It was the middle aughts, and all things considered, life was pretty good in Astoria, Queens. I had a job that paid the bills. I had tons of friends in and around the city. I ate my way through Astoria’s many Greek food spots. And I’d gotten a membership at this old-school, badass gym that was peak Queens: It was mostly blue-collar types, pumping massive amounts of iron; engaging in all-out combat in the gym’s makeshift boxing ring; and always there to help the small guy (me) try to bench-press his weight a few times. I loved it, but I had a big problem: I had only so many songs on my iPod, so on any given day, I’d likely be listening to the same few albums. It got really old, really fast.
That is, until a colleague of mine, Ed, who I’d worked with at a place where, I swear to you, we sat around all day and night, watching TV shows and writing trivia questions, gave me this mixed CD he’d made of one of his favorite metal bands, Slipknot, and like a doctor writing a prescription for a miracle drug, said that I’d never need any other workout music ever again. If I remember correctly, the disc included, in this exact order, the Slipknot songs “(sic),” “Eyeless,” “Wait and Bleed,” “Surfacing” and “Liberate” from the band’s eponymous first record; “My Plague” and “Left Behind” from the band’s second album, Iowa; and “The Blister Exists,” “Three Nil,” “Duality” and “Opium of the People” from their third, Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, which was their newest album at the time. I remember burning the disc to my computer, then transferring the tracks to my iPod, which I registered as “Slipknot Album.” Since none of the songs I’d uploaded still had their ID, I had no idea what any of the songs were called, so I was, basically, flying blind.
Within a few short weeks, just as Dr. Ed had ordered, it had become my go-to gym mix. Within a few short months, I was “singing” along with the songs—and when I say “singing,” I mean angrily lip-synching, because the rage-and-ruin growl that lead singer Corey Taylor emits from somewhere deep within his soul was impossible to recreate in a public gym in Queens without somebody telling me to shut the front door. (One particular song, “Eyeless,” features this one, long drawn-out curse word, between the 3:26 and 3:31 marks, which would provide me with that extra oomph needed to run that extra mile on the treadmill or do that extra set.) And after a few short years, I became a Slipknot fan. It so happened that, when 2008 rolled around, the band was readying the release of its fourth album, All Hope Is Gone, and being that I was now a diehard fan, decided to pitch a review of the album to one of my many freelance contacts, the Hartford Courant. My editor there, who knew me more as a folk-rock/alt-country guy, was surprisingly all for it. That’s when the real fun began.
You see, at that point in the band’s career, they were exploding, and there was a tremendous amount of buzz surrounding the release of the forthcoming album. Their record company, Roadrunner Records, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group, hadn’t sent out advances of the album, despite music journalists like me needing them to write our reviews. After a back-and-forth with the label, Warner invited me into their corporate headquarters at 1633 Broadway in Manhattan, to listen to the album in a special room, on a special headset, for as long as I needed to. I remember going in with a notepad and pen and sitting in this chair, with Slipknot screaming into my ears, feverishly writing notes that would help me decide how to rate the album. My resultant review, which ran in the paper and online on August 26, 2008 read like so:
“SlipKnot’s fifth album finds the nine-piece alternative metal band at an unquestionable creative peak – but the effort may only further alienate some of its diehard, shred-metal fans. Once the darling of Ozzfest for its brutal stage mayhem and disturbing Halloween masks, SlipKnot is trying to reinvent itself as thinking-man’s metal, a la Metallica’s “The Black Album.” As on the band’s 2004 album “Subliminal Verses,” the latest set features a little bit more “easy” listening. “Psychosocial” mixes muddy chord progressions with mutable melodies, with the faintest hint of a country twang in its sung chorus. “Dead Memories” veers between a driving Danzig-like melody and a Queensryche-like chorus. The ultimate shocker, though, is the hauntingly pretty “Snuff,” which finds a crooning Corey Taylor accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar. All this new territory raises the question: How will the angsty kids in the mosh pit respond when the lighters and glowsticks come out?”
Album reviews are a funny thing; they’re really this tightrope walk between the reviewer’s knowledge of similar-sounding music (or an entire genre), opinion, taste and one’s ability to identify an album’s je ne sais quoi or like-ability—all while condensing those facts into discernible English. Plus, I didn’t have that many words to do it in. I think what I was getting at was that Slipknot (the way I styled the band’s name back then still annoys me!) wasn’t just some run-of-the-mill metal band making noise; they were bringing in influences that the average metal band might lose street cred for, but which somehow worked really, really well within the confines of a band, who just happened to wear Halloween masks and matching prison jumpsuits and had become a real-deal “pop” sensation. So what if the majority of their songs were littered with words you’d be sent to the principal’s office for for saying to your teacher? Wasn’t that what rock music was about in the first place? Pushing the envelope?
Eleven years later, Slipknot is still putting out albums, and short of a few key lineup changes, as well as the tragic death of original bassist Paul Gray in 2010, is even more popular than it was when I wrote that review. (The son of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Max Weinberg, Jay, for instance, is now the band’s drummer.)
On August 9, the band released their sixth studio album, We Are Not Your Kind, and unbelievably, it’s already hit No.1 on the US’ Billboard 200 (its third) and across the pond in the UK (its first chart-topper there in 18 years). That’s no small feat for a metal band. This has been fueled, in large part, by the band’s tireless touring, which this year, it’s accomplished via the sonic circus, Knotfest, which has been snaking all over the globe and will touch down at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) on August 21. It’s also been driven by the fact that We Are Not Your Kind is like no other Slipknot or metal record I’ve ever had the chance to listen to (I subscribe to Spotify, so that’s where I heard it for the first time last week); it’s a 14-song set—with three short connective-tissue-y tracks mixed in—chock-full of non-metal inventiveness (see the staccato piano-led number “Spiders” or the goth-y electronica of “My Pain”); plus, a few bizarro, surprise influences, including, as far as I can tell, A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” in the melody and chorus of lead single “Unsainted;” and Scots-Gaelic folk music, complete with lead singer Corey Taylor rocking a fake accent, somewhere between Scots-Gaelic and The Dark Knight‘s Joker, on album-closer “Solway Firth.” On the album, the band’s sound has veered as far away from metal, at times, than it’s ever gotten, and that means the ability to rein in more fans.
Knotfest will be a rare treat for SPAC concert-goers, who will be able to catch an international array of opening acts such as Polish metal band Behemoth, French metal-heads Gojira and Danish hard-rockers Volbeat on the tour. And for some locals, seeing the nonet pulverize eardrums at SPAC will be old hat; they’ve been performing at the Saratoga Springs venue since 2012 and have returned to the venue two other times before this show. But it’ll be my first Slipknot show. And as yet, the second lawn ticket I bought for a fellow Saratogian, who couldn’t make the midweek show from the city, has yet to be claimed. Meet me on the lawn?