Slipknot’s Iowa came out just about on the 10th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Like that record, it tore a noisy hole in the pop-narcotized charts, Soundscanning its first week at #3. The irony of a nine-piece act in jumpsuits and masks (from Iowa, no less) putting death metal in the Top Ten leaves a taste as metallic as your tongue touching a nine-volt battery: In a year of recessionary stock markets and reevaluation of the role of entertainment, a moshpit Wu-Tang Clan comes along and gives a voice to metal kids, like the band itself, from the middle of nowhere, helping its minions bond over shared misanthropy while selling more records in a week than similar-sounding, early-’90s grindcore bands like Goreguts or Cannibal Corpse did in their whole careers.
But actually listening to Iowa, you wonder just where the promise and enigma of Slipknot’s pig faces and clown faces end and the Midwestern dudes raised on Celtic Frost and early Anthrax, with the razor-wire riffs and jackhammer beats to prove it, begin. What is the sound minus the fury?
A hell of a lot more furious, it turns out, than their eponymous 1999 disc two years ago. Every song there began with obligatory percussion tinkering and scary samples, even an occasional hard-jungle splatterbreak courtesy of DJ Sid “0” Wilson, only to crash into a full-lunged anthem or burly riffing over diamond-hard hip-hop beats. Like all good nü-metallers, Slipknot were trying to find metal outside of metal, just as Public Enemy brought the noise from outside of hip-hop. But they still seemed formulaic: Korn’s blunt flog and shell-toed flava added to ICP’s costume department and pimply fanbase.
With Iowa, Slipknot flatten their career arc and leave the it-band status to the At the Drive Ins and Strokes or whatever other skinny guys remind nerdy critics of the college rock they used to get beat up for listening to. Then again, after seeing how Metallica have wallowed after their whole short-hair-and-sunglasses crossover, you can’t really blame Slipknot for taking the Slayer route of harder and faster instead of pussying out to FM programmers with an “Enter Sandman” or, gasp, a “Hero of the Day.”
Iowa sounds like every metal extreme of the last 10 years mined for its darkest bits: speedmetal’s pummel, death metal’s vertigo, nü-metal’s cement-shoed boogie, hardcore punk-slash-thrash’s raspy blast. Surprisingly for a band that counts a DJ, a sampler, and two guys who beat on kegs as core members, the wikky wikky has been shut up. If all those guys are actually playing, producer Ross Robinson makes sure they are buried in the mix, not on top of it.
Like Pantera’s Reinventing the Steel last year, Iowa puts its best foot forward by taking a step back into metal’s primordial ooze, and the stride is groin-pull-inducing no matter where it lands. Unlike, say, fellow Midwestern troubadour of the disaffected Eminem, the Slipknot of Iowa is majestically lacking in anything resembling pop appeal. This realization kicks in with the eerie opener “(515),” a spooky bit of metal machine music and off-mike howls that suggest torture, or perhaps some nü-metal wuss undergoing tattoo removal. Then “People = Shit” starts its speedcore avalanche of drums and riffs as singer Corey “8” Taylor growls, “Here we go again, motherfuckers!!!” like Chris Barnes from Cannibal Corpse, and DJ Sid adds a stuttering record spinning faster and faster, Roadrunner-style (beep beep zip-tang!), before the whole thing blasts off, only letting up to stomp through a chorus of “People equals shit” ad nauseam. Even in “Left Behind,” where Taylor actually sings, he alternates melodies with growls, rhyming sing-along stuff like “make you cry” with the way-more-metal “calcify” before the song downpicks itself into a dubby breakdown Fugazi would be proud of. If it’s a victory for metal crossover, it’s lukewarm and Pyrrhic at best. Only the dirgey title track, the lone throwback to the band’s Butthole Surfers-on-bathroom-crank roots, has any fat on it; the rest of Iowa is pure bombast.
Slipknot infamously used to liven up their stage show by saving both their turds and decomposing birds in a jar, thus taking G.G. Allin’s scatological shtick and Ozzy’s bat-biting to a just-plain-wrong next level, and their music—no solos, no funk-ay-ness—does the same for metal. But it’s this wrong-ness that makes Iowa so right. Stoner-rock sucks up to sludge’s Sabbath-y groove; speedmetal gets hamstrung on its own pointy redundancies. Slipknot just chew it all up and shit it back out.
Unlike, say, the more math-inclined Mudvayne with their King Crimson prog-rock flourishes, or System of a Down with their melodic, Carl Stalling-esque exaggerations, Slipknot avoid mere technical cleverness. If they pull out a sideways riff, or add an extra downbeat to an already lambasting double bass-drum beat, as on “Skin Ticket,” they at least have the sense to kick the player when the record gets stuck and throw in a shimmy to really set the bitch off.
Credit drummer Joey “1” Jordison—also cowriter of many of Iowa‘s wriggling, cinder-block riffs—with keeping the momentum moving beyond the math. His turnarounds and clickety clack recall the best of Dave Lombardo-era Slayer, if only in how they give Taylor, whose growls and short-breathed barks are incomprehensible most of the time, a platform for lines like “Your impossible ego fuck is like a/Megalomaniacal tab on my tongue/You fuckin’ touch me I will rip you apart/I’ll reach in and take a bite out of that/Shit you call a heart.”
With Iowa, Slipknot have liberated the whole armageddon-in-my-bedroom fantasy of Metallica, Slayer, and a million bands who write their surgical-textbook names in dripping-blood fonts into something that, like Trent Reznor’s music a decade ago or Eminem’s last year, prodigally reinvents its chosen genre. But contrary to what the lyrics of Iowa‘s “Everything Ends” contend, this is not the end of everything. Anthrax-spore terrorism may be the end of everything, but not a heavy metal band in masks and jumpsuits, no matter how hard they fucking rock. In a recalibrated world, even Slipknot can’t sound as menacing as CNN.
Slipknot play the Continental Airlines Arena October 31.