Even the heavier bands began to suffer. Major labels snapped up death metal bands and didn't know how to market them, and frankly, the genre became cartoonish as many newbies attempted to impress people with the 36 new ways they just learned to describe how they could dismember you. Influential British mainstays like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, who were consistent gold and platinum sales achievers, suffered setbacks when their frontmen departed in the early 90s. And speed guitar wizards like Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, and gun-for-hire Steve Vai began to leave some people cold, especially when their myriad imitators turned every song into an opportunity to race mindlessly across the frets.
But the biggest blow came from a band called Nirvana, as former Twisted Sister guitarist and current Sevendust manager J.J. French attests. "What Kurt Cobain did with Nirvana - unknowingly of course - single-handedly destroyed the dream of a whole generation of lead guitar players," he says. "You used to be able to pick up guitar magazines and see all these super players, which I think its zenith was Yngwie Malmsteen. It doesn't get faster or crazier than that. He was the endgame of the speed demons. So Kurt Cobain comes along and writes 'Smells Like Team Spirit'. It changes the dynamic from a riff-driven world to a song-driven world."
French recalls compiling an unpublished article on hair metal guitarists and what happened to their movement. He spoke to people like Vito Bratta from White Lion and asked them what the deal was. "They said the turning point was Nirvana and they realized how useless they were. Vito stopped playing lead guitar at that point." In other words, Cobain helped simplify everything, and in his wake, a generation of so-called grunge and alternative bands would ascend into public favor, dismantling the metal hierarchy.
Some mainstream metal monsters managed to survive this shaky transition. With their famous, self-titled "black" album, Metallica began to sell in the multi-millions. Megadeth began reaching platinum sales regularly. Seattle bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, despite being called grunge, were really metal bands who also managed to attain platinum sales. And a new legion of heavy bands, lead by crossover bands like Korn, sought to assimilate the anger of urban rap and hip-hop into the guitar roar of metal. But the period of classic metal had drawn to a close.