If you love heavy metal, and you appreciate the art that came out of the 1990s, then you no doubt have an interest (or downright passion) for 90s heavy metal bands. So in this article, I’m going to provide you with my thoughts on the best bands that populated the heavy metal genre in the forever memorable decade of the 1990s.
Best 90s Heavy Metal Bands You’ll Love
Let’s begin with Alice in Chains.
1) Alice in Chains
Alice In Chains is one of the most beloved heavy metal bands in metal history. Formed in 1987 in Seattle but gaining the bulk of their popularity between 1990 and 1992, the band performed heavy metal with a grunge, psychedelic, and indie twist.
Though the band’s popularity was far from indie status, they seemed to communicate the tortured angst of military veterans between the 50s and 70s. I developed a mild obsession with music that spoke out against warfare at the tender age of 12, two years after I learned about the horrors of the Holocaust.
One of my favorite eras of music was Vietnam resistant music that ricocheted into the future for several decades. Needless to say, when I heard the ear-tingling sensations of the grunge-like vocals, sinister, low-dragging guitar, and the characteristic colonial war snare drum of the band’s track, “Rooster,” I had to know all about it.
Walkin’ tall machine gun man
They spit on me in my homeland
Gloria sent me pictures of my boy
Got my pills ‘gainst mosquito death
My Buddy’s breathin’ his dyin’ breath
Oh god, please won’t you help me make it through?
Here they come to snuff the rooster
Yeah, here come the rooster, yeah
You know he ain’t gonna die!
No, no, no you know he ain’t gonna die!
This immensely popular track is dedicated to guitarist, Jerry Cantrell’s, father, who fought in the Vietnam war and subsequently struggled with the violent events for the rest of his life. His father’s nickname, Rooster, was given to him by his grandfather, which described how his spiky hair would stick upright on top of his head.
Cantrell’s experiences mirrored that of millions of American families that welcomed soldiers back home. The album, Dirt, that featured “Rooster” would be the band’s defining edge for decades.
Heavy metal band, Korn, truly set the tone for heavy metal in the 90s. Their music has all of the components of the characteristic sounds of the underground metal scene, from the grunge, sinister guitar, to the low rumbling bass, and a vocalist whose lyrics are long, drawn-out, and deeply guttural.
This band led the massive wave of the subgenre, nu-metal, which I suppose can be described as the simmering cool of its siblings, black and death metal.
3) Linkin Park
Linkin Park has had my heart for two decades. Late singer of Linkin Park, Chester Bennington, in collaboration with Jonathan Davis of Korn, performed the studio track for the movie, “System.”
However, the band, coming into the nu-metal scene, began their journey with a 1997 demo back when their name was the mysterious Xero. This demo cassette tape featured tracks such as “Rhinestone” and “SuperXero,” which respectively transformed into tracks on the album Hybrid Theory (“Forgotten” and “By Myself”).
From the top to the bottom
(bottom to top, I stop)
At the core of the rotten
(stopping just what I thought)
But sun has escaped us
(so, I’m fighting the sky)
And I’m far from my weightless
(thinking, “why did I try?”)
“Rhinestone’s” lyrics would eventually become a slightly altered version in the band’s track, “Forgotten”:
From the top to the bottom
(Bottom to top I stop)
At the core I’ve forgotten
(In the middle of my thoughts)
Taken far from my safety
(The picture’s there)
The memory won’t escape me
(But why should I care?)
Linkin Park, despite losing their front man, Bennington in 2017, still have monthly listeners on Spotify that triple, even quadruple, that of Korn and Alice In Chains. The band has touched the lives of many and continue to inspire musicians and artists today.
Though my love for Linkin Park began in childhood, I sought them out on my own upon the release of their album, Living Things. The band’s versatility encapsulates their timeless messages, whether it be addressing past traumas, discouraging warfare, and feeling completely rageful towards one’s circumstances, the band has a message for any listener.
Nirvana is a beloved band that gained a massive following rivaling that of Linkin Park. Though the band debuted in the late 1980s, they truly met their hey day with their 1991 release of the album, Nevermind, that featured their all-time hit, “Smells like Teen Spirit.”
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido
And I forget just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind
Nirvana’s style of music was inspired by the Pixies (although I guess that’s up for debate) and the band was swept up in the early heavy metal stages of nu-metal that skyrocketed them to fame.
Nirvana continues to grip the hearts of many all over the world. However, heavy metal bands seem to always have a troubled aura about them sometimes can lead to a tragic ending. Cobain suffered a similar fate to that of Chester Bennington and Per Yngve Ohlin.
I was introduced to Swedish progressive heavy metal band, Opeth at a concert I attended for the sole purpose of seeing heavy black metal band, Zeal & Ardor. I was incredibly nervous that night, as my introduction to heavy metal was very dark, disturbing, and prejudiced.
I was concerned about whether I’d even belong at such a concert, but the presence of Zeal & Ardor gave me hope that I was in the right place. Not only did I feel incredibly welcome by the many patrons who didn’t attack me for my anatomy or skin color, and sought to protect me in the mosh pits that I eagerly dove into, but I was so heavily enthralled by the artistic ways Opeth entwined progressive metal, psychedelic metal, and death metal into their music.
Not to mention the hilarious banter vocalist, David Isberg, sarcastically displayed in between songs in true Swedish fashion.
Though many Swedish people I’ve spoken to know exactly who Opeth is, their known presence in the USA is a hit or miss. While many of their songs stuck with me that night, one of my favorite tracks is “The Wilde Flowers.”
Blinding light as the flames grow higher
Searing skin on a funeral pyre
Blinding light as the flames grow higher
Searing skin on a funeral pyre
Performing one of the most amazing guitar solos I’ve had the honor of hearing live, the band’s guitarist, Fredrik Åkesson, is a well-rounded musician. He has done work with not only Opeth, but also Ghost, Krux, and Talisman, to name a few.
You may have heard of Queen, but what about Queensrÿche? If you were to search this band up while they were in their prime, you’d think they were your average 80s glam metal band like Twisted Sister.
But no, Queensrÿche is as heavy as they come. Formed in 1980 in Washington, the heavy metal band’s fame reached a new height with their 1990 album, Empire. With this fame, the band created well over 150 songs and toured the world with many of the greats like Metallica and Guns ‘N’ Roses.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Queensrÿche because they had no fear speaking about injustices, instead of promoting it like other early heavy metal bands. For instance, the raw and unapologetic lyrics of their single, “Empire” went like this:
Johnny used to work after school
At the cinema show
Gotta hustle if he wants an education
Yeah he’s got a long way to go
Now he’s out on the street all day
Selling crack to the people who pay
Got an AK-47 for his best friend
Business the American way
East side meets west side downtown
No time, the walls fall down
Can’t you feel it coming?
(Empire) can’t you hear it calling?
Black man, trapped again
Hold his chain in his hand
Brother killing brother for the profit of another,
Game point, nobody wins
Decline, right on time
What happened to the dream sublime?
Tear it all down, we’ll put it up again
The band had no problem exposing the federal government’s problematic spending habits, their efforts focused more on space exploration, rather than improving domestic conditions. Their outside perspectives of black and brown communities highlighted the irony of the twisted American Dream, a traumatized people are sold to keep them bound to modern day slavery.
The lyrics are heavy, as that is the price heavy metal bands pay to maintain their image. Yet they also inspire hope for those with a vigilante mindset who are focused on changing the nation’s political compass for the better, best detailed in their concept album, Operation: Mindcrime.
Despite the band’s agenda, it seems as though the capitalistic industry they often demonized became their ultimate downfall. According to a Rolling Stone interview with former lead singer, creative mastermind, and business director, Geoff Tate, he described how the band slowly fired each of his family members who all played important business roles in keeping the band well-paid.
Then the band eventually fired him. There are, of course, always two sides to the story. But it’s just sad that so many great bands end up having some sort of internal “falling out” when it comes to its members.
7) Rage Against The Machine
I remember bonding with my 7th grade English teacher over the heavy rap metal band, Rage Against The Machine. I had never heard of the band, but was immediately charmed by their sound.
They reminded me of the former indie rock band, Nico Vega (who had a beef with Donald Trump using one of their songs), who were a sensation at the time. From their heavy riffs to their impactful spoken word, I’d argue that Rage Against The Machine contributed greatly to the many inspirations of punk rock artists.
They carried a specific head-banging vibration that made mosh pits go wild with fun-loving thrashing about and a well-deserved middle finger to oppressors, whether they be controlling caretakers or dictatorial doctrines.
In fact, I recently watched my friends scream out the lyrics of their hit single (with well over half a billion listens on Spotify), “Killing In The Name”, at a karaoke event.
Those who died are justified
For wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites
You justify those that died
By wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites
Some of those that work forces
Are the same that burn crosses
This song, released in 1992, speaks out against the brutality of the police force, a violent institution with historical roots in striving to maintain slavery, a major issue people are still protesting 30 years later.
The “Rage” in Rage Against The Machine is well-justified, and they’ve always stayed true to their name. I remember when I first heard the band’s name, it immediately reminded me of activist, Mario Savio’s timeless speech, “Operation of the Machine,” where he spoke about completely dismantling the capitalistic machine we were taught to keep running with our very lifeforce.
It made my heart sing to know the band’s message wasn’t far from Savio’s core message. Although lead singer, Zack de la Rocha, left the band in 2000 over creative differences, their mark on the world continues to fuel the rage of the fed-up people to this day.
- You Might Also Like: Songs About Rage
I proudly discovered Sevendust all on my own and was immediately starstruck by the powerful vocals of lead singer, Lajon Witherspoon. This was a time I was often ridiculed by my cousins because they couldn’t understand how a brown person such as myself could possibly enjoy metal.
Witherspoon’s existence was proof that black people could headbang just as hard to a rhythmic guitar and drums as well; after all, it’s in our culture to vibe to a good rhythm. I showed my dad the songs I had been listening to by Sevendust, such as “Waffle.”
Where’s the space I fill
Where’s the sympathy I killed
I need to find a meaning
I’m useless, I’m useless
Trapped inside my own web
Whatever you you say
Whatever you say
Whatever you say
Bring me a light
Make my life worth something more
Show me a light
Bring a light
I empathized with Witherspoon’s feelings because I had a high level of academic and artistic talent, but didn’t know how to channel such talents just yet. He inspired me to go after what I wanted, even if it seemed out of the norm—just as he did.
9) Strapping Young Lad
Strapping Young Lad was something else. Formed in 1994 by front man, Devin Townsend, the Canadian band is classified as something a little more than just “heavy” metal. Townsend contributed to most of the instrumentation in their 1995 debut album, Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing, an album that brought the band’s core genre, extreme heavy metal, to life.
Following this album was the 1997 album, City, where I was introduced to songs such as “Detox” and “Home Nucleonics.” Strapping Young Lad and I shared a common distaste for humanity’s destruction of the planet, yet the band gained more satisfaction from completely denouncing humanity’s entitlement to make things right again – a sentiment I shared when I was younger but have taken a more constructively critical approach today.
When you saw this band’s name, you may have thought it was a British band consisting of pompous dudes who invented some sort of posh metal. You wouldn’t be the only ones with this thought, and this is something Townsend resentfully addressed in an interview when faced with the homophobic questions of fans who thought the band name was rather effeminate for a man.
“’In retrospect, I guess I could see that,’ Townsend said. ‘The thing is, I’m equally disgusted by both men and women. Personally, I’m heterosexual because I’m with my wife and I love her, but sex just isn’t important enough to me to give it a whole lot of thought. Human beings are gross.’”
Townsend and I would have been very good friends had I been born just a couple of decades prior. He embodies the rage of someone who doesn’t discriminate against whom he despises. He just hates that humanity is what it is right now, and uses his music to express this sentiment.
His music is the perfect temperature of fiery extreme metal, and he unifies people rather than tears them apart, even if that unification has a dark and resentful core. One particular song I absolutely adore by Strapping Young Lad, “Happy Camper (Carpe B.U.M.),” is rife with delicious detest.
You’re a neurotic, homophobic, racist dork. You’ve also got a lot of balls to **** with someone else’s life, you ******* pseudo-ghetto “boy in the hood” middle-class, white, spoiled-rotten bored “gangsta” wanna-be hunk of regenerated redneck bull****!
Manically flitting back-and-forth with organized verses, then quickly paced rants such as this excerpt, it’s a fact that we all need a Devin Townsend to defend us in our lives.
10) System Of A Down
I was 16 when an enthusiastic friend recommended System Of A Down’s popular track, “Chop Suey!”
I don’t think you trust
In my self-righteous suicide
I cry when angels deserve to die
Ah! Wake up (Wake up)
Grab a brush and put a little makeup (A little bit)
Hide the scars to fade away the (Hide the scars to fade away the shakeup)
I remember being taken aback by vocalist, Serj Tankian’s, manic lyrics on a song like “Chop Suey,” which were a little hard to understand and reminiscent of an insane man who’s seen a little too much.
His vocal texture reminded me of the vocalist in Alien Ant Farm in the studio cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” and I couldn’t fathom the appeal at the time. In retrospect, “Chop Suey!” was perhaps a manic shoutout to struggling teens who suffered from dark, debilitating thoughts and often used makeup to hide both our visible and invisible scars.
Despite the dark themes the band often touched on, System Of A Down didn’t seem to suffer the same twisted fates of other heavy metal bands. After performing as a band for a decade, they announced they would be going on a several-year hiatus in 2006. Then, in 2010, the band returned and are still active today.
I just love happy endings.
As mentioned earlier, heavy metal isn’t the most popular or beloved music genre. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t left an indelible mark on music as a business and the hearts of fans worldwide. And whether it’s about raging against society, or belting out a political statement in the music, there’s no doubt that these 90s heavy metal bands will be remembered for a long time to come.
You Might Also Like:
The article was written by Randa and edited by Michael.