The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Dare to Hope: The Success of Slipknot’s Latest

Written by: Goran Child, Special to CC2K

Image A scurry through online reviews – positive and negative – of this CD linked to by Wikipedia confirms what is still the lynchpin of much Slipknot criticism: ‘Is it possible to dress up like a Hallowe’en creep and still rail against social injustice?’ (Entertainment Weekly); ‘After myriad troubles, the masked mutant clowns regrouped in Iowa’ (The Guardian); ‘John Doran slowly peels back the masks of so-called extreme metal behemoths Slipknot and looks at the jaundiced and withered flesh underneath’ (The Quietus); ‘Working with Dave Fortman, Bozo, Hellraiser’s Stunt Double, phallic-face and company retreated to Iowa to work on album four’ (Tunelab Music).

Slipknot’s decade-old decision to make a bit of a sartorial effort when playing gigs still precedes any evaluation of their musical output. Semi-literate metalheads writing blogs still describe the masks using adjectives ambivalent to all but their pimply ilk (‘sick’, ‘ill’, ‘insane’…), whilst established critics still raise a knowing eyebrow, often cynically intimating that the reason the band’s distinctive get-up precedes musical discussion is that there isn’t really all that much music to discuss (and frankly, if 2004’s stupendous ‘Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses’ didn’t persuade those scribes that Slipknot were worth listening to, it’s unlikely that anything will). However, what these camps have in common is that, based on oft-scant knowledge of the nonet’s former shock-tactics onstage and in interviews, they assume that Slipknot still naively insist that the masks are integral to their ontology. This conception went out of the window with the official publicly-purchasable ‘maggot’ mask which accompanied the release of Volume 3 – final proof that Slipknot had decided to embrace the commercial and capitalist potential of their distinctive image and the attention devoted to it by the music press. And why not? The masks had proved integral to their successful attempt to synthesize ‘extreme metal’ (to borrow a usefully-ignorant phrase from one of the reviews cited above) and popular recognition: the final, perhaps slightly ironic, stage in the plan was surely to acknowledge their potential as fashion statement. This of course came at a point in the band’s career when almost all of the members had ‘unmasked’ in public (only the sampler Craig Jones still resolutely attempts to keep his identity secret, to the degree that recently he has solemnly adopted the pseudonym ‘133’), with various side-projects – Stone Sour, Murderdolls, To My Surprise and several others – throwing into relief Slipknot’s burgeoning status as a brand, a collective alter ego, a mask itself. Slipknot, always a metal band, became a meta-band.

As a hypothesis, this is supported by the way in which, as the party-line attitude towards the masks became more relaxed, the music became less monomaniacal. The disenfranchised, often inward-looking, and frequently oblique fury which characterized 1999’s Slipknot and (even more so) 2001’s Iowa was replaced, as producer Ross Robinson gave way to Rick Rubin and Dave Fortman on Volume 3 and All Hope is Gone respectively, by a far more expansive sonic mission-statement, which overtly encompassed the growing individuality encouraged by the side-projects. The ‘Vermillion’ diptych saw the band switch to death masks in performance, the video for ‘Before I Forget’ showed the band playing maskless (albeit with faces obscured by clever camera cuts), and promotional material for All Hope is Gone involves oversized ‘purgatory’ masks. This playfulness with their own image is a refreshing development on the frequently suffocating tribal mentality fostered by tracks such as ‘Surfacing’, ‘Spit It Out’, ‘Disasterpiece’, ‘My Plague’, etc. on Slipknot and Iowa. And it indicates, if not necessarily an improvement (this critic happens to hold a faintly bashful torch for even Slipknot’s most belligerent material), then certainly a wider casting of the musical net. This has been reflected in the company Slipknot has come to keep: when I first saw them live in England, on the back of Iowa, they were accompanied by In Flames, One Minute Silence and American Head Charge, and Shawn Crahan had just finished production on Mudvayne’s L.D. 50; when I saw them, a couple of years on, promoting Volume 3, their touring buddies were Mastodon, Hatebreed and Slayer – a rather more respectable caché, I think we can agree. And Slayer’s tongue-in-cheek attitude to their own musical style and lyrical themes seems to have rubbed off on Slipknot – never more so than on All Hope is Gone.

Let’s look at this album as an autotextual affair; in my opinion, it certainly lends itself to direct comparison with the band’s other efforts. That is, it is as much a commentary on the band’s own musical history as it is a critique of contemporary America and a cathartic group ‘middle finger’ (the phrase is used so often in Slipknot reviews – and admittedly, Slipknot hardly discourage it – that it ceased irritating me about 4 years ago) in the general direction of people who don’t like them. This last is par for the Slipknot (9-hole…) course, as much as it is typical of almost all New Wave of Heavy Metal albums (with a few noble exceptions). On All Hope is Gone, however, Slipknot give the impression of being aware of what is expected of them; their music here, even on more ‘experimental’ tracks such as ‘Gehenna’ and the ambient, digipak-only ‘’Til We Die’, never sounds as genuinely off-the-wall as older tracks such as ‘Scissors’, ‘Tattered and Torn’ and ‘The Nameless’, to say nothing of the rather clumsy innovation which characterized much of Mate, Feed, Kill, Repeat. The album is very much a consolidation of the commercial appeal the band found with Vol. 3; yes, it’s heavy, of course, but ‘extreme’ music is currently a far more mainstream proposition than it was when Slipknot and Iowa dropped (cross-reference, for example, the Guitar Hero soundtracks – the latest of which, subtitled Legends of Rock, includes material by White Zombie, Disturbed and, yes, Slipknot, alongside Aerosmith, Blue Öyster Cult and the Rolling Stones). Is that because the music in question is softening up? Come off it – anyone who’s heard Machine Head’s recent single ‘Halo’ will testify that that particular band is heavier than ever (and, thank Christ, now shorn of its decade-long ‘nu-metal’ malaise), but that didn’t prevent the song’s appearance on The Sims 2. Dads – a category which includes the majority of established critics – are starting to like modern metal bands, and so it’s no coincidence that the fathers of the genre – the likes of Slipknot, Slayer, Metallica and Machine Head, many of whose members have long been parents themselves – are either consolidating their optimum sound or returning to it. Rage Against the Machine have adopted the most telling strategy, essentially returning to play a series of (ironically super-capitalist) ‘greatest hits’ sets, with no new material forthcoming. None of these bands is ‘going mainstream’; they’re merely in search of the paradigmatic form of their sub-genre.

This quest is manifest severally on All Hope is Gone; the singles thus far, ‘All Hope is Gone’ and ‘Psychosocial’, sound written to be singles, whilst forthcoming single ‘Dead Memories’ sounds, as The Guardian’s Dan Martin points out, similar to Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’. However, I’d go a little further and posit that it is perhaps a homage to that track, that style of metal, just as album intro ‘.execute.’ is aurally twinned with ‘Darkness of Christ’, Slayer’s intro track on God Hates Us All, and leads to an appropriately thrashy conclusion in ‘Gematria (The Killing Name), a 6-minute long syllepsis of political angst and almost math-metal time-signature jockeying. If Slipknot’s studio albums can be said to be defined by the intro/opening track pattern – Slipknot’s ‘742617000027’/‘[Sic]’ appropriately kitsch, Iowa’s ‘(515)’/‘People = Shit’ drawing that LP’s misanthrophic template, Vol. 3’s ‘Prelude 3.0’/‘The Blister Exists’ indexing a more ambitious musical palette which was also a triumphant return for the band as a unit – then their fourth effort is characterized by an unprecedented level of self-awareness. Slipknot can become all things to all metalheads, and they know it. This is why ‘Sulfur’ yokes together Slipknot’s trademark self-loathing and a more hopeful, quasi-Christian message which permeates its chorus and would not sound amiss on a metalcore album. See also ‘Vendetta’, which gallops along jauntily in a Marilyn Manson-esque way, whilst expressing the divided psyche which could be seen as at the heart of the whole album: ‘In light of my ability to feel denial,/I walk away from everything with just a smile,’ rasps Taylor, in between asking, ‘Are you ready for the time of your life?’ and hysterically repeating ‘Let’s pretend we’re not at the end,’ as if it were a mantra. Is this a veiled admission that Slipknot have reached an ‘end’ of sorts – perhaps not a chronological end, but a creative one; a ‘comfort zone’? The song on which these lyrics appear is arguably the most formulaic on the album, but it’s great fun to listen to regardless; and again, this impression is a telling one. Slipknot, perhaps, are negotiating the line between anthem and ennui, and are fully aware of this.

But if there was ever a band who could ‘kick ass’ on their own terms, it’s Slipknot. Initially vilified as much as they were lauded for their ostentatious wardrobes, Slipknot have nonetheless outlasted many of their former contemporaries – KoRn, Mudvayne, Mushroomhead, Limp Bizkit, and other such purveyors of hackneyed apoplexy – and have grown stronger and more widely valued as a result. So even if a calculated timbre pervades All Hope is Gone, one gets the impression that this was always the grand plan: claw their way to the top, and then relax a bit. Slipknot don’t need to shock anyone anymore – many of them are married men approaching middle-age, after all – but they obviously have a great time making music together. This is why, for all its recycling of well-worn metal sentiment (‘Mother Nature is a coward,/No more presence, no more power’) and Anthrax-ish solos, ‘This Cold Black’ has some genuinely thrilling moments, notably its ghoulish gang-vocal scream of ‘I have every right to kill my own’, which mixture of territorial boast and threat of internal combustion encapsulates Slipknot, past and present. Similar ambivalent praise could be lavished on penultimate track ‘Snuff’, which is far and away the cheesiest song the band has ever recorded (‘I still press your letters to my lips,/And cherish them in parts of me that savour every kiss,’ croons Taylor, the selfsame man who, on Iowa, memorably huffed ‘I wanna slit your throat and fuck the wound’), but it redeems itself through some wonderfully inventive touches – not least the distorted synthesizer which backs Corey through much of the track – and suggests a band who are merrily having a punt at any sub-genre which takes their fancy. And they can afford to. And they know it. It’s potentially irritating, but it’s also liberating. A desire for freedom has always been a lyrical leitmotif for Slipknot – ‘Liberate’, ‘Surfacing’, ‘Only One’, ‘The Heretic Anthem’, ‘I Am Hated’, ‘Three Nil,’ ‘Duality’ and ‘Pulse of the Maggots’, amongst others, all deal with the theme on earlier albums – and the Slipknot playing on All Hope is Gone is a band who have realized this goal, and accepted an identity as a well-drilled group of musicians playing well-oiled, well-received songs; the violent, down-at-heel tribe of the turn of the century is an incarnation that is very much behind them. The album’s liner notes show Joey Jordison accessorizing his mask with a crown of thorns: despite any vocalized attempts to be iconoclasts, ‘The Nine’ are now to be considered more as icons and emblems: if there can be such a thing as an institutionalized heavy metal band, Slipknot are it.

This is, however, something to be celebrated more than lamented, given the strength of the album. Admittedly, it’s no Master of Puppets, Reign in Blood or White Pony, and it doesn’t mark an improvement on Vol. 3, but nor is it a St. Anger, Results May Vary or XX. It has the air of a ‘best of’ compilation by a slightly less good band than Slipknot, both in terms of predictability and overall quality. Still, Slipknot even on this slightly disingenuous form are still significantly more fun than the majority of their peers, and that alone is to be celebrated, even if such optimism masks a disappointment at the fact that they don’t often stretch themselves here.