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Slipknot’s ‘Iowa’ is just as bleak and vicious twenty years on

Slipknot in 1999 looked like a joke. Nine men in jumpsuits and cheap masks who played nu-metal, a fusion of banal metal writing and the worst of hip-hop, Slipknot were written off as a gimmick band doomed to flounder after a few years in the sun. How wrong people were. In 2001, Slipknot released their second full-length album, Iowa, and everything changed. 

Slipknot’s self-titled record is a ‘guilty pleasure’ for me, a product of its time perhaps, an ambitious yet amateurish record I stick on to remember my early forays into metal. Yet Iowa is something else, something completely unlike that prior venture. If Slipknot’s self-titled record is posturing, edgy, and a shallow attempt to appeal to an appetite for angry guitar music, Iowa is the opposite.

Iowa is furious, drowning in nihilistic misery and remains, to this day, monstrous. Aspects of it border on inhuman levels of rage and disgust – yet Iowa was unlike seas of black metal and extreme metal because it was contemporary too. It wouldn’t exist in its final form without the lessons learnt from Slipknot’s 1999 venture. Iowa, besides being monstrous, is absurdly catchy. Legendary frontman Corey Taylor reaches insanely low growls and high screams across Iowa’s runtime, his voice harmonising perfectly as he barks choruses with dogmatic zeal. Corey’s lyricism in Iowa is bleak, soaked in misery, yet anthemic. 

Taylor is as mechanical as a preacher in his delivery yet strained, defeated and almost gasping for breath at times

The opening track ‘People = Shit’ sounds corny when reading the lyrics, but when those words come through in Taylor’s voice, it’s enough to make anyone want to join the catechism. The rapping, present to almost comic effect on their prior record, is replaced by some of the purest expressions of anger and extremity one will find in the metal genre. Taylor is as mechanical as a preacher in his delivery yet strained, defeated, and almost gasping for breath at times. It is profoundly human, and it all adds on to what makes Iowa such a powerful record, even 20 years down the road. 

All sermons require music, and the bestial vocals of Taylor are accompanied by some truly apocalyptic groove metal. Slipknot, nine men in masks and jumpsuits who used record scratches on their prior record, craft some of the heaviest and most groove driven metal of its time. The juxtaposition is almost hilarious. Mick Thomson and Jim Root’s guitar playing is overpowering and crushing in its technicality and distortion. Thomson’s lead guitar hits absurd grooves and brutal riffs, worthy of any contemporary death metal record. The groove elements, reminiscent of Sepultura and Pantera, feel colossal in attack and drive. ‘New Abortion’ is a masterwork in this teamwork, the two guitarists united by a shared aim to create some truly brutal guitar riffs. Iowa’s guitar work contrasts all you would know on the band’s prior efforts, yet it’s also a continuation. Slipknot would not be who they became with Iowa, without their past. When analysing Iowa, it’s a crucial thing to keep in mind, as I’ve come to learn.  

Add to the already strong equation an unrelenting rhythm section, and what makes Iowa special starts to come to the forefront. Joey Jordison cements himself on Iowa as one of the true greats and that’s barely enough credit to give the man. He contributes blast beats that sound like long-range machine-gun fire, fills that sound like the world is ending, and a masterful sense of inertia. Mechanical, yet with powerful nuances in tempo and tone, Jordison is Iowa’s heart. Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan’s additional percussion adds the last aspects that Jordison himself cannot add. With the key elements of the band assembled, Slipknot truly sound unbeatable on Iowa. In complete contrast to 1999’s effort, Iowa asserts itself as the cataclysmic end to the nu metal trend.  

Iowa at 20 is still, as it ever was, a brutal and monstrous record with a vulnerable human underlayer

Analysis aside, Iowa means a lot to me. Iowa got me into modern metal – months later I had listened to Dillinger Escape Plan’s full discography and the love of metal was truly set in me. Iowa cemented my love of groove metal, of barked vocals, of 15-minute closing tracks (‘Iowa’) and noise collage openings (‘515’). Watching it turn 20 is even stranger. Slipknot has changed a lot since the raw nature of Iowa, its absolute misery giving way for a more melodic Slipknot – none the worse, but not the same. 2008’s All Hope Is Gone remains divisive, and their 2014 follow up 5: The Gray Chapter is often hoisted as the band at their worst. Derisory mainstream opinion on nu metal has made their early outing a ‘guilty pleasure’, regardless of its quality. 

But more tragically, Jordison, the beating heart of Slipknot, passed away in July. Jordison’s passing has put a lot into perspective and made relistening to Iowa even stranger. The genius behind the drum kit’s passing affected countless fans, some who found Slipknot through Iowa, others through later records. The way fans came together to celebrate his work on Iowa and with Slipknot has been incredible, and made returning to this record more affecting for me. Iowa is a monument, perfectly preserved, of Jordison’s incredible skill and virtuosity that all are free to listen to or revisit. Listening to Iowa has felt like paying respects in a sense to the man who set my mental standard for phenomenal metal drumming and coloured my musical tastes. I can’t say that about many drummers, if any.  

Iowa at 20 is still, as it ever was, a brutal and monstrous record with a vulnerable human underlayer. Age hasn’t worn it down a bit. It’s an unrelenting trip through some of the best the genre had to offer, presented by a group of nine men in jumpsuits and cheap masks, who, somehow, made one of the best metal records of its decade. Whatever your opinion on Slipknot is, listening to Iowa in 2021 as a long-time follower is like returning home, albeit to a dark and foreboding one. Slipknot has changed, yet Iowa is an eternal snapshot of nine musicians at their pinnacle, and that will never change.  

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