Slipknot’s Iowa is a masterpiece of pain

Slipknot Iowa

An isolated guitar rhythm repeats, joined by an increasingly sense array of instrumentation that creates a heavier rhythm, that isolated string backed by a pounding bass and drums. Another guitar revs, the arrangement builds, and the music begins to swell, Corey Taylor screams out, “Hold onto something!” Amid all of this, one gets the urge to scream along with him. In that moment, the opening of Slipknot’s “Disasterpiece,” the pain is unmistakable. 

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Slipknot released their self-titled debut LP in 1999, earning them high praise from metalheads and critics alike. And while on the surface Slipknot could have been mistaken for a gimmick—nine dudes wearing Halloween masks and coveralls—they backed up that crazed look with equally crazed music. Unlike the groovy chug of Korn, the metal-rap fusion of Limp Bizkit, or the shoegazing genre experiments of Deftones, Slipknot were a much more primal force during the nu-metal boom. Intertwining elements of thrash and death metal—and even some intriguing noise bits—the band set themselves apart in offering a far more barbaric sound that loomed over other acts at the time. Nearly abandoning typical compositional structures altogether, Slipknot’s music was that of an endurance test that pushed audiences with a rage-filled endurance test. Their sophomore album Iowa arrived in 2001, taking their ferocity to new extremes, resulting in one of the most violent, hostile-sounding records in all of metal.

When listening back to their debut, it’s hard not to pick up on the fact that Slipknot are pretty pissed off (to say the least); the difference with Iowa is how that anger feels even more intentional. Interviews with the band about the time of Iowa’s writing and recording seemed to suggest that the band’s members weren’t in a healthy state of mind. In an interview from 2008 with Revolver, percussionist Shawn “Clown” Crahan said that, “When we did ‘Iowa’, we hated each other. We hate the world; the world hated us.” Caught up in a cycle of rock ‘n’ roll excess, the band found themselves submerged in a grueling struggle. That madness, coupled with Slipknot’s talent, birthed Iowa, its venomous rage a cornerstone of metal brutality. It’s a background that unfortunately feeds into that unhealthy myth of great art being a byproduct of pain—a toxic concept, but one that holds true here at least.

Slipknot’s Iowa is far beyond that of other nu metal records at the time, if it can even be called a nu metal album. It’s a stylistic mashing of death metal, thrash metal, nu metal and hard rock, the rare intimate and uncomfortable psychological dive that few artists share with fans. With Iowa, Slipknot invite the listener to watch them bleed. While the atmosphere throughout the album provides a cohesive, chaotic flow, the performance casts a menacing aura that creeps over the listener. The chilling album intro is undercut by the revving roar of drums, guitar, and growls that kick off “People=Shit.” The forwardness of this song comes right at the listener, Taylor shouting, “People equal shit/ What you gonna do/ People equal shit/ Cause I’m not afraid of you.” It’s a small example of the band’s frustration with fame, drowning in the pressure to please others while aiming to keep themselves afloat mentally. The late Joey Jordison and Paul Grey unleash an avalanche of metallic drum bashing and bass, respectively. In the fuming mosh adrenaline the songs off Iowa provide, there is also an undercurrent of disturbing air coming through; the sort of metal energy that gets crowds moving is there, but what is feeding that momentum is unnerving.

“Disasterpiece” blasts off before Taylor shouts, “I want to slit your throat and fuck the wound.” As the band’s performance slows then speeds up throughout the performance, it’s easy to begin to feel a bit nauseated. The compositional flow is dizzying, the instrumental element blending with Taylor’s mantra of, “Noises, noises, people make noises/ People make noises when they’re sick/ Nothing to do except hold on to nothing,” creating a pocket of downward, sickening despair. 

Across each of the album’s songs, Iowa proclaims a defiant “Don’t fuck with me” attitude. But it’s more than that; where other records at the time like Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory captured the attitudes and frustrations of adolescence, Slipknot’s Iowa is a much darker dive into those waters. Where Linkin Park have been open on their own struggles with depression, anxiety and isolation, Slipknot paint those themes in a dim light of hopelessness. Even the relatively upbeat instrumental pace of “Left Behind” is crushing in its lyrical declaration of distance and horrors of abandonment. The self-loathing nature of Iowa only grows with each subsequent track, the heartache and menace becoming more unsettling the deeper one descends into it.

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Iowa means a lot to me. I’ve found myself in moments wondering if I can go any further—if there is any point in trying. I buried myself deep under a lot of sadness as a teenager, desperately wanting to feel connected to others, to feel seen. A lot of times I couldn’t even look in a mirror, a disgust and anger rising up within me when I’d look at my reflection. Yet even in the many differences between me and nine guys in a famous metal band, I felt profoundly acknowledged through Iowa. My desperation, my hurt, my anguish, all captured in these songs. In a twisted form of solace, Slipknot were there with Iowa. In its vicious exploration of pain, I felt alive. It’s a record that’s raw and transparent, one that will click for many who have been in similar dark places.

Slipknot pull no punches in making their pain and anger known, and that is the core element (alongside the band’s talent) that makes Iowa such a vicious experience. A phrase folks may hear there and then from artists and bands is the notion of, “We were in a bad place, and we channeled that negativity into something artistic/positive.” You may get something sincere from such an effort, or at the least something intense and cathartic. Slipknot not only channel their negativity but double down on that toxic state of mind, the music broadcasting a grim atmosphere. Iowa brilliantly balances between poetic insight and pent-up adolescent frustration, the lyrical display of vulgarities enough to rile up an angsty teenager but touching upon an intimate darkness of self-doubt, sadness and hopelessness.

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Slipknot have never made another record like Iowa. They have further built upon their technical and stylistic range, they can still produce a banger, but they’ve never gone back to the level of depravity they found themselves in 2001. That’s maybe for the best. There’s that toxic myth about artists needing to be fucked up to create great art, and while I would never condone such a notion, Iowa is kind of a testament to that. It’s a landmark metal record that displays the real power of the genre – to confront the taboo, to be savage in presentation, to disturb and be heavy.

Iowa is a record that helped me and others like me work through depression and feelings of loneliness. Even if the band were in a horrific place at the time, they used that to create something positive—it helped me to hear other people somewhere else in the world that I could relate to; to know that I didn’t suffer alone, to have their music act as a form of catharsis. In the two decades since Iowa’s release, there have been mountains worth of metal releases that have been similarly crushing in their emotional delivery—Iowa was not the first record to convey such heartache and misery—but it stands alone as one of the first albums of its kind to elevate what metal is capable of portraying emotionally.

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I had a conclusion for this retrospective that I had every intention of including prior to Joey Jordison’s passing, but now just seems sad. Jordison is an essential element to Slipknot’s history, one of the best drummers in heavy music and an unstoppable force. So with that said, I think it’s worth concluding an Iowa retrospective with what he originally had to say about the album for its album’s 10th anniversary (given how the sentiment still rings true today):

“Iowa will live on forever. It’s one of the, actually I’ll say it: It’s the heaviest and best metal record of all time.”


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