Every development in heavy music is derided by mainstream critics. When Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin emerged in the late 1960s, they were sneered at for their lumpen, troglodyte stupidity. A decade on, AC/DC were reviled for precisely the same reasons. When Metallica and Slayer helped lead the thrash metal movement in the mid-1980s, it was at first only enthusiasts for extreme noise who cheered them on. The disdain never lasts. People who grew up listening to those bands became critics or editors or broadcasters or musicians, and each of them was absorbed seamlessly into the rock canon.
That’s precisely what’s happened to the Iowa band Slipknot, too. The nu-metal movement with which they were linked — all downtuned guitars playing riffs that were based more on rhythm than melody, growled and unintelligible vocals, and interpolations, vocally and rhythmically, from hip-hop — was widely regarded as some kind of remedial class for the idiots too slow to process anything other than the most brutish noise. A couple of decades on, and the most notable of the nu metal bands are now revered — White Pony by Deftones crops up on best albums lists outside the specialist press, and Slipknot are hugely influential and hugely popular. How popular? Before Christmas, in Kathmandu, I saw a Nepalese group who had copied Slipknot — horror masks and all – so completely it was like watching a tribute band.
Watching Slipknot play to 20,000 people, it was easy to work out why they and their like were so derided. This is music you either sign up for wholeheartedly or recoil from in disgust: no one is likely to say, ‘Well, I like “New Abortion”, but “People = Shit” just doesn’t have quite the same subtlety, for me.’
While Slipknot might exist on a continuum that begins with Led Zeppelin, they have travelled miles from these origins. A track like ‘Disasterpiece’ bears no more resemblance to ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ than Grand Theft Auto does to Pac Man. And for non-devotees, the live performance flattened everything into a huge mulch of blast beats (the furious style of drumming beloved of extreme metal in which everything seems to be being played at the same time, very fast), guitars and bass; the samples and keyboards were pretty much inaudible. It’s not that Slipknot are ever restrained, but live it was very hard to hear the variations, save when Corey Taylor switched from growling to singing for the huge, soaring choruses that were, perhaps, what lifted Slipknot above their peers in the first place.
As you may have guessed, Slipknot do not sing of boy meeting girl or of eternal happiness. The song ‘Solway Firth’ dwelled not on the quality of the sunsets over Allonby, or that rather good little aquarium in Maryport. Instead, Taylor explained: ‘Another needle in the back through purified scarification/ It wasn’t somebody else/ You fucking did it to me.’ Oh, that’ll be Workington. Different kettle of fish from Silloth.
As is often observed, though, for all the ferocity of the lyrics, metalheads are often the sweetest people. Taylor repeatedly told the crowd they were his family, though he also seemed to have some variant of Tourette’s that caused him to end every sentence with a roar of ‘Make some fucking noise, London!’, regardless of what the sentence was. One pictured him in everyday life: ‘Yeah, a pound of carrots. Are those new potatoes nice? Make some fucking noise, greengrocer!’
And the crowd, which ranged from the very young to the really quite old (metal, more than other genres, is hereditary, passed from firstborn to firstborn), responded by making some fucking noise. I can’t, in truth, say I felt compelled to join in — while I like metal a lot more than most non-specialist writers, I prefer the end of it that comes with a side order of melody — but you’d have to be a terrible snob not to understand why almost everyone else did.
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