Sure I love to review stuff, but I also love reading reviews – and like most readers, the more ridiculous a writer’s claims seem the better. So when I found out that Slipknot’s breakout 2001 album Iowa had one reviewer describing it as an “experience that will change you”? Oh I was so in. Luckily for me, Iowa saw it’s 10-year rerelease this month, accompanied by a bunch of bonus booklet material, an additional disc featuring the full audio of the London Disasterpieces show (available on DVD, completely entertaining) and a smattering (splattering?) of bonus videos. I skipped Slipknot entirely their first time around, so this was my big opportunity to see what all the fuss and disgust and Grammys were about. So here we go: a complete Slipknot noobie’s first impressions of the album that, to hear the news media of the time tell it, messed up a whole generation of kids.
Iowa is disgusting, disturbing, caustic, crushingly heavy, frightening, over-the-top, and will for some listeners prove a physically demanding listen. If you’ve ever seen an image of Slipknot, you know exactly how happy they are that I said that – it is, very blatantly, their mission statement. The numbered men in masks reportedly all hated each other during the recording of this album, which they produced under a hailstorm of substance abuse. This is the sound of a band of misanthropes, trapped in a band with one another, inundated with cash and overworked. What does Slipknot turn to, in these sad and desperate times? Why, anger, of course.
Alienation, self-hatred and the fury that is their natural consequence is Slipknot’s M.O., and Corey Taylor’s lyricism remains no less devastating than on their debut: on “Disasterpiece” his rapped/sung/bellowed delivery provides some of the most vomit-inducing lyrics you’ll ever read,on “People = Shit” he shoves his solipsism between self-loathing and oddly appropriate turntable scratches, and on “The Heretic Anthem” he gives us Slipknot’s most perennially quoted set of lines. Yes, Iowa goes way overboard with its imagery, and that’s more or less the point: exaggeration permeates every aspect of this band, and the repetitive (often violent, occasionally juvenile) lyricism is no exception. Slipknot’s greatest feat isn’t writing surprisingly affective primal-scream therapy (though Taylor’s straightforward wording and imagery, combined with his own history of abuse, does much to accomplish this), it is the degree to which they work to make their stomach-turning subject matter musically palatable.
Somehow Iowa, at its core, is a surprisingly listenable album! The musicianship on display here is undeniable, and surprisingly varied: Slipknot circa Iowa contains no less than three percussionists (timpanis!), a turntablist, three vocalists, two guitarists, a bass-player and a damn multimedia guy. That’s a total of nine musicians (the numbers double as their stage-names!), all of them pissed-off, all of them masked, and many of them on substances. While never left competing for attention thanks to Ross Robinson’s masterful production, Slipknot’s extended cast means every single empty space gets filled. Iowa never falls silent: it broods, it shifts, it rushes at the listener with nine musicians at once. I have a secret adoration for full-bodied, pounding percussion production, and Iowa absolutely indulges this (it’s my favourite thing about this band). At its best, and most comfortable, Iowa is an aural assault – simultaneously inducing the urge to rebel and the compulsion to cower in the corner.
I can go on about Iowa. I can describe the impact of learning that Corey Taylor was naked, vomiting and hurting himself while he recorded the vocals to the eponymous track, or enter the genre debate and try to figure out whether or not Corey is allowed to rap without committing his band to the Nü-Metal moniker (hint: he is). I can point out that, while the costumes are a great gimmick, it means no one will take them seriously, or that #0 has the coolest mask and the stupidest name (Ratboy, later DJ Starscream). The fact of the matter is that this is a band whose music I expected to hate, and did not. Their production is fantastic. They overwhelm the audience with a carefully calculated wall of noise (albeit while running a bit long-in-tooth). Corey’s voice has enough body and enough variety to sustain itself over a full hour of explosive rap-sung-screamed performances. Joey Jordison (silly name alert) does some really cool stuff on drums, and so on. Ultimately Slipknot, the dead-serious guys in silly masks that probably freaked out your parents in the early 2000’s, are worth a listen, and it seems they’ve worked very hard to get that way. That being said, is Iowa really an “experience that will change you”? Well, it’s sure as hell an experience, and it’s not a listen you’ll soon forget. Were it 2001 and the first time I’d ever heard anything this cartoonishly angry, violent and heavy? Yes, I suppose I might have been changed, too.
Iowa lives up to its retroactive hype and I am as surprised as you are. Go give it a shot – you might end up feeling sort of bad for all those times over the last ten years that you made fun of Slipknot, too.
We’ve all been there.
Full disclosure: yes I listened to Slipknot first, though I won’t be reviewing it here. It is a wall of sound, and lacks the subtlety of its sequel (yes subtlety). To that end it accomplishes all its goals, and is a pretty impressive debut. That having been said, it isn’t as effective as Iowa. Slipknot doesn’t beg for you to be physically sick quite like Iowa sometimes does, and the production (my favourite part of this band, and a direct result of Slipknot-the-album’s resounding success) isn’t quite there yet. It is a B-something. Leave me alone, this part isn’t supposed to be a review.
Fun Fact: Corey Taylor thinks his band is positive, and does not promote the violent activities or self-destruction supposedly associated with it. As in all shock-rock, this is true.
That’s an essay for another time.
Originally published, in its extensive form, right here, November 2011.