[Full disclosure: I worked for Slipknot’s record label from 2011-2014.]
I first saw Slipknot live 20 years ago, in 1999. They were playing New York’s Roseland Ballroom, which doesn’t exist anymore, with three other bands on Roadrunner Records: the punk-metal Amen, who opened the show, the groove metal act Machine Head, who were going through a nü-metal phase (frontman Robb Flynn wore a tracksuit and had his hair in bleached blond spikes), and the 100% nü-metal Coal Chamber, who were the headliners. I didn’t like Amen; Machine Head were fine; Coal Chamber were unimpressive. Slipknot were amazing. They took the stage in horror-movie masks and red coveralls, nine strong, and blasted through 25-30 minutes of songs from their self-titled album, which barely anyone had heard at that point. I turned to a friend and said, “This band’s gonna own the world in a year.” I don’t even think it took that long.
Slipknot have been one of the most popular acts in heavy music for two decades. They have gone from selling out arenas to hosting their own traveling festival tour. They’ve crossed over in ways no band in their style — they’re a death metal act at heart, with elements of industrial and hip-hop thrown in — should have been able to do. They’re one of those acts that gets so big they become a symbol and a phenomenon. Their latest album, We Are Not Your Kind (get it from Amazon), is their sixth, and astonishingly, it’s also their best. It was produced by Greg Fidelman, who worked on their previous disc, 2014’s .5: The Gray Chapter, as well as Metallica‘s Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, High On Fire‘s Snakes for the Divine, and Slayer‘s World Painted Blood, among others. Traditionally a nonet, they’re an octet here, percussionist Chris Fehn having left the group and sued the others. They’ve also changed drummers and gotten a new bassist since their last release. There’s one more new guy in promo photos, wearing a mask that makes him look like a burn victim; he’s Fehn’s replacement live, but I doubt he played on the album.
Slipknot‘s music has been cluttered and chaotic at times, with two guitars, keyboards, turntables, bass, drums and two percussionists. 2001’s Iowa was their fiercest and most dense album in this regard. By contrast, We Are Not Your Kind keeps every element isolated and clear. It’s crushingly heavy at times, but the mix is in its own way as pristine as an ECM release.
There are several intros and interstitial tracks on We Are Not Your Kind, turning the album into a suite. The opener, “Insert Coin,” is almost synthwave, rather than the creepy industrial of previous albums, and it ends with a sample of Corey Taylor singing a line that will reappear later. The first full song, “Unsainted,” combines rumbling postpunk bass, tribal drumming, and a choir(!), all before Jim Root and Mick Thomson‘s thrash guitars and last founding member Shawn “Clown” Crahan‘s junkyard percussion come in. Shifting from full-speed fury to aggro doom and back, it’s still got enough melody in its chorus to get fans singing along at concerts.
The ability to write a hook has always been one of Slipknot‘s secret weapons — it’s what launched them out of the death metal ghetto, and kept them from sinking when nü-metal lost its novelty value. Taylor’s lyrics are sharp, witty and memorable, in an acidic and rage-filled way, and he delivers them with a breathless intensity that seems like it should be impossible to pull off live, but somehow he manages. On this album, the rest of the band backs him up in surprising ways: the gang shouts on several tracks (“Critical Darling”) have been heard before, but the synth-pop crooning on “Nero Forte” is new.
Keyboards are a stronger element of Slipknot‘s sound on this album than they’ve ever been before. Even the heaviest tracks repeatedly downshift to melancholy ballad soundscapes, and some tracks, like “Spiders,” are barely metal at all. That one’s built around a John Carpenter-esque piano melody, with a low organ drone appearing here and there, and the beat sounds programmed, all handclaps and thumps. There’s a little bit of guitar here and there, but it’s more postpunk than metal. The guitar solo could have come off a Nine Inch Nails record.
The album’s last four tracks are among its longest, each one nudging or passing the six-minute mark; “My Pain” runs close to seven. And it’s the moodiest, most atmospheric track on the record, too. It’s nearly two minutes before any percussion comes in, and it’s a ticking drum machine that anchors another one-finger synth melody and a droning synth pulse, as Taylor croons in his most Thom Yorke-ish voice. The surprisingly pastoral vocal harmonies in the background keep it from being more than a glorified demo, though, and by the four-minute mark an almost subsonic rumble has taken the piece in an entirely new, more ominous direction. “Not Long for This World” starts out quiet and electronic, but at the halfway mark becomes a roaring industrial-thrash explosion.
“Solway Firth,” the album’s final track, features the line — “I’m counting all the killers” — that Taylor was singing on “Insert Coin,” over similarly moody synths, bringing the album full circle. As many other tracks on We Are Not Your Kind have done, the song shifts back and forth between two moods: a sinister electronic soundscape and a punishing thrash groove with industrial and postpunk elements. The vocal is one of Taylor’s most furious; his intensity never flags, and the music brings the album to an equally explosive, cathartic conclusion.
Slipknot have often struggled to recapture the magic of the first five tracks on their self-titled album. Each subsequent release has a few moments of stunning power, but just as many songs that feel like a band struggling to live up to their image. (“Heretic Anthem,” from Iowa, has one of the dumbest choruses in the history of pop music. If you can’t immediately call it to mind, I’ll let you discover it for yourself, with an apology in advance.) But on We Are Not Your Kind, they’re rejuvenated and mature at once, and they’ve created their first front-to-back masterpiece.