Industrial metal developed in the late 1980s, as industrial and metal began to fuse into a common genre. In the early years of the 21st century, groups from the black metal scene began to incorporate elements of industrial music. Industrial metal did well in the early 1990s, particularly in North America, with the success of groups such as Nine Inch Nails. The industrial metal movement began to fade in the latter half of the 1990s.
Though electric guitars had been used by industrial artists since the early days of the genre, archetypal industrial groups such as Throbbing Gristle displayed a strong anti-rock stance. British post-punk band Killing Joke pioneered the crossing over between styles, and was an influence on major acts associated with industrial metal such as Ministry, Godflesh, and Nine Inch Nails. Another pioneer industrial rock group, Big Black, also impacted some later groups.
Ministry emerged from the scene surrounding Wax Trax! Records, a Chicago label dedicated to industrial music. Ministry's initial foray into guitar rock happened during a recording session of The Land of Rape and Honey on Southern Studios, in London. The band's frontman, the Cuban-born Al Jourgensen, explained this transition:
Rediscovering the guitar on this record was almost like the first day I got my Fairlight. The possibilities just seemed endless on something that had seemed so limiting before. That's really funny. I started out as a guitarist, but I hadn't really touched a guitar in five years. Then I heard that first feedback come out of the Marshallstack and all of a sudden it was like there was a whole new parameter within guitar playing itself – especially in combination with sounds that you get out of a keyboard.
It was just interesting to use it as a kind of white noise reinforcement for our music. All of a sudden heavy metal was free from all those tempo changes and boring attitudes it always had. What I always hated most about heavy metal was that the best riffs came only once and were never repeated. So the fascination, actually, was to sample a great riff, loop it, and play it over and over again.
A Swiss trio, The Young Gods, brushed with the style on their second album, L'Eau Rouge (1989). Prior to its release, singer Franz Treichler declared:
We just wanted to hear guitars. We missed the attack of 'Envoyé'. That's what we want to hear right now, pure power. A metal sound that isn't revivalist, isn't biker style, speed metal style, any style, just WHAP!
Canadian thrash metal band Malhavoc became another early pioneer of the genre when they began to mix thrash metal with industrial music in the late 1980s
British band Pitchshifter, formed in 1989 by brothers Jon and Mark Clayden, also started as an industrial metal band. The band later included elements of drum and bass. Frontman JS mentions:
[...]In the early days we were inspired by bands like Head of David and Swans and the like... coming out of punk into the weird, angry, total noise, kind of pre-industrial music. It gets called industrial but I don't know if it really is.
Industrial metal blossomed in the early 1990s, particularly in North America, where it would eventually sell close to 35 million units. It first became a commercial force in 1992 when Nine Inch Nails' Broken and Ministry's Psalm 69 went platinum in America, though the latter took three years to reach that status. Both groups were nominated for the Best Metal Performance in the 1992 Grammy Awards, with Nine Inch Nails winning. Two years later, Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral, which debuted at No. 2, and would eventually go quadruple-platinum. This record is considered by AllMusic as "one of the bleakest multi-platinum albums ever".
Overall, popular heavy rock music has changed to become more "industrialized". This robbed the industrial hardcore movement of any hopes of establishing a new identity of its own. The style is dead (or at least dying); the elements of the style continue on in new musical settings. – David A. Locher, Professor of Sociology, Missouri State University, 1998:115
Following Nine Inch Nails' success, Marilyn Manson, led by a protégé of Reznor's, came to prominence. The group's live performance and its transgressive appeal was often more commented on than their music.
When industrial metal climbed the charts of the late 1990s, its sudden popularity was met with negative reactions from the early innovators of industrial music. Peter Christopherson told The Wire that he no longer felt any kinship with the industrial scene: "this is not me, this is not what I'm about".Lustmord, a prominent early industrial musician, declared that "Ministry just doesn't interest [him]" and "[he has] no time for all this rock and roll shit they're doing now."Skinny Puppy frontman Nivek Ogre dismissed Nine Inch Nails as "cock rock" but have since patched things up and have even performed on stage together.
Industrial metal suffered a critical backlash at the turn of the millennium. In an April 2000 review for the Chicago Sun Times, Jim DeRogatis dismissed Nine Inch Nails' new music as a "generic brand of industrial thrash" and accused Ministry of repeating an act that "was old by 1992". Although The Fragile reached the top spot of the Billboard 200 and went on to earn double platinum status, DeRogatis considered it a "flop" nonetheless.
Around this time, veteran industrial metal artists (Ministry, Godflesh, and White Zombie) began to repudiate the industrial label. Sales remained high throughout 2000–2005; at least 10 million records were sold during that time frame. Many groups began to take influence from hip hop and electronic music, in addition to industrial metal. As a result, acts like Powerman 5000 are often described as industrial metal as well as nu metal.