Rise of the small-town outsiders

Slipknot | Civic Hall, Wolverhampton The Wannadies | The Junction, Cambridge
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The Independent Culture

Slipknot look like the Banana Splits' evil cousins. A nine-piece heavy-metal band from Des Moines, Iowa - hometown of Bill Bryson, incidentally - they all wear matching black jumpsuits and rubber Hallowe'en masks. One has a pig's head, one a Frankenstein mask, one a crash helmet barbed with wobbly spikes, and so on. Rather like the Spice Girls or the Teletubbies, each has his own clear-cut identity so it's easy to choose which is your favourite. What might not be immediately obvious is that Slipknot are one of today's most solemn and earnest bands.

Slipknot look like the Banana Splits' evil cousins. A nine-piece heavy-metal band from Des Moines, Iowa - hometown of Bill Bryson, incidentally - they all wear matching black jumpsuits and rubber Hallowe'en masks. One has a pig's head, one a Frankenstein mask, one a crash helmet barbed with wobbly spikes, and so on. Rather like the Spice Girls or the Teletubbies, each has his own clear-cut identity so it's easy to choose which is your favourite. What might not be immediately obvious is that Slipknot are one of today's most solemn and earnest bands.

To put them in context, heavy metal used to be full of groups who could be recognised by their long hair and long guitar solos, their groupies and their pseudo-Satanism. Then grunge gave rock a shot of scruffily dressed integrity and the Spinal Taps of this world seemed laughably dated. But the current wave of heavy metal seems to be repopulating the pop scene with tattooed bozos who make devil's-horns hand gestures. Tight leather is back in fashion; Kurt Cobain-issue plaid shirts and ripped jeans are out.

However, despite their costumes, Slipknot - whose eponymous album has gone gold in the US and has sold 50,000 copies over here - have more in common with Nirvana, say, than Mötley Crüe. Their most celebrated lyric goes as follows: "F--- it all / F--- this world / F--- everything that you stand for / Don't belong / Don't exist / Don't give a sh-- / Don't ever judge me!" Admittedly, this is more of a temper tantrum than a philosophy, but it also has the same furious, angst-ridden sincerity as grunge, and the same political correctness. There's no sexism in Slipknot's songs - or even any sex.

In fact, the band profess to despise all rock'n'roll hedonism. They're proud of their work ethic and even attribute their disguises to their punkish refusal to sell out: "You owe it to your fans to maintain true integrity," their drummer has said. "We wear these masks as a reaction against all that rock star / fame / money / endorsements sh--. That has nothing to do with music, and that has nothing to do with Slipknot." In other words, dressing up as a clown is a way of proving how serious you are. While Marilyn Manson puts on his horror make-up in a postmodern mockery of the media and the music industry, Slipknot play it straight. They're small-town outsiders who would be in the audience if they weren't in the band. Nothing matters to them except giving the fans their money's worth.

How well they can do this is another matter. For their first song - "Wait And Bleed", perhaps, or "Tattered & Torn", or possibly "No Life" - there are strobes, spotlights and smoke. Shawn Crahan (clown-face) and Chris Fehn (Pinocchio nose) clamber on top of their percussion sets. Sid Wilson (gas-mask), the DJ, hurls himself off a speaker stack into the crowd. Corey Taylor (leather face) does some Jekyll-and-Hyde vocals: his voice can mutate from geek to Godzilla within a bar. And the remaining Slipknots make their juddering, pulverising noise.

Quite an opening - if only the band had some other ways to entertain us for the rest of the evening. Sadly, Slipknot used all their tricks within five minutes, and after that, the show dragged: if I had a pound for every time I'd heard a rock singer shout, "make some f---ing noise", I'd be nearly as rich as if I had a pound for every time I'd heard a rapper shout the same thing. Only a couple of songs stood out from the din, and when you've seen a man in a boilersuit and a gas-mask jump off a balcony once, you've seen it a thousand times. Mind you, on one occasion, Wilson landed on a female fan who had to be taken to hospital, so it was certainly a memorable night for her, if not exactly a pleasant one.

Sounding oddly like a Swedish Jack Dee, Pär Wiksten divided the Wannadies' set on Monday between "new ones" and "old sh--" in his song introductions. It's lucky he did, as it wasn't always easy to tell apart the power-pop the Wannadies have been playing for five years and the power-pop from the album they release tomorrow, Yeah. It always has crunchy guitars, toe-tapping melodies and bittersweet lyrics, and it's always done very well. Sometimes it's done brilliantly: "You And Me Song" - predictably, the audience's favourite - is guaranteed a place alongside Radiohead and Nirvana on the inevitable compilation album, The Best Quiet Bit/ Loud Bit Songs In The World ... Ever. But as the concert continues, you start to wonder if the Wannadies are determined to fill the whole compilation themselves.

Two songs on Monday differed from Blur's quiet bit/ loud bit classic, "Song 2", only as much as the "woo-hoo" was swapped for an "ow". And these weren't the only examples of how much the Wannadies' bouncy art-pop and grunge dynamics owe to Wire and the Pixies via various Britpop bands, particularly Blur. The drummer seemed to have borrowed his necklace from Damon Albarn. Pär Wiksten has borrowed Albarn's habit of rolling his eyes upwards angelically (or, I suppose, Damonically). The Wannadies even have a Blur vs Oasis-style feud with another group, in their case, the Cardigans. Both are Swedish, both straddle the indie/pop border and both had songs on 1996's Romeo & Juliet film soundtrack. However, it was the Cardigans who built on this exposure to become mainstream stars, while the Wannadies remained wannabes. Not that Wiksten's bitter. "The Cardigans had the timing and the luck," he has said. "We had the songs."

I'd argue that the Cardigans have the songs, as well. Furthermore, they've got a singer with a painfully seductive voice and a coolly magnetic presence. The Wannadies - well, they started it - have Wiksten's whine and some drably dressed backing musicians, none of whom is much more active than the hardboard cut-outs which decorate the stage. But the real disparity is that the Cardigans can lay claim to an ever-changing sound, from their first album's fluffiness to their current streamlined rock. The Wannadies always sound like themselves, and other people.

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