Review Summary: Nu-Metal for Dummies.
An unavoidable quirk of the post-pop-culture world dictates that every semi-successful fad will inevitably spawn a slew of second- and third-generation imitators, each attempting (and more often than not, failing) to ride the same wave of success the original product enjoyed, all while overlooking that said product was just that – original
. Pale rehashes of something truly innovative or groundbreaking seldom stand a chance of making the same impact as their forerunner, and unless they are done very
competently, often fail to elicit more than five minutes of attention and a half-hearted shrug.
Music is, of course, no different; in fact, bandwagon jumping is just as rampant in this field as in any other aspect of pop culture, if not even more
so. In the last few decades alone, countless genres and sub-genres have seen their lifespans shortened by precisely this over-abundance of similar-sounding artists and acts, many of which struggled to survive past the requisite one-and-done, right-place-right-time album. Even those who did
endure often met with indifference towards any of their further efforts, as the general public moved on to the 'next big thing'
and left the previous fad to slowly wither and die.
From disco to deathcore, history has repeated itself many times over at this point in time; however, two genres remain, and will likely always
remain, the poster children for this phenomenon – hair metal and nu-metal. These were arguably the two movements where the influx of carbon-copy clones and bandwagon jumpers was the most pronounced – and the ones where it did the most damage, cutting what could have been semi-respectable lifespans significantly short and turning either genre into little more than a source of secondhand embarrassment for rock fans.
And yet, there were
a few diamonds in the rough among the droves of half-hearted wannabes plaguing either genre; a few bands which, with the right amount of work, luck and good publicity, might at least have made a blip on the mainstream radar. In the hair metal scene, there were the likes of Julliet or Candy Harlots, and in the nu-metal movement there was Stepa.
Not that the Thousand Oaks six-piece would have ever been heralded as saviors of the quickly-withering sub-genre; much to the contrary, in fact. Their one and only 12-track album presents so little by way of innovation that it could almost be used as a guide for what nu-metal, as a whole, was all about – or, alternatively, as the base for a nu-metal-themed bingo game, such is the band's knack for cramming every single genre trope into its relatively swift, 38-odd-minute runtime. Every single element nu-metal became known for is here, from loud-quiet dynamics to try-hard, faux-angsty screaming, rapcore sections, downtuned riffing, square percussion, scratches and light electronic elements. Even lesser tropes - the song that starts off with an atmospheric bass rumble, the song that starts off with the singer shouting the title, the song that starts off with electronica – are present and accounted for, ensuring not a single box in a hypothetic genre cheat-sheet goes unticked. Not only that, but each of the twelve tracks on this 2002 outing can be directly traced back to one or more popular bands from the time, with very little overlap, proving once and for all that Stepa were not even slightly interested in being original. All they appear to have wanted was to make a competent bandwagon-jumping nu-metal album and reap the immediate dividends borne from joining a popular movement - and in that regard, they succeeded. For the most part, at least.
Indeed, most of what is presented on Stepa
, the album, undeniably works – which, when coupled with the album's ideal running time, makes for an unfailingly pleasing listening experience, which ends just before it starts to wear out its welcome. Said brevity, along with the sensible number of songs, also helps the group avoid the bloating most groups in the genre fell prey to; while the album is not entirely
devoid of filler, the first weaker moment comes more than halfway into the record, and only on the final two songs does any sign of listener fatigue begin to creep in. Until then, this is a perfectly pleasing, if chronically unmemorable, set of typical nu-metal tracks, which no angsty teenager of the time period would have scoffed at, but which most of them might not have returned to all that often, either.
As stated, this is due, in large part, to how derivative the band's songwriting is. A typical Stepa song falls into one of two molds, both fairly typical of nu-metal – the group either serve up a melodic chorus atop chugging guitars, or a heaping dose of scream-laden, processed angst. The former type of song – best exemplified by album singles Aquarium
and Spaceships and Airplanes
– brings to mind groups such as Taproot, Trust Company and Sevendust, while the latter – epitomized by Shine, King of the Fus
or closer Spaztik
– evokes the likes of Korn, Disturbed, or even Adrenaline
This relatively wide spectrum of influences (ordinarily a little too broad for a single band to attempt to tackle) is mostly made possible by the considerable talents of lead singer Blake Beckmann. Perhaps the band’s greatest asset, the frontman is a true vocal chameleon, capable of effortlessly ranging from a pitch-perfect Stephen Richards impression, through a blend of Lajon Witherspoon and Trust Company’s Kevin Palmer, to M.C.U.D rapping, to a screaming register that is an uncanny blend of Jonathan Davis, Chino Moreno and Fred Durst. Most of the more interesting moments on the album emerge from his throat, and – with the backing band playing it incredibly safe every step of the way – it is he who creates what little personality the band manages to show.
Therein, however, lies Stepa’s main problem – while their mix-and-match approach to songwriting does help lend variety to the group's sound, preventing the album from falling into uninteresting repetitiousness, it also strips the group of a unique identity, positioning them as little more than competent copycats of the true pack leaders. Every now and then, the six-piece do attempt a curve-ball – Free
is the sort of post-grunge ballad everyone and their mothers was doing at the time, from Staind to Hoobastank to Blink-182 – but even then, their efforts come across as just a touch too unoriginal to truly surprise seasoned listeners. The sole exception - and the group's only true moment of innovation across these 38-and-a-half minutes - are the verses on Mountain
, which bring to mind Linkin Park's use of all-electronic backing tracks on certain songs from Meteora
- an album this one predates by a full year!
Still, with Mountain
being the next-to-last song on the tracklist, that is quite literally too little, too late - especially when every other riff, vocal line and song structure on their self-titled debut appears to have been taken directly from a Nu-Metal for Dummies guidebook, and the feeling of having heard that particular melody before somewhere
(though the where
remains unclear) is pervasive on nearly every single one of the album’s 38-and-a-half minutes.
Matters are not helped by the fact that every single aggressive moment on this album is absolutely cringeworthy. While Beckmann’s performance is undeniably committed, he never quite manages to make his screams sound convincing, causing the more aggressive sections and tracks to come across as forced, hackneyed and painfully artificial. It is clear the singer, and arguably the band as a whole, are much more comfortable cloning Trust Company or Taproot than Korn or Disturbed, and the aggro songs appear to have been thrown in only because – again – it was an unwritten rule of the genre at the time that evrery album must
contain screaming. The absolute nadir – or zenith, depending on the perspective – is reached on closer Spaztik
, a song which wastes an interesting, Slipknot-esque backing track (led by an excellent orchestral sample) on a vocal performance which mixes the worst parts of the Deftones, Disturbed, Korn and Limp Bizkit. The end result is a borderline parody of the genre, which truly has to be heard to be believed.
And yet, for all of these obvious flaws, there is
still a lot to like about Stepa’s only full-length album – mostly on the Taproot-meets-Trust-Company side of the equation, which is never less than competently performed. Opener Aquarium
, for instance, yields the only instantly memorable chorus on the record, while Free
is the most pleasingly constructed out of its dozen songs, asserting itself as the second standout right from the off, if only by virtue of sounding different from everything else around it. Second single Spaceships and Airplanes
and album cuts Sap
, while less impressive overall, do provide strong backup, and go some way towards mitigating the bad impression left by the more scream-based songs, and ensuring the checks and balances remain positive – if only just.
Even in spite of this, however, it is hard to see Stepa as anything more than a frustrating case of wasted potential. The band already knew how to surround themselves with the right advisors (the producer here is Jay Baumgartner, and Wes Borland’s brother Scott provides additional keyboards) and with just a few tweaks – more streamlined songwriting, more memorable choruses, more of a personality, and the right voices in their ear – the Thousand Oaks six-piece could have become one of the standout representatives of nu-metal’s third-string contingent. As it is, however, it is not hard to understand why they remained nothing more than another one-and-done footnote in a genre already littered with them. Completists and deep-divers will undoubtedly have a field day with this record; sadly, they are the only demographic it is likely to appeal to at this point.
Spaceships and Airplanes