A Nostalgia Trigger From the Grotty Floating Hovel: Slipknot’s We Are Not Your Kind

So Slipknot have released a new album and it’s a winner, beating even Ed Sheeran in the charts and delivering a slice of post-nu-metal that satisfies this nostalgic punter on so, so many levels.

But beyond the simple enjoyment of tucking into the fresh material of a band with whom you’ve intermittently come of age, is the refreshingly optimistic realisation that something previously thought irrelevant can be good again; that the adage of ‘has-been’ is something our culture has been getting wrong all these years.

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Neither is it an entirely alien feeling, either: I’ve personally been very glad to fall in love with The Pale Emperor, another latter-day release by a supposed has-been who was a musical guiding star for me even before Slipknot took over in the late nineties.

I still remember popping in a bootleg cassette of Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals and thrilling to the wash of immersive-yet-subversive sounds; the photocopied wrap-around cover not being cut entirely right, so that the album read ‘Mechanical Anima’ in what felt like an apposite error: the pained screams of a mechanised soul, the ghost in the machine aching to express itself in mournful, trickster anger.

But we’ve seen this elsewhere too. The Cure, by all accounts, knocking it out of the park at Glastonbury (wish I’d been there for that one). Actors we thought washed up at the movies returning to shine on the smaller screen, reaping the benefits of the kind of long-form storytelling afforded by the TV Renaissance to character actors whose creases accommodate stories of nuance and depth.

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Weaponised nostalgia: Netflix’s Stranger Things

I’m convinced that this isn’t just the Stranger Things impulse: it’s not just about the indulgence in nostalgia for its own sake. For one, this surely the historical time-frames we’re dealing with here are too compressed, too recent to offer the kind of generational time-hop necessitated by the kind of the thing the Stranger Things does?

Granted, twenty years is a sizeable amount of time. It used to be a lifetime, not all that long ago. But just like we’re getting re-assessments of The Matrix and American Beauty (Brian Raftery’s Best. Movie. Year. Ever. offers an excellent analysis of the cinematic mainstream in that low-key magical year of 1999), this is more about taking stock than sinking in the warm bath of cultural nostalgia.

Maybe it has something to do with the way distribution models have changed. Both American Beauty’s Alan Ball and The Matrix’s Wachowski siblings, with varying degrees of success, have managed to find a foothold in the realm of TV. And with MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity.

Yes, social media is hardly ever a good thing. It’s too image-obsessed. It’s too fragmented and fickle. Far too easily beholden to manipulating and manipulateable algorithms to ease our minds into believing that our enjoyment of pop culture is not an expression of some folksy universality. Instead, it’s just us bending the knee to our corporate overlords yet again.

And yet, and yet. Being part of an ever-shifting stream means the ‘has-been’ is an obsolete term. When the hegemonic order is dispersed — again, when MTV is no longer the arbiter — age really does become just a number.

With MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity

A number, much like Slipknot’s own members styled themselves, at first. Now of course, their masks and costumes have evolved into something eminently Instagrammable, but that’s a rich discussion to be had on another day.

I’m no music critic and I actually can’t claim to have heard Slipknot all that much beyond their blistering sophomore effort Iowa (2001), but there’s certainly something to be said about how We Are Not Your Kind has burrowed its hooks in me pretty deep.

It comes down to that well-calculated blend of the familiar and the new. In this case, experience doesn’t communicate exhaustion, but depth and maturity. Like a friend you haven’t seen for a while returning from an exciting year of adventuring across countries, continents and galaxies, eager to recount their experience over refreshments in safe and comfortable surroundings.

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The nine Iowans comprising Slipknot’s classic line-up wouldn’t be all that familiar with dingy arcades on Mediterranean beaches, but We Are Not Your Kind’s opener ‘Insert Coin’ certainly evokes that for me: these oil-caked, fry-up-stinking hovels are the kind of places we’d get some shade in while dipping in and out of the sea during those carefree summers.

One of these summers was that of 1999, where we’d scratch together pocket-money to get our hands on the band’s scene-changing, self-titled debut album. In a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world this would be a talisman of contemporary metal soon to be joined by the likes of Soulfly’s ‘Back to the Primitive’ and Fear Factory’s ‘Digimortal’, whose cuts we would still get to enjoy in grotty one-room nightclub venues, now closed, and whose single-row metallic pissoirs I remember with markedly diminished affection.

As an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own

Because while the angst inherent in Slipknot’s repertoire has something of the universal about it, neither should it be all that surprising that the sun-kissed Mediterranean isle I hail from is partial to a bit of metal.

Many of the bands that serve as mainstays of this scene rehearse in badly-lit, terribly under-oxygenated garages located in the depressed industrial town of Marsa and the mushrooming suburb of Birkirkara… as an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own.

It’s an angst that certainly finds cathartic release in We Are Not Your Kind’s hit single ‘Unsainted’, whose blasphemous undertones speak to Malta’s only-recent de facto liberation from Catholic theocracy while admittedly also existing as tropey metal mainstays. The song is a distillation of just the kind of anthemic perfection that launched Slipknot into the mainstream; boasting a killer chorus limned by jagged but thumping surrounding verses, like an speed-injected Cadbury Creme Egg framed by a Marmite-marinated crown of thorns.

For me, it’s a reminder of the energetic core that’s the true appeal of metal music. The magnetic pull that can’t be denied; that others will find in other genres, but that nothing else really replaces for me even now, when my own tastes have evolved beyond what I’d used to listen to twenty years ago. Yes, I’ll tell myself that I only really listen to the likes of Opeth and Tool anymore, but when songs Korn’s ‘Blind’, or Fear Factory’s ‘Replica’, or Slipknot’s ‘Wait and Bleed’ and indeed ‘Unsainted’ pop back up on the horizon I can’t help but run towards them.

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But neither should we diminish the importance of evolution and maturity; the adding of something new to the mix. The washed-up actor whose career finds a new lease of life on Netflix or HBO should use their hard-won scars and creases to their advantage, not cover them up. Otherwise, that’s how we end up in Stranger Things territory (please accept by continued and non-flattering references to this show as mere shorthand, I actually enjoy it quite a bit).

Thankfully, We Are Not Your Kind does manage to achieve that elusive blend of the old and new. It distills Slipknot back into their essence, but like truly seasoned artists, they still manage to slide in a reminder that they’re aging gracefully.

‘Spiders’ is a kooky Mike Patton-like number that still manages to be true to the ‘Knot’s Halloween-horror roots, while ‘My Pain’ cranks up both the atmospherics and melancholy. But this isn’t a mellowing out so much as a deepening of the musical landscape they’ve created. More than anything, Slipknot feel even more ‘cinematic’ now, wedded to their inspired imagery in more ways than one. More John Carpenter than Cannibal Corpse, and all the better for it.

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And perhaps this is why We Are Not Your Kind resonates with me so much right at this moment. While it’s hard to resist the nostalgia and romance that their debut evokes for me (see above), and I’m in a place where I’d rather fight for the hovel that is Malta to become a little bit less so; to salvage what is left of its green spaces, and for local bands to be able to practice in more than just grotty garages.

More than anything, though, the sonic architecture makes for a perfect writing accompanyment. It pummels at me to write and create works with uncompromising verve and energy, while offering that break of atmospheric concentration that’s also necessary to the process.

In short, it is a perfect soundscape of horror, which can take many forms, and whose protean variety I am continuing to find utterly thrilling.

Plus, “Horror will never die” says John Carpenter himself… another supposed has-been whose musical career offers a dignified middle-finger to that very notion.

The kids of the demon haunted night | Starr Creek by Nathan Carson

We’re getting to see a lot of phenomena unspool over the pop culture sphere in recent years, months, even perhaps days — their frequency is a direct consequence of the kind of internet-related chatter that I wanna discuss here — partly because we’re now quick to label things as all-out phenomena, or at least consider them as such privately, even subconsciously.

We can attribute at least some of this tendency to gush about things to stratospheric profusion to the ease with which geeky enthusiasm can spread online — encouraged by the producers and promoters of the ‘art’ in question, the rudiments of Web 2.0 (are we past even that now?) are weaponised to make sacred fetishes out of even, frankly, the flimsiest of materials.

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Phenomenon: Millie Bobbie Brown as ‘Eleven’ in Stranger Things (2016, Duffer Brothers)

But although a lot of this may have just a temporary effect — a film, TV show, book or comic book series could arrive in an explosive flurry of online enthusiasm which turns to mere embers just a couple of days later — it’s an effect that imminently repeatable and desirable for those at the top of the food chain the Meat Factory of Story that can still — despite our aggressively materialist times — churn out big business for those who play their cards right.

And one sure-fire way of making big business in a world where semiotic signifiers are an important stepping stone to success (read: where a healthy-enough accumulation of hashtags and social media shares can actually alchemise into cold, hard cash) is to tap into a rich stash of references.

There’s a fine line between the kind of recognition and familiarity that can result in something feeling boring, repetitive and ultimately unnecessary… and the kind that evokes feelings of comfort, kinship and a desire for connection. Pull the latter off, and you’ve tapped into that strong fount of subconscious desire called nostalgia which, as anyone alive would tell you, means seriously big bucks.

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Who you gonna call? Nos-tal-gia! (Stranger Things 2, 2017, Duffer Brothers)

One phenomenon to tap into that same fount is the Duffer Brothers’ television series Stranger Things, first appearing on the Netflix streaming service last summer and definitively declaring itself as a bricolage of 1980s nostalgia for all of us to shamelessly enjoy. And enjoy it we did, en masse and with reckless abandon, even aided and abetted (for the most part) by an enthusiastic critical mass of professional reviewers that helped to validate our love for a show that pushes just the right nostalgia-buttons.

So brazen is its soup of references and Easter eggs — though the Duffers also make sure to craft a catchy-enough story and direct their child actors to perfection, to ensure that it does not just, in fact, become some detached postmodern experiment — that the show could almost be described in tones of pure ritual.

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In the two seasons of it we’ve had so far, the running time has constantly dredged up one association after another, each of which — for those of a Certain Generation, at least — has recalled at least one touchstone from the movies of Steven Spielberg or the books-made-into-movies by Stephen King and an entire raft-load of others (though I would argue that, for all its busy panoply of references, ET and The Body/Stand by Me give us the strongest and most consistent associative threads here).

Starr Creek Book Cover

Yeah, we’ll be getting to this in a second. Promise.

With everything calibrated to create a perfect snap of recall in our minds, it becomes nothing short of a huge-scale communal exercise of shared mental experience across the hashtagosphere.

The show, whose seasons arrive to us in bulk — all the better to be binge-watched, all together — is a manifestation of Pure Archetype; but archetypes that are recent-enough to strike a real emotional chord, while also being just distant enough to feel as if they’re emanating from a subconscious place of buried, chthonic connections. (To wit: the 1980s is not Ancient Greece, even if Stranger Things’s Demogorgon evokes associations old-enough to pertain to the latter.)

Stranger Things demogorgon

This is certainly one layer of the ‘kids in ’80s getting into world-saving antics’ that a recent short novel emphatically does not partake in, even if it may embody the Stranger Things vibe in other aspects of its make-up.

I’m talking here about Starr Creek by Nathan Carson, a fun book written before Stranger Things was first aired, but which is also set in a rural American milieu during the 80s — specifically, a small town in Oregon in 1986 — and which also pits a band of kids against a supernatural threat that has chosen to make its nesting ground in their otherwise unremarkable suburban backyard.

Starr Creek Map

Starr Creek Rd, Oregon. Real place.

But unlike the fictional town of Hawkins in Stranger Things — which fittingly joins a tradition also espoused by Stephen King himself with the fake ‘Derry’ in Maine — the eponymous road of Carson’s Starr Creek is a real place, around which Carson himself grew up.

And while the main trio of kids that make up Carson’s cast of characters — Kira, Allen and Bron — share the same predilection for Dungeons and Dragons as their Stranger Things counterparts, they’re not exactly the eminently plucky and largely squeaky-clean lite-weirdos of the Duffer Brothers. These kids trip on LSD to enhance their D&D games, though when they start chasing around extra-dimensional entities in the woods, that enhancement gains an edge of sublime horror.

And the trio soon comes head to head with another couple of outsiders looking for kicks — in this case, a shameless though understandable quest for nudie magazines — but who end up poking a particularly dangerous avatar of said extra-dimensional creatures, in a way that may just threaten the very fabric of existence if the kids don’t band together to do something about it.

That synopsis makes Carson’s book feel no different than just the kind of phenomena I was describing earlier but as ever, the devil is in the details. Drawing on lived-in experience rather than a desire to exploit the collective unconscious by cherry picking, and stringing together, nostalgic genre touchstones, Carson draws on convention to create a fun framing narrative, while stuffing the rest with memorable, hard-won texture.

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Nathan Carson in the book trailer for Starr Creek

The character of ‘Puppy’ who pushes us into the dark corners of this narrative from the word go quickly forces us to watch him eat dog food for money, and the kids’ interactions and overarching milieu is described with affection, yes, but never the kind of mawkish sentimentality that often threatens to tip Stranger Things over into something less than its potential demands. And the pop culture references that do feature in Carson’s book are made in-story, not meta-textually to score audience-engagement points… the kids lament the suddenly and unfairly jacked-up prices of comic books (75c!), they enthuse about The Last Starfighter and listen to Metallica…

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

And when it comes to the crunch, the Elder Ones are invoked in earnest. While the Duffer Brothers paid lip service to the legacy of controversial Weird Fiction behemoth HP Lovecraft by claiming that the super-demogorgon features in the second season of the show is inspired by the author’s infamous reason-shattering tentacular beasts, Carson’s more sanguine approach throughout ensures that the nihilistic core of Lovecraft’s work is also paid tribute to… for better or worse.

While the likes of Stranger Things will continue to massage us into pleasant nostalgic oblivion — appreciating the more horror-tinged second season despite the mis-step that was Episode Seven, I’m certainly looking forward to Season 3 — Carson’s slim, weird and vicious little novella offers a more ‘genuine’ take on the same sub-genre (come on, this kind of thing has surely solidified into a sub-genre by now).

A howl of partly-autobiographical mad fun by a doom metal drummer (Carson is a member of Witch Mountain), Starr Creek takes one glance at the archetypal melting pot before going on to its own thing… grabbing you by the collar and stringing you along the eponymous road on a demon-haunted night.