Every movement or subgenre within music typically goes through three phases. The first is the breakthrough phase, where a raft of new bands with an exciting new sound captures the attention of the press and fans and become the next hot thing within the genre. Within a decade the movement will reach its second phase, in which it becomes yesterday’s news. A new trend has risen to kill the now-stale sound, and only the biggest and best bands survive the sea change. After some time the third phase finally comes into action, in which the movement transcends being seen outdated to become “classic”. Bands who split up when the going got tough reunite for lucrative festival slots and people who bought into the trend in their youth then get to relive it at an inflated price tag. As part of this, a wave of new bands will typically arrive, inspired by those who kick-started the subgenre in the first place, though they will rarely attain the same heights of popularity as their reference points.
Few styles reflect this pattern as accurately as nu metal. After having swallowed the world whole at the turn of the millennium, and then choked to death on its excesses as metalcore and emo grabbed the rock baton, nu metal has now reached the “classic” phase, and Korn, Bizkit et al are seen not as has-beens but pivotal legacy acts. Lo and behold, the approach to heavy music they pioneered has now been adopted by a new generation. Cane Hill are perhaps the most exciting of this crop.
Debut full-length album Smile almost completely abandons the elements of modern metalcore that had made the group’s self-titled EP a more conflicted proposition, and dedicates itself wholeheartedly to the nu ways, with some industrial noise thrown in for good measure. Across the bulk of the record, squealing effects-drenched guitars give way to simplistic down-tuned riffs as shout-along choruses hit. The lyrical themes are a stereotypically ‘90s toss-up between self-loathing and outwardly-directed aggression, with hints of a messiah complex on “The New Jesus”, a radio metal anthem Rob Zombie would be proud of. There’s little in the way of subtlety, beyond moments in which the lurching grooves are held back in favour of sinister carnival horror music. In accordance to the tradition of extended-length nu metal album closers, “Strange Candy” creeps and builds before coming to a harrowing conclusion.
None of this is original, but it works for two key reasons. The first is excellent timing – had Cane Hill came into the world ten years ago, they’d have been laughed at as latecomers to the party. If they’d been part of the nu metal boom in its original incarnation, it’s unlikely that they’d have received as much attention as bands as good as Slipknot or Deftones. In 2016, with Warped Tour metalcore at oversaturation point and nothing genuinely new in heavy music since “djent” was coined, Smile stands out like a diseased thumb and is all the more exciting for it.
The album is also successful from an artistic perspective because it throws itself completely into recapturing the feelings that the best nu metal bands could inspire and draws on everything the genre had to offer. “MGGDA” is a thrillingly hell-for-leather way to kick things off, and makes a powerful impression in less than three minutes; the more melodic “St. Veronica” and “You’re So Wonderful” borrow from the serene textures of Marilyn Manson’s industrial nightmare. It also helps that Cane Hill allow their charisma and personality to shine through their material. Vocalist Elijah Witt can take a great deal of credit for this, and though he strays a bit too close to comfort towards imitation of both Jonathan Davis and Mr Manson at times, he shows a dexterity of styles that few in modern heavy music can match. His madhouse performance is complimented perfectly by the guitar work from James Barnett, whose ability to flit between riffs and squalling noise makes songs that should by rights be overly predictable, become more engaging than they otherwise would be. He even lets loose a couple of dextrous solos, some of the few moments in which the 90s rulebook is disregarded.
As good as Cane Hill are at operating within the parameters of the genre, they could in no way be considered innovative. Unless you haven’t listened to any metal albums from between 1994 and 2002, you’ll have heard everything they do before, and in most cases better by others. Smile is pleasingly concise and direct in its approach, albeit with a couple of tracks that fail to stand out and one overstepping of the mark into pointless vulgarity on the shapeless sample-centric murk of “Cream Pie”. The album’s rough edges are compelling, and the fully fleshed-out soundscapes are pleasingly grimy – a more sanitised production job could have neutered Cane Hill’s good job of being nasty. The songs are almost uniformly powerful and pack effective hooks. All in all, then, this is a good first outing for the great hopes of the nu metal revival.