Real Horror Show

At least since the Holocaust and the bomb, there's been a corner of America's pop marketplace where the ghouls are allowed to come out to play. Not ethereal spirits whispering from beyond, but lurching zombies and cackling demons. In the '50s, there were EC Comics and Screaming Jay Hawkins; in the '60s, Bobby "Boris" Pickett and Herschell Gordon Lewis movies. The imagery in this netherworld is willfully disgusting and extreme, even when comic; the implements of fun are worms, hatchets, and body parts; and the setting is the graveyard, real or symbolic, where it's Halloween all year long. Every popular medium has felt a need to explore this territory, or at least to exploit its commercial potential.

But those earlier manifestations of pop horror, though outrageous to some, were actually rather innocent and fun -- like Halloween itself. It was dress-up, and the ghouls kept to their corner. It took the late Vietnam period to locate something sludgier and sicker than that, some psychic cholesterol advancing on the national heart. The ghouls were now corpses resurrected by radiation, nuclear families given to cannibalism, a man in dripping eye makeup fondling a snake and getting beheaded onstage. There was something about the imagery, its social climate, and the feelings of delirium and dread it aroused that made it stick to the American imagination. At which point the ghouls escaped to infiltrate pop culture at large, and extreme horror became a familiar, if seldom revelatory, form of American expression. From Alice Cooper to Marilyn Manson, from Stephen King to Thomas Harris, from Night of the Living Dead to Dawn of the Dead (remade earlier this year), an ostensibly degraded form of shock theatrics gradually and invisibly made itself a staple of this country's mainstream entertainment diet.

This is one context or tradition within which very different bands like Slipknot and Project: Deadman do their work. What they have in common is that each harnesses horrific imagery, visual and verbal, to a mode of pop music; each is preoccupied with decay -- not the fading-to-white, Six Feet Under kind, but the moldering, maggoty kind; and each inclines toward extreme volume and aggression. Finally, both bands come from the Midwest, land of strip malls, meth labs, and cornfields, the American heartland of national myth, where the soil is rich and the sludge thick.

Project: Deadman (PDM), out of Detroit, are a rap-metal amalgam
-- practitioners of what some are calling "horrorcore" -- comprising rapper Prozak, producer Mike E. Clark, and a host of guests and collaborators. On their debut album, Self-Inflicted (B4/Edge), whose cover depicts PDM as the rotting, glaring undead, they don't pretend to be up to much more than expressing, in pop-horror terms, their own annoyance at certain personal and social conditions. Good for them, as far as that goes; their outrage sounds more ants-in-pants than doom-speaking, but there is a lack of pretension at work that pop can always use.

And a reliance on formula that it usually can't. The first several tracks are tedious, full of pectoral-pumping boasts and thudding orchestra samples. Then comes "Last Breath," in which a harpsichord (or its digital doppelganger) tingles thrillingly around the rhythm, inaugurating a suite of strong, wild, shape-changing tracks like "No Rest for the Wicked," rapped by guest artist King Gordy against the chant of a zombie chorus; the unsubtle but effective "Poison," alternating a domestic abuser's self-justifying monologue with his victim's moaning of an innocuous pop platitude ("Poison, you're no good for me," etc.); and "All My Life," a rap of dizzying, even nauseating speed, which vanquishes resistance simply by being hyper and unrelenting in the manner of musical novelties from "Flight of the Bumblebee" on. For a long stretch, the album stops being ordinary and becomes the freaky graveyard rap-rock it wants to be.

Throughout Self-Inflicted, sound effects evoke war, panic, the machines of the age crushing flesh or drilling bone; the rhymes reference global terror and national decay, explicitly linking them with the current situation ("Homeland security an excuse to rule with an iron fist"). Project: Deadman are political as, for example, the 1974 horror quickie Night Walk -- about a soldier who returns from Vietnam a literal zombie -- was political: radical content under cheesy genre trappings.

Slipknot, a nine-man act from Des Moines, are a different breed of cow. Their horror show is modified by other, artier sensibilities -- industrial noise, mechanical alienation, self-consciously transgressive art -- and it's usually too abstract to evoke specific issues or events. They wear blue jumpsuits and nightmare masks and like to identify themselves by first name and number: Mick #7, Sid #0, and so forth. Their productions bespeak a striving for seriousness, even permanence; witness their CD booklets of unpunctuated lyrics, graphics derived from David Fincher films, shock photos that could hang without controversy in most big-city art museums. (Whereas PDM's no-frills liner merely thanks friends and associates, and charitably advertises some of the label's other artists.)

Slipknot have a right to their seriousness, because they are a serious band and, though young and ambitious, they've been uncompromising. Their new album, Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses) (Roadrunner), is a jump past their last, Iowa (2001), which showed they could do one thing very well -- a fast, furious construction of massed noise and angsty anger -- and then proceeded to show it over and over again. Guided by super-producer Rick Rubin -- who has done career-defining work with everyone from Run-DMC to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash -- they have injected their music with judicious shots of atonal harmony, unmelodious melody, and stuttering rhythm changes.

Slipknot's prevailing voice, courtesy of vocalist Corey #8, remains a diabolical line of throat fire pitched between bellow and growl. Speaking, Corey intones in a seasick monotone; singing, he sounds like Kurt Cobain. In softer asides -- when pursuing a melody line or fragile emotion, as in the eerily beautiful "Circles" -- the band can resemble Rubin's Chili Peppers in heavy-schlock mode. This may be good or bad depending on your biases; either way the band can play, especially drummer Joey #1, who rides a rhythm section that sounds like a runaway cement mixer. Just often enough, the barrage of noise and synchronized insanities will settle, like choking dust, to reveal a detail that narrows everything into focus: say, at the end of "Vermilion," a minor-key rant that resolves itself in the fading chime of a major chord, which then feeds into an air-raid siren, a shouted exhortation, and another hyped-up screamer.

Though it doesn't represent musical versatility in the conventional (Beatle-derived) sense, The Subliminal Verses emerges through the blistering and blustering as a well-made, well-modulated pop album. It's got a sinus-clearing opener and plenty of rockers, a near-ballad or two, aggression and sensitivity: in a word, variety. It hangs together and makes the right kind of formal sense -- a sustained and maniacal assault on emotional and physical indifference broken by whispers, pauses, and moments of indecision between attacks.

The secret agenda of pop horror has always been to head straight for words and feelings, basics of biology and identity, that polite, well-bred art will not get close to. Without being direly purposeful, Self-Inflicted and The Subliminal Verses are about -- or exploit, or piggy-back on, or simply resonate with -- the grimness of global life as we're seeing it unfold. They are mining, in Halloween get-up but to varying degrees of self-seriousness, one vein of the nightmares and discontents of an America more polarized, more defensive and anxious about its place in the world than it has been since Vietnam -- since the very days that mutated the entertainment lineage these bands evoke and extend. The nature of the genre is that what's artful about it may not come cleanly or easily: that schlocky imagery may be the vehicle for a brief deliverance, and blinding noise a refuge for ambiguity in a time that detests it.

"As we maintain in the chaos, the fire becomes fuel and our hearts are the engine," a marginal note in The Subliminal Verses reads. "We will flood this system with blood if we have to, and we will rule the world with cold retinas and firm beliefs." Is that a line of poetry, or a rough draft of George W. Bush's second inaugural address? Are Slipknot defining their own aspirations, or speaking in the voice of those now in charge? If you think you know the answer, everything is okay. But if you're not quite certain, that means there's still a horror show going on.

Devin McKinney is a freelance writer and author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard). He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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