Late 90’s/Early 00’s Pop Punk Distortion Was Super Heavy – WTF Happened?

The 90’s and early 00’s are generally remembered as a crappy time for “real rock music fans” because the guitar-based bands ruling the charts were, for the most part, poppy punk rock. But when I look back on that time, I’m consistently impressed by how those albums sound – especially in terms of the guitar tones and production.

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Sum 41, for example, are a really interesting band: despite their tunefulness, their guitar tone is super attack-y and aggressive. “In Too Deep” has such a straight, articulated clean tone in the opening verses – while the chorus and later verses have a SUPER gritty distortion, almost black metal in tone. AND the climax’s guitar solo mixes Iron Maiden harmonies with Metallica songwriting sensibilities and pop-punk tone. There’s just so much going on!

Ditto for Blink-182, whose laser-precise guitar parts are some of the most effective per-song of any band from the era. Everything on their records is in service of the song! Bands like Blink utilized a simple playing tool so often overlooked by metal and real punk bands: an even balance between bridge, middle, and neck pickups on their super-layered guitar parts, and movement between palm-muted verses and open-strum choruses.

The end result is that songs like “The Rock Show” and “All the Small Things” are so crystal-clear in their movement between sections. Blink were a simple band, but they delivered on their simplicity. Is there a song whose extremely-distorted palm-mute parts work as well for the song as “All the Small Things” outside of “Master of Puppets?”

There are tons of examples of effective palm-muted distortion tone from this era. One of the key songwriting tools was taking that perfectly distorted tone and riding between full-bore strummed choruses and SUPER-fast, intricate palm-muted verses.

“The Anthem” by Good Charlotte is a prime example of this technique:

Although the rest of this particular recording is decidedly low-fi – the bass is basically there as carpet-dressing, and the drums are kinda cardboard boxy – the distortion is nice and meaty. As a side bar, I can’t think of too many metal or “real punk” songs that have such an interesting harmonic escalation as the chorus as this Good Charlotte song – and the heavy tone suits it perfectly.

The Foo Fighters have also always been masters of this. I hate that I have to defend this band – they’re some of the best songwriters out there, fantastic musicians, and have been putting out great records more consistently than almost any other band in rock history (they’ve been going for 20+ years, and 2011’s Wasting Light is probably their best!)

So what happened?

For my money, everything changed in the mid-00’s – specifically in 2004-2006, after LeviathanAshes of the Wake, Trivium, Municipal Waste, etc. got every guitarist excited about “rebelling against teh system” and writing “real metal” riffs. Then the rise of djent basically put the final nail in the coffin – now, everything has to be grit-free, Swiffer-clean, and “perfectly” played.

But the truth is some of the albums made before the return of “real metal” are so much heavier than what’s going on today. Those guitarists may not have played the most technical riffs or sweep-picked solos, but they (and their producers) had such a keen ear for designing distortion tones that worked for the song.

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Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.