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20 Years Ago, Slipknot Overcame Turmoil to Create the Twisted and Technical Iowa

In the face of overwhelming fame and frailty, the masked metallers delivered one of the heaviest hit records of all time

Slipknot Iowa anniversary
Slipknot 2001, via Roadrunner Records
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    Slipknot’s eponymous 1999 full-length album emerged as a monumental triumph, simultaneously sparking intrigue, praise, and derision regarding their aesthetic and intent. Consequently, the band felt a lot of pressure to produce an even better follow-up and reconcile who they wanted to be with who everyone else wanted them to be. Rather than succumb to any kind of self-doubt or public outcry, they persevered with an even more experimental, ferocious, intricate, and celebrated statement: 2001’s Iowa.

    Beyond avoiding the dreaded “sophomore slump,” Iowa pushed Slipknot further in all respects. Fueled by a range of negative feelings and behaviors, the record is a testament to the potential for harvesting artistic prosperity out of harrowing circumstances. Twenty years on, it remains Slipknot’s superlative sequence and — shockingly enough — one of the most confrontationally belligerent albums to ever become a mainstream behemoth.

    Following a lengthy tour (where they played alongside Fear Factory, Black Sabbath, Rob Zombie, and Slayer), Slipknot re-teamed with iconic genre producer Ross Robinson at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles. By and large, they aimed to outdo the previous album in terms of disdainful lyricism and technical prowess, all the while rejecting outside notions about their musical and visual identities. Specifically, they doubled down on their alternate personas and incorporated fewer hip-hop elements and more death metal and industrial punk tendencies.

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    As vocalist Corey Taylor told Metal Hammer in 2020: “I don’t know if we’ve matured, but we’ve definitely become more comfortable with what we know we want to do. . . . We decided to go very dark, really get brutal with it.” As for guitarist Jim Root – now an official member after contributing to a couple tracks on Slipknot – he told Guitar magazine that felt “a lot of pressure . . . to perform well,” adding: “It was so exciting as well as scary to be part of this whole huge process.”

    Although it’s named after their home state, it’s not meant as a favorable tribute, as Taylor explained: “Iowa is a very bitter, bleak place, basically the worst part of the Bible Belt. It’s run by old people who make sure that there’s nothing for young people.” According to percussionist Shawn “Clown” Crahan, the cover art represents Slipknot’s fortitude: “Goats are set in their ways, they’re stubborn,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s a wake-up call. We’re not here to follow.” Of course, it’s also a reference to the hidden track that closes Slipknot, “Eeyore.”

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    Unfortunately for the band, Iowa’s overarching viciousness wasn’t just for show since it was created amidst seemingly insurmountable turbulence. “When we did [it], we hated each other. We hated the world; the world hated us,” Clown said. Unsurprisingly, prudish parents and other morally superior people denounced Slipknot for ostensibly being bad for adolescent listeners – even likening them to Satanists at times – and the group also had to contend with fans impersonating them for personal gain.

    To cope with the highs and lows of fame — plus mounting insecurities and other mental hindrances — many members turned to drugs, alcohol, and/or groupie sex. “I was a f**king mess. I was drinking a lot. . . . I was doing anything I could to feel good because everything else felt really bad. . . . But I knew that we had a responsibility, and that’s why Iowa is so dark,” Taylor confessed to Revolver in 2011. (He even indulged in self-harm as he recorded the title track.)

    Outside of those negative feelings and crutches, a few people dealt with more personal problems. For instance, Crahan’s wife was battling Crohn’s disease; DJ Sid Wilson’s grandfather died during production, prompting him to record an emotional breakdown for “(515)”; and producer Robinson broke his back in a motocross mishap, forcing him to work in excruciating pain from a wheelchair. Fortunately, his resilience inspired Slipknot to get their act together, too, and work with increased unity and concentration.

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    Despite all of that upheaval — as well as both its initial sales and corresponding tour being partially impeded by the September 11th attacks — Iowa surpassed its predecessor in every way. Released on August 28th, 2001, it peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, earned two Grammy nominations for Best Metal Performance (for “Left Behind” and “My Plague”), and received praise for major publications like NME, Alternative Press, and Rolling Stone. It also saw them embark on an international tour, where they shared the stage with such bands as System of a Down, Rammstein, Mudvayne, and Papa Roach.

    Today, Iowa remains Slipknot’s magnum opus. Opener “(515)” is an avant-garde hodgepodge of Wilson’s disturbing anguish on top of unsettling distortion. Afterward, the overtly misanthropic one-two punch of “People = Shit” and “Disasterpiece” reveals how much more polished and complex the LP is compared to Slipknot. It integrates catchy death metal vocals, quirky turntable effects, and tight as hell instrumentation to showcase more challenging and malleable musicianship.

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    Elsewhere, “Gently” offers a patchwork of rhythmic novelty and enthralling coatings that channel the industrial metal stylings of Nine Inch Nails. Then, “Left Behind” melodically alludes to the more radio-friendly nature of 2004’s Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, yet maintains Iowa’s characteristic anarchy, whereas “Skin Ticket” is concurrently sparse and grimy, making it one of the least aggressive but most foreboding tracks. Of course, closer “Iowa” expands upon “(515)”’s noise collage by mixing otherworldly ambiance, trademark antagonism, and a continuous air of psychedelic grunginess that instantly evokes Tool and Alice in Chains. It’s a noteworthy finale that cleverly brings the LP full circle and shows the group aiming for something artsier and bolder than what they did on their debut.

    “We really stepped up on this one,” late drummer Joey Jordison remarked to Rolling Stone in October 2001. Two decades later, the growth made between Slipknot’s first two albums is still remarkable (especially considering all of the behind-the-scenes calamity). More confident, sophisticated, and investigational than its precursor, Iowa was an unapologetic declaration of purpose for Slipknot and metal, in general. While they’ve undoubtedly continued to impress with subsequent records, they’ve never sounded more fierce, honest, experimental, and self-assured.

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