To use an anecdotal statistic that’s only half made up, some 40 percent of headlines this year across American and British heavy metal music publications involved the masked, nine-member nu metal group Slipknot. If you ever hung around at malls in the early or mid-aughts, the obsession won’t come as a surprise. Slipknot—a group once dubbed the “most revolting band in the world” for their habit of vomiting onstage, or peeing onstage, or carting around a jar of a decomposing crow carcass, or giving Howard Stern a fire bucket filled with their own excrement, or taking a nose-dive off a 30-foot balcony and knocking a 19-year-old fan unconscious, only for her to wake up and call it “the greatest gig ever”—has built one of the largest and most dedicated metal followings of the past two decades. The group has gone multi-platinum, scored nine Grammy nominations, won once in 2006 for “Best Metal Performance,” and founded their own annual festival, Knotfest, which just last month brought some 65,000 screaming fans to the Glen Helen Amphitheater in San Bernardino, Calif., the largest outdoor music venue in the United States.
Last week, Slipknot released their sixth studio album, We Are Not Your Kind, which already stands to top the Billboard album charts. But for all their devoted chronicling in the metal music press, the band has never fully registered with its mainstream music peers, even relative to similar acts like Korn or Rage Against the Machine. The Iowa-bred group has no reviews in Pitchfork, though both formed the same year; the VMAs ignored them for a decade after their debut; and the new record, which dropped on August 9, got just a three paragraph write-up in Rolling Stone.
And yet against all odds, Slipknot has reached beyond insular metal scenes into major pockets of mainstream pop culture. The late controversial SoundCloud star XXXtentacion cited Slipknot as an influence; Ski Mask the Slump God sampled Slipknot in his track “Off the Wall!”; and in May, the metal press went nuts when fashion editor Tim Blanks revealed Rihanna had once claimed them as her favorite band. Slipknot has always maintained the kind of oxymoronic success specific to popular outcasts, but as their new record edges out Rick Ross, Trippie Redd, and Ed Sheeran on the British and American charts, the band is poised to make a greater impact than ever before. In some ways, at a moment of upheaval in both political and musical hierarchy, the band’s grinding, genre-blending, class-conscious rage has never seemed more potent.
Slipknot first emerged from the primordial sludge in mid-’90s Des Moines, Iowa. Growing up there in the late ’80s, as frontman Corey Taylor put it in an interview with the Daily Beast, “fucking sucked.” Taylor, like many of his bandmates, grew up poor and without a dad. He moved often with his mom, stayed occasionally with his bowling-champion grandmother. He experimented with drugs, suicidal behavior, and alcohol so much that he once woke up in a dumpster after an apparent overdose, and he played music part-time while working in a porn shop. Aside from Ozzy Osbourne’s infamous bat-eating episode in Des Moines, the city was pretty “barren” musically, Taylor said. But there was a small counter-culture, oriented around midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and a tiny constellation of bands. In 1995, percussionist Shawn Crahan formed a “local supergroup” of those bands, and gradually stole members from an assortment of absurdly named acts: Heads on the Wall, Vexx (later known as Inveigh Catharsis), Modifidious (also known as Monkey Fungus Dick), Body Pit, Stone Sour and, gorgeously, Anal Blast.
By 1999, when Slipknot exploded into the public eye with their debut self-titled album, there were nine members, each identified by a stage name and number: (0) DJ Ratboy, (1) Superball, (2) Balls, (3) Dicknose, (4) The Peach, (5) 133Mhz, (6) Clown, (7) Log, and (8) The Sickness. Over time, the members have fluctuated—one left for religious reasons; another because he felt it would be “impossible” to tour without cheating on his girlfriend; three others quit over ego clashes; a sixth died; a seventh was fired; and an eighth sued the group for “stealing money” (Slipknot denies the charges). But some things stayed constant. Throughout, the members wore identical black coveralls and uniquely grotesque, self-made masks, giving their shows the vibe of a half-melted Halloween pop-up sale.
These guys were nu metal. In the high school of heavy metal offspring, it's a genre that gets shoved in the locker a lot. Nicknamed the “training bra” of metal, the style rejected several key conventions. Shredding, solos, and virtuosic displays of skill were out; grinding sound barrages were in. Mythic imagery was trashed; childhood trauma was trendy (nu metal’s other epithet: “mean mom music”). But most notably: strict genre distinctions dissolved in favor of playing fast and loose with funk, dance, and hip-hop.
Slipknot had all of that, and paired it with psychotic displays of anger. Violence, both theatrical and real, was a regular feature at their shows. In one stunning tour, according to Joel McIver’s Slipknot history, SlipKnoT: ALL HOPE IS GONE, drummer Crahan managed to rack up 5 stitches (for headbutting a drumkit), 17 stitches (for doing it again), a bruised pelvis (failed backflip), broken knuckles (punching a drumkit); a dislocated shoulder (attacking percussion); and a damaged finger (using an angle grinder onstage). The band had several shows cancelled, either from overcrowding, physical fights, or the protests of parent groups and concerned city councils. One concert elicited objections from the National Parents Council of Ireland; another prompted a conservative councillor from Wolverhampton, U.K. to ban them, calling the band “ridiculous, juvenile, and stupid.” (One drummer promised to send the council member a box of his own feces; a pattern in the Slipknot cinematic universe).
Critics often derided the group as all gimmick, and they had a point. Slipknot trafficked in a campy, performative apathy. (“Here comes this insane beast that doesn’t give a shit,” Taylor said of the band’s appeal, “we don’t want you to play us, we don’t care.”) But, for whatever reason, their vision of righteous indifference required hyper-curated wardrobes, pyrotechnics, various decomposing props, and regular, ipecac-induced vomiting.
Still, there was an incisiveness to Slipknot’s theatrics, to their suggestion of radical upheaval, that made them, and to some extent nu metal as a whole, uniquely attuned to its cultural moment. In 2000, for example, when Metallica sued the file-sharing site Napster for copyright infringement, alienating young audiences who relied on MP3s, nu metal groups rallied around the internet. “MP3s are so massive and so revolutionary that record labels need to take it under fire right now and learn how to incorporate it for themselves,” Slipknot founder Shawn Crahan told Loudsides at the time. “Where stores close at 9pm, the internet is open 24 hours a day.”
In a moment of major societal shifts, Slipknot also harnessed a generation’s latent malaise. Heavy metal had long been framed as an expression of working or middle class resentment, but Slipknot’s caricature of it mirrored the rapidly changing culture: the doomsday predictions of Y2K, the excesses of the dot-com boom, the early stages of a misguided war. Slipknot’s success followed from “the general collapse of the natural buoyancy and optimism that young people used to feel was their birthright,” McIver observed. “Call it the lack of a feel-good factor, call it a fall in standards. Call it what you want—but the decay that Slipknot write about is the decay that surrounds us, in every part of Western Society.”
It’s easy to see nu metal as a kind of tragic time capsule—a fever dream of bad clothing, homophobia (see: Korn’s track, “Faget”), and Limp Bizkit. But the genre is undergoing a kind of return, both online and elsewhere, in part because many of its bets paid off. The internet was a good gamble. And dramatic genre-blending, for which Slipknot and several others were (often fairly) mocked, has reemerged—both in the emo-rap fusions of artists like Lil Peep and XXXtentacion, and in the unprecedented virality of Lil Nas X’s country-trap combo, “Old Town Road.” Slipknot’s latest release, a thundering hour-long opus, continues that trend, lacing electronic influences into fourteen ruthless bangers. But it also channels what their early work did so well: an unspoken awareness of political unrest, a frustrated premonition of what the future might hold, and a cathartic, revolting release.