Among metal’s most enduring frontmen, Flynn recalls Slipknot’s meteoric rise and how Iowa prompted a shift in the landscape of heavy music.
Among metal’s most enduring personalities, Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn has become a fixture of heavy culture and has maintained that rank for nearly four decades. First emerging out the prolific, formative thrash scene of the East Bay Area in California with the band Vio-lence in the mid-80’s, Flynn would go onto ascend the hierarchy of heavy with a three decade run with Machine Head that continues strong to this day.
As Machine Head continued their steady climb, 1999 proved to be a pivotal year for the band. Machine Head were set to debut their third studio album during the summer, working with producer Ross Robinson at the famed Indigo Ranch Studios on what would become The Burning Red. While Flynn was wrapping up his time in the studio, he would come across a group of guys from Iowa that were hard at work on what would be their debut album. The band was also working with producer Ross Robinson.
History began to take it’s course.
“We were recording our third record the same time that Slipknot was recording their debut. We were in the studio at the same time for almost a full week,” shared Flynn. “While they were mixing, I had to finish up vocals with Ross.” Flynn would revisit how the band was so locked into getting the product right that creative fatigue was starting to set in. Exchanging professional courtesies, the guys would listen to one another’s mixes and provide an outside perspective – crucial in combating the threat of creative tunnel vision.
Flynn goes onto recall how the track “Purity” was the barometer for the band. Using that song as the template for the final mix, Flynn talked about how locked in Slipknot was with this particular track and how instantly, he knew it would stick. Spending many a night blasting the day’s work in the car after the studio session, Robb shared, “I must have heard ‘Purity’ at least 50 times just during that time when I was finishing my vocals and Slipknot was dialing in their mix.” Even at its work in progress stage, Flynn said he loved the song and knew it was going to be important.
Fate would have it that Machine Head and Slipknot would soon cross paths again professionally, as Slipknot was enlisted for the 1999 national Livin’ La Vida Loco trek. Headlined by Coal Chamber, with support from Machine Head and then an unknown crew of nine from Iowa, the tour would introduce Slipknot to a national audience and begin a sea change in the culture of metal. It was during that tour that the language that would eventually become synonymous with Slipknot’s seminal second album began to first resonate with fans.
Flynn recalled how Slipknot’s deprecating generational mantra of “People = Shit” first took flight during that initial shared run of shows. “This had been the number one shirt on the Livin La Vida Loco tour that we did. I mean, this one shirt outsold all three bands combined.”
It makes sense then that the idiom which would eventually become iconic, would serve as the title of the opening track of the band’s seminal sophomore work, Iowa. Connecting the dots, Flynn recalled running into Slipknot while the band was in the thick of recording that album and remembers visiting the guys in the studio for a sneak peek at the cultural shift that was already set in motion.
“Corey sat me down in front of the speakers and he says, ‘I wanna play you the opening track off our record… it’s People = Shit’. Flynn’s reaction to what he heard next would be indicative of how the world would collectively respond. “They fucking blasted it and I just remember going, ‘HOLY FUG… (imitates the musical opening of the song)’. I was like holy shit! That fucking chorus man. That’s my favorite Slipknot song. To this day it’s still my favorite Slipknot song. It’s just so badass and heavy and over the top.”
While Slipknot’s debut served as a powerful introduction of a new contributor to the culture, it was Iowa that challenged the conventions of heavy culture as a whole. It was the album that introduced the blast beat to an MTV audience and niche intricacies of metal’s subculture on a broad, nearly universal scale. For the gatekeepers of metal’s old guard, the shift spurned by Slipknot was met with some skepticism ninth wake of their growing accessibility. It was sentiment that Flynn regarded as unfounded.
Citing the band’s obvious love for thrash and death metal, even sharing how with Joey and Paul in particular he “could talk death metal all fucking day,” Flynn’s assessment was that the band loved the music enough to build upon it and make it their own. “To me it was coming from a genuine place. To the world at large, it seemed like it was [appropriated] but I never agreed with that. These dudes are legit. They were super into bands like Cannibal (Corpse) but they were also young and incorporating stuff like Korn. It was polarizing. They were polarizing.”
As the spectacle of nine masked dudes from Iowa became more palattable, or at least less of a shock with their ever-growing presence, the prowess of the band became substantiated with each successive hit single. If the self-titled album was the sucker punch, Iowa was the knockout blow that sent conventional metal to the mat. Flynn managed to summarize the shift with a sentiment that is often expressed with these kinds of retrospective conversations, “It’s hard to explain the phenomenon that was Slipknot. Their first tour was Ozzfest. The second tour was with us. They did the David Letterman show like three months after their debut album dropped. They came out doing gangbusters the first week and kept going up and up and up.”
As for the longevity specific to Iowa and the X-factor that has ensured the album has been able to endure for two decades, Flynn has a much more definitive explanation. “Great songwriting. Strip all of it down and those songs have unbelievably massive choruses. Choruses that resonate then and now. Great musicianship, sure. Great visual and crazy, over-the-top band – awesome. Always a plus. But it’s the great hooks and choruses that still fucking stick. Slipknot is known for being a heavy band, and they are, but they have some fucking great melodies. I think people want to sing and for as heavy a record as that is, there’s stuff you can sing.”
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Be sure to check out Robb Flynn’s No F’n Regrets Podcast and his “Remembering Joey Jordison” special below.