Every decade from the 60’s to the 90’s, hard rock got harder. Starting from the mild sound of The Beatles, we had The Who, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Van Halen, Guns ‘n Roses, and finally the grunge movement. Grunge formed the heaviest sound mainstream rock had witnessed, and when grunge lost traction mid-90’s, its successors – post-grunge and nu-metal – were even heavier. Along the way, there were always subgenres being spun off that were softer or heavier, but the core of hard rock through these decades definitely got more aggressive over time.
This changed as we entered into the new millennium. The influence of the 90’s (both bands from the 90’s or bands that sounded like it) lasted for about five years, but then something changed, and for the first time in rock history, I believe hard rock pussied out. I mark this change as happening between 2004-2006, and I will explain the logic of this. Meteora by Linkin Park released in 2002 and was mostly out of the mainstream by 2004. Prior to that, Linkin Park had succeeded in being one of heaviest bands to be hugely popular and successful among casual audiences (and this hasn’t happened since). Lateralus by Tool was released in 2001, and although they released 10,000 Days in 2006, it wasn’t as popular as Tool had been during the 90’s. Blink-182 broke up in 2005. The modern variant of pop-punk ushered in by Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco arrived at this time. Papa Roach’s last properly heavy album, Getting Away With Murder, released in 2004. The next time they hit the studio, in 2006, their sound had completely changed.
This pattern of the old guard losing relevance and either breaking up or changing their sound is repeated among almost all major bands from the 90’s. Of course, some bands didn’t change much. Industrial groups like Nine Inch Nails have not notably changed their sound, but they have lost relevance. On the other end of the spectrum, mellower alternative bands like Coldplay have positively exploded. Of note, Coldplay’s huge album X&Y released in 2005.
We went from grunge, post-grunge, nu-metal, 90’s pop-punk, and industrial to modern pop-punk, southern rock, “party” rock (Hinder), and softer Coldplay-esque alternative groups. I have two accusations of mainstream hard rock bands: some became boring, and the rest became girly. The question now is “Why?” I can only offer a guess without having done more research, but it is a guess that comes from living through this change, and witnessing its impact on the music I listened to at the time.
I blame pop-punk. They took advantage of a 3-4 year lull in significant hard rock album releases to introduce their sound, and they simply stole mainstream attention out from under the remnants of the 90’s. It didn’t happen instantly. Bands like Chevelle and Breaking Benjamin had strong releases in the meanwhile. But when the dust settled in 2006 (going into 2007), you either adopted a less aggressive tone or you failed to be successful. When bands like Linkin Park and Papa Roach released their new albums after this turning point, the difference in sound was obvious. They had reacted to this change in what people wanted to hear. Pop-punk – and in the background, a broader indie movement – had changed rock.
I had originally intended to provide a list of hard rock bands that became mainstream during or after this period and still had an aggressive sound, but I could only think of two: Alter Bridge and Rise Against. Maybe Five Finger Death Punch, depending on how you want to classify them, and which song we’re talking about. That’s the reason most of the “hard” hard rock on the radio these days is bands from the 90’s, and what is in between feels like filler.