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Explaining how Slipknot's shock horror galvanised a generation

For this week’s entry of Far Out’s musical Fear Club, we’re taking a forensic look at the way that Slipknot’s shock horror galvanised a generation. When the band broke through in the late 1990s, they swept music up like an angry storm. Fusing the nu-metal zeitgeist of the day, citing early records by Korn and Limp Bizkit as influences, they created something altogether darker, and something that was far weightier. Although their on-stage performances weren’t as extreme as those of the early Norwegian black metal scene, or their music the heaviest, nor even were they the first band to don alter-ego’s and masks, it was the way they did it that set the world alight.

Formed in the darkest depths of the post-industrial wasteland that is Des Moines, Iowa, the town’s bleak social fabric and the personal lives of each of the band members informed the band’s early oppressive sound and aesthetic. This, added to the fact they were Gen Xers themselves, meant that Slipknot was a force for the misunderstood, the angry, the confused and so on. 

The idea for wearing the boiler suits and masks originally came from the clown mask that percussionist Shawn Crahan would bring to rehearsals when the band first formed in the early ’90s. During their formative years, this concept was developed and, by 1997, each band member had their own number and unique mask. In 1999, Crahan said: “Being from Des Moines, the shithole of the US, everybody treats us like nobody so we decided to be nobody and put on a mask.”

Frontman Corey Taylor, however, offered a more profound account of the concept in 2002 when he told NYRock: “It’s our way of becoming more intimate with the music. It’s a way for us to become unconscious of who we are and what we do outside of music. It’s a way for us to kind of crawl inside it and be able to use it.”

It was the masks, the boiler suits, the way they blended together disparate genres such as extreme metal, groove metal, industrial, hardcore punk, jungle, rave and hip-hop into one visceral sucker punch that proved the difference. In addition to the refreshingly uncongenial and technically brilliant music, it was the band’s extreme performances in the early days that really caught the eye. 

Their chaotic live shows contributed massively to their early success. In a way, they were more in keeping with Guy Debord’s notion of ‘the spectacle’ rather than a musical group. Marked out by their “scary” aesthetic, their performances created a notoriety that both Gen X and Millenials were entranced by. 

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Heavy and relentless headbanging, stage dives from high balconies, setting each other on fire, and a generally misanthropic and aggressive demeanour made the band seem as if they were not of this world. They expertly spoke to the era’s consumerist outlook and popular culture’s desire for a spectacle. The band played so hard that after playing shows, it would be typical for members to throw up. 

Rage was what people wanted, and rage was what they got. There are mountains of archival footage out there showing the total carnage of their early shows. Whilst we’re here, we need to quickly note how avant-garde grindcore supergroup, Fantômas, had a definitive impact on Slipknot realising their true form. The band comprised of Faith No More’s Mike Patton, Slayer’s Dave Lombardo, Melvins’ Buzz Osborne and Mr. Bungle’s Trevor Dunn, had a transformative influence on Slipknot. 

When the Des Moines troupe were recording their debut single, they caught one of the first-ever shows by Fantômas. This changed their lives. After that, the band displayed a more straightforward and extreme sound. Fusing together the on-stage insanity of GG Allin with the nihilism of Norwegian black metal and the harsh introspection of grunge, mixed with the punishing grindcore of Fantômas, Slipknot found their niche. 

Their detractors said it was all a gimmick, but they were missing the point. One would argue that Slipknot in their early days were the most effective gimmick ever to have occurred in music. Furthermore, the way they have developed the shock-horror of their brand, the live experience, masks and music, has marked them out as true innovators. 

Through the ‘we could not give a fuck’ outlook that was augmented both by aesthetic and blistering musicianship, Slipknot truly galvanised a generation. Their impact on popular culture has been massive. Everyone from Deafheaven to Code Orange, Soundcloud rappers and even Margot Robbie cite them as favourites. Together they captured the zeitgeist of the time, speaking to the day’s futile pessimism and became an unrelenting force of nature. Much like with Marylin Manson and Rob Zombie who came before, parents hated them, and kids loved them.

Even though it didn’t seem it at the time, amongst all the headbanging and stunts, Slipknot is true art. They fully understood the power of the spectacle as an artistic and business tool. Ultimately, their wholehearted dedication to their craft is what truly galvanised a generation. It wasn’t just music, and it wasn’t just aesthetic. It was everything. They set alight the handbook of what could be achieved within the concept of a band.

Watch the iconic Slipknot at Ozzfest 1999 below.

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