Slipknot’s debut album carved a place for metal in mainstream pop culture
Original release date: 29 June 1999
Label: Roadrunner Records
At the height of his powers, James Brown would push his band – still considered one of the greatest ensembles of all time – to their limits, while he vamped and ad-libbed on tracks for well over ten minutes at a time. His musicians had to watch him like a hawk, anticipating his shifts in tempo lest they lose the groove, and, with it, their place in the band.
While recording Slipknot’s eponymous debut album, producer Ross Robinson would push drummer Joey Jordison to play until his hands bled, reportedly throwing potted plants in the studio, and encouraging all nine band members to give the most primal performances possible. Speaking about the album’s recording process to Metal Hammer in 2013, frontman Corey Taylor described it as “a fight”. The result is not dissimilar to Brown’s output; an exhilarating balance between control and chaos that whips audiences into a frenzy.
Yet where Brown left audiences screaming for more, Slipknot were more likely to elicit screams of terror. When they first stepped out in 1999 dressed as clowns, pigs, gimps and all manner of freakish things, mainstream culture looked on, horrified – and Slipknot revelled in the hysteria with a mischievous glee. The Iowa natives were by no means the only metal band sporting costumes designed to piss off parents, but they were by far the most successful. Corpse paint can often feel contrived, but Slipknot’s horror-film costuming felt authentic; their gnarled masks and blood-red boiler suits possessing a distinctively DIY quality, as if they truly had been fashioned in some sordid basement.
This genuine commitment to disturbing people is part of the reason Slipknot holds up so well. Corey Taylor gives a genre-defining vocal performance throughout, constantly sounding on the edge of a breakdown. Take Tattered and Torn, for example, with its haunted music-box opening which quickly spirals into a deluge of wails and screams. Where many death and black metal vocalists relied on comical pig squeals and incomprehensible screeching, Taylor’s bellows were coherent and, because of that, all the more terrifying. Being able to decipher the details of Taylor’s manic ravings offers a chilling insight into his artistic psyche: “I am my father’s son/ ‘Cause he’s a phantom/ A mystery and that leaves me/ Nothing,” he laments on Eyeless. But like all of metal’s greatest singers, Taylor knew when to soften and deploy melody. Those tonal shifts are exactly what make standout tracks like Eyeless and Wait and Bleed so compelling: Taylor effortlessly transforming his voice from unsettlingly serene to frothing with rage in the flick of a distortion switch.
Likewise, Slipknot’s best moments are built on rhythm. Downtuned guitars and skull-crushing bass chug along in the low frequencies while all three of the group’s percussionists blast out rival beats. Whether it’s the opening barrage of (sic), No Life’s elastic guitar riff, or the near-jazz-virtuoso pace changes of Spit It Out’s verses, the album relies on the band’s seemingly telepathic tightness to steer the music’s frantic energy. It’s no secret that Slipknot and their nu-metal peers took inspiration from hip-hop song structures, but the influence runs deeper than just rapping over guitars – just listen to the breakbeat sample at the start of Eyeless or the seamless integration of record scratches and pinch harmonics on Surfacing.
Slipknot’s legacy today is almost impossible to quantify. Acts like HEALTH, Giant Swan and Show Me the Body are leading the charge in metal and electronic experimentation; Deafheaven have credited Slipknot as their introduction to more extreme forms of metal; and New York hip-hop extremists City Morgue have claimed they listen to the album “literally every day”. Even Rihanna has called Slipknot her favourite band.
In the 23 years since its release, a lot has changed for Slipknot. The 2010 death of original bassist Paul Gray had a huge impact on the group, and when they returned from hiatus, their foundations began to fracture. In 2013, Jordison left the band under circumstances that are still unclear, followed by percussionist Chris Fehn in 2019. Then, last year, Jordison died in his sleep aged just 46, news that devastated the band and their fans despite his absence from the group. Though their latest music hints at a return to form, Slipknot’s greatest days are probably behind them. But with a debut like Slipknot, which still sounds every bit as subversive and boundary-pushing now as it did all those years ago, The Nine carved their name into the chest of music history. May the wound never heal.