing a lot to shape what would become the emulated sound of many rock and electronic hybridizers like Filter, Marilyn Manson, Orgy, and Stabbing Westward to name a short list. The NIN popularity became even more real when albums like The Downward Spiral (NIN), Title of Record (Filter), and Hellbilly Deluxe (Rob Zombie) were flying off shelves in the 90s. The innovators of the industrial music sound were beginning to speak out against what they saw as a bastardization of their music. Already with a disdain for rock and roll, many of them felt this was not the music they wanted to be compared to and they felt it was music for fraternity guys, gym rats, and testosterone junkies. Sound familiar bro?

When we got to the late 90s and early 2000s bands like Korn and Linkin Park were the new leaders in this electronic and metal integration. Sevendust were also doing a lot of sample triggering and ethereal introductions reminiscent of the Nine Inch Nails record The Fragile. With rap/rock in full swing and boy bands tapping the female market, it was only natural for the next crop of rock bands to be radio friendly and palatable to men and women. Nickelback and Creed are examples of the “nu metal” “post-grunge” bands rubbing shoulders with a lot of the electronic, industrial, metal, hip-hop metal fusion or whatever you want to call it. As the 2000s rolled on we saw Reznor using more guitars and acoustic drums in his production all culminating in the album With Teeth. The metal and hard rock bands during this time were getting back to their roots which pushed this electronic sound further down the rabbit hole until right about 2008-2010.


The industrial metal sound that dominated in the 90s and early 2000s had all but died by 2008 with Reznor and NIN being the last bastion of industrial rock (with his side project How to Destroy Angels and his new role as film score composer, rumors are circulating that NIN will be something Reznor returns to in the future. We miss you Trent.) In its place we now have an incorporation of sequenced piano synths and swelling bass sounds over heavy metal. There is clearly a band leading this charge who gained a lot of attention during the industrial metal rise and fall in the late 90s and early 2000s. Jonathan Davis from Korn has been very vocal about his appreciation for electronic music calling their latest record The Path of Totality “a rock record, but its got electronic influences.” If this is a rock record then we can call a Skrillex record a rock record but obviously no one is doing that. This is a dubstep record from a traditionally metal band, plain and simple. Embrace it. A few dubstep producers have gone on record saying how they are turned off by the super heavy sounds of dubstep. Rusko has gone on record as saying he is a little disheartened by this new breed of dubstep (aka brostep) that incorporates incredibly hard hitting bass and percussion because bros want to get their faces destroyed by a sonic wall of pain. I am of course paraphrasing but the point is even those immersed in the genre are starting to feel alienated by the new breed of fans.

What’s even wilder (or maybe totally predictable) is Skrillex leading this charge of incorporating his signature sound across multiple genres. He worked with the Doors in an experimental documentary that pits two artists/bands that should never ever be in a room together and has them make a track. Let’s not forget his latest track with Damian Marley which has become a huge hit. So do we blame Skrillex for ruining metal for the purists? Of course not. Skrillex is an artist who did something totally unique despite how many of you may say there were others doing it way before him. This is just another example of the music industry, and the artists who are willing to compromise, looking at Skrillex shows and thinking, “these kids are going crazy at his shows like they used to at our shows. How do we win them back?”

Live Crowd

Besides Korn, there are actually a lot of hard rock bands who are incorporating the dubstep sound into their music. Some are mostly curious how this genre is winning over their fans. The vocalist for the band Shinedown has commented recently that he has been listening to dubstep and trying to get into it. He said that he is not really sure what the deal with dubstep is but he is curious and open to the idea of understanding it. Why? I am all for people getting into other music but this mentality of I need to get into something because it’s popular is total bullshit. Rock does not have to be all things to all people. Just keep making radio friendly, vanilla rock Shinedown and let us choose to like you or hate you. Don’t be that kid at the playground who needs everyone to like him. I guess we can expect to hear some Shinedown dubstep tracks in the near future so hold on to your seats kids. Shinedown has already started to incorporate glitched out and beat repeated effects on tracks from their latest record Amaryllis. At this point what’s to stop them from going full on wobble.

Many bands are not just hinting at the sound in their tracks but incorporating it fully into their sound. The latest is from the band, 10 Years and their track called “Backlash.” At its core, their new track is a rock song but they decide to take the dubstep tempo and add some chaotic percussion which has a very strong electronic influence. Three Days Grace recently released a track called “Chalk Outline” which has a lot of the glitchy dubstep elements played with squealing guitars and 32nd note drum rolls for builds. Papa Roach has a new track called “Still Swinging” which has their signature gang vocal chorus but when it gets to the bridge, it’s full of deep bass synths, glitchy vocals, and groovy drums that would be mistaken for a Skrillex track if you eliminated the arpeggiated guitar and Jakoby vocals. Another addition to this mix are the first two releases from Muse and their record 2nd Law which comes out October 2nd 2012. Their track “Unsustainable” opens with massive symphony sounds and gregorian chants that make you think you are listening to a Star Wars score. When the track kicks in, it is almost a generic dubstep track. You can’t even call it hard rock at this point as the glitchy synth tones and wobbly bass bury the live drums and guitar tones. As a Muse fan and someone who believes Muse has always tastefully incorporated electronic sounds into hard rock, this particular track has me scratching my head in disbelief.

Muse's new record, "2nd Law" incorporates many dubstep elements.


I don’t want to project the wrong idea here. My goal is not to slam these bands or metal/hard rock and dubstep in general. Some of it’s cool, some of it’s bland, and some of it just exists. The point of this is to comment on what it is doing for the genres individually. For instance lets take a look at the fans. When Korn tours with Datsik, the question becomes who is at these shows? Do you still have the beer guzzling, long haired, guitar shredder, or has that been replaced by the Molly popping, skinny jean, new era cap, DJ controller enthusiast? A lot of folks in the metal and dubstep community blame the other for being fake, all about the money, and truly detrimental to the integrity of the music. While this may seem like a bold statement for either side of the fence when considering these genres, the hardcore fans make a valid point. It turns out what was once traditionally a sound with a hardcore following and appreciation has turned into something that a bunch of artists are trying to cash in on to stay relevant, and I am not sure which genre I am talking about here. Jonathan Davis can talk all day about how much he loves electronic music producers and what they are doing in the electronica world, but that doesn’t change the fact that Korn had one of the biggest metal records of the decade and now they want to make drops at 140 bpm. It’s confusing and frankly fans on both sides are left wondering what to think.

I will go on record here and say: I like Korn. I even like that they are experimenting and trying out new sounds. It’s also not my intention to bash dubstep either because I like a lot of it and I tend to gravitate more towards the “brostep” sound of hard hitting, face melting drum and bass. Dubstep is a hot sound right now and a lot of metal guys are just now getting turned on to it through Korn’s music. My problem is when Davis says “dubstep is the new metal,” in an MTV interview, I question the validity of either of these genres anymore. There is a bigger problem here than any of us could have imagined. Davis is saying this (and I totally agree with him) on the basis that the current state of hard rock and heavy metal is “cookie – cutter.” It’s sad to think that the answer to this is another hybrid in the vein of rap/rock which Korn brought to new heights in the early 2000s and spawned countless cookie cutter copycats, but that’s where we are at. One thing Davis said that was particularly interesting and spot on was that at metal shows it’s all about getting in the pit and being violent. With electronic music shows its about love and the kids that go to these shows get down way harder than at metal shows. As someone who has been to metal shows and dubstep shows at the same venue, Davis couldn’t be more right.

To me it seems like metal may be on the way out despite the hundreds of new bands that come out every year and their proclamations at their shows that “rock is not dead!” There is a visible look on fans faces as they are starting to get fed up with the desperate attempts from frontmen in metal bands who oblige fans to stay strong, keep the scene alive, and keep rocking out. These bands are playing to 1000 people in a 2500 capacity venue and tomorrow night Nero is coming in to sell the place out. In fact the venue is probably too small for Nero at this point.


Whether or not we can agree on the reaction to this new sound in hard rock, one thing’s for certain: the dubstep fans are not being alienated but the rock fans are. If anything dubstep fans will scoff at the hybridity and see it for what it is. A desperate attempt to fit in when ticket sales start tanking. The bands that the hard rock/metal fans grew up listening to and have remained loyal to for years are hearing their local radio stations pump out new rock that is overproduced and filled with staples from some of the most popular electronic music. Especially dubstep. What was once a genre of music that spoke to millions of fans because of its abolishment of trends is now the trendiest genre on the planet. I’ll let you decide if I am talking about metal or dubstep here.

No matter what side of the fence you’re on about whether this pleases or displeases you, the fact is that rock music is not the same as it once was. Countless arguments have been made about the death of rock and roll and the current state of the music business. The fact is you still have bands like Foo Fighters who are leading the charge, trying to keep rock alive, and winning the Grammy’s to prove that worth. History is in fact cyclical and we will have a resurgence of the rock that we all love, but that glimmer of hope seems farther out of reach with every “DubRock” “Step & Roll” track.

This hybridity of dubstep and metal to me signals the death of both genres for a brief moment in time. For the next couple of years you will hear more bands incorporating this sound into their music. While there will continue to be a following for that sound, there will come a point when the fans turn their backs abruptly. The EDM kids who have remained loyal to dubstep will eventually turn on it too and move on to the next popular sound. The truth is that most of those in the dubstep community are getting tired of it. When you have college sorority girls asking to hear dubstep at their favorite watering hole, it begs the question of how long that genre will live. For metal, the official time of death will be when Metallica puts out a dubstep track. Don’t get any ideas gentleman.

Keep your ear to the floor and let me know what other rock bands are doing this. What are your thoughts on rock and dubstep? Is it a natural combination or are rock bands cashing in on a fad? What do my dubstep fans think? What do my rock fans think? Are you a fan or do you hate it? Post a comment and let us know.