I saw Slipknot 16 years too late. They played in Champion’s Square with Hatebreed a month ago, and put on the spectacle my eternal angsty skater kid had only read about in Revolver. Long since then, I’d reconciled my love for the band into a “guilty pleasure.” Yet when I packed my t shirt and posters in the attic, something felt incomplete. Maybe after the show, that pimple- ridden inner adolescent, dealing with a voice change in a duct tape mask, would stop calling present me a poser.
In 1996, Shawn Crahan, Joey Jordison, and Paul Gray formed Slipknot during late night hang-outs at a gas station where Jordison worked. After sifting through members of the Des Moines, Iowa metal scene, they piecemealed together nine members, including three drummers, and began recording and playing live.
Slipknot’s music is driven by an engine of percussion and grumbling metal riffs. Jordison’s double bass roars like a patchwork engine at full throttle. Crahan and Chris Fehn, the other percussionists, accentuate downbeats on modified drums kits. Guitarists Mick Thompson and Jim Root, plus Gray’s bass, blast into warp drive while DJ Sid Wilson and and Craig Jones’ synthesizer pepper in leads over the jackhammer of drums and distortion. Whereas the music is unrelenting, Corey Taylor’s lyrics in songs like “Wait and Bleed” are often introspective and overemotional, more like the self-loathing of emo than the outward rage of other metal bands.
Slipknot started performing in individual masks and matching jumpsuits after Crahan, the band’s conceptual guru, brought a mask to practice, which impressed the guys. With their sound and look, Slipknot personified Hollywood’s grotesque rural America: psychotic, loud, and relentless—and comfortable wearing someone else’s skin. Not to mention, they were marketable. A reporter asked Jim Root if Slipknot would ever play without their masks, to which he answered, “Well, for one thing, KISS has already done that.”
Born during the genre’s heyday, Slipknot is often—correctly or not— lumped in with the nü-metal subgenre. While other nü-metal acts died out, Slipknot maintained a loyal following who appreciate the band’s heavy sound and aggressively sensitive lyrics. Slipknot, and their fans, call these followers Maggots.
For a while, that was me. In 1999, as a disaffected teenager who desperately needed an identity in evangelically conservative Mississippi, I picked up Slipknot’s debut album because it looked like it belonged in Blockbuster’s horror aisle. Puppet Master come to life. Inarticulate rage-lyrics like, “Fuck it all, fuck this world, fuck everything that you stand for” perfectly articulated my aimless fury. I wore my Slipknot t shirt like a badge around the Baptists in gym class.
Two songs in and the drums were falling apart and people were already hanging off of temporary structures.
Despite their success, a toxic mix of infighting, substance abuse, legal and management issues almost derailed the band. Larger swaths of time passed between albums and tours. In 2010, Paul Gray died from a drug overdose in an Iowa hotel. Long considered the band’s emotional center, his death hit the band hard. In 2013, the band fired Jordison for reasons neither party will confirm. Only Crahan remains from those late night talks in a Des Moines gas station.
During the show, dads and their kids slapped hands, couples hugged and made out, and folks raised their fists and threw devil horns. Most headbangers rocked out in their personal spaces. Senseless violence didn’t interest many people save for a few shirtless teens who made their way to the back for a breather. The audience wanted a slice of Hell’s Mardi Gras. Slipknot’s set featured their new release .5: The Gray Chapter, the first since Gray’s death and Jordison’s departure. Slipknot replaced them with Jay Weinberg on drums and bassist Alessandro Venturella, who both wear “stock” masks. Both musicians settle in well, despite filling large holes. Weinberg ’s legs pump the double bass, but are not elastic like Jordison’s. Venturella holds down the bass, but has the deck stacked against him replacing Gray’s looming presence.
The curtains rose and Slipknot opened with ”XIX/Sarcastrophe,” the first two songs from .5: The Gray Chapter. Together they create a slow, melodic dirge that stretches its muscles before taking off at a sprint. It was a fierce opener. Crahan and Fehn tested their platform’s hydraulics systems, banging on their modified kits while in constant spinning motion. At one point, Crahan smashed a drum and it dropped 20 feet into the stage near Thompson.
Next, the band launched into “The Heretic Anthem,” a psycho pep rally fight song. Fire erupted as everyone screamed along with the band, punctuating the chorus with their fists. “If you’re 5-5-5, I’m 6-6-6!”
DJ Sid Wilson ran up a ramp that divided the stage. At speed, he jumped from the top of the ramp and landed on the rising platform for his turntables. For a moment he swung from the side like they were monkey bars. This is exactly what I imagined when listening to live shows I download from Kazaa in my room, I thought.
Two songs in and the drums were falling apart and people were already hanging off of temporary structures. Corey Taylor, whose new mask looks like Uncle Fester gargled barbed wire, greeted the audience and introduced the two overcomplicated singles from the new album. This killed the momentum, but then the band launched into “Get This” and “Eyeless” from their debut, self-titled album. I was ecstatic.
As the show progressed, Slipknot’s stage antics calmed down. The band played several songs from their third album, Vol 3: The Subliminal Verses, including the single “Duality.” Most of the musicians focused on the music and avoiding third degree burns. During “The Negative One,” another new song, several members roamed into the audience. Wilson and Fehn stalked along the stage, playing catch with audience members and stage diving. Landing back on stage, Wilson raised his hands and the crowd applauded.
Crahan walked through the audience in his black fetish mask with a red clown nose, surrounded by three mammoth tech-bros with floodlights. He lifted a trash can above his head, dumped its contents, and slammed it on the ground. Everybody stared at him blank faced, unimpressed. The clown, dissatisfied by our reaction, shrugged and sauntered to another trash can with his posse.
After everyone wandered or landed back on stage, Taylor thanked the audience for their support. “Are you having fun tonight?” Hell yeah, this rules. “Goddamnit New Orleans, you guys are so fucking awesome.” Yup, fuck that asshole clown. “Whether you’ve been with us for the last 55 minutes or the past 16 years, and some of you have been…”
Taylor snapped me out of my bliss. The percussion-powered joyride of nostalgia stalled out. He made me realize that even though I was a fan 16 years ago, I’d only been with them for a little while.
The band launched into “Spit It Out,” a crowd favorite from the first album. Those shirtless boys sitting on a break rushed back into the thick of the crowd. I wasn’t that victorious teenager jostling with his friends; I stood comfortably in the back wearing orthopedic sandals.
Minutes later, the audience crouched on the ground with Taylor and sprang into the air when he screamed “Jump the Fuck UP! Fuck me I’m all out of enemies” That’s certainly more true than not. Stooped over, I jumped as high as my rickety left knee would let me.
The show ended with an encore of the band’s early songs, “Surfacing,” “People=Shit,” and “(sic).” It was a professional show, if not a little over- rehearsed. The band put in serious work playing those songs, while dodging fireballs or being shot 20 feet high like a monstrous, unholy jack-in- the-box. Two cops watched the exit gate as hoarse fans left Champion’s Square with grins plastered across their face. I asked if the officers liked the show. They looked puzzled and pointed at their earplugs. After yelling my question three more times, they understood. “I couldn’t hear much, so I guess that’s a good thing!” one shouted. Well, you like it or you don’t.