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10. System of a Down
System of a Down’s sophomore album Toxicity was released on September 4th, 2001 and would be the number one album in America the very next week. Something else happened that week that you may or
may not have heard about. That other event is now inseparable from Toxicity’s legacy. Here was a stridently political band releasing a heavy metal album exactly one week before an event so devastating that it was assumed it would annihilate America’s appetite for heavy metal and stridently political bands. Instead, Toxicity went triple platinum, each single peaking higher than the last. Add up the YouTube views for the music videos of those singles - each uploaded several years after the album’s release - and you reach an eye watering two billion and counting. Not only did America, and the rest of the world for that matter, need Toxicity they never stopped needing Toxicity.
DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN…
The fake out opening of “Prison Song” sets you on edge, the gap of silence between the first DUN and the remaining seeming to grow every time you turn it on. The first verse begins; “Following the rights movement, you clamped on with your iron fists / Drugs became conveniently available for all the kids.” This was not music to be misinterpreted. Tankian needs you to know that America’s prison system was coming for you as much as it was coming for any “criminal”. “All research and successful drug policy show that treatment should be increased/And law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences,” goes the song’s proto-woke breakdown. It’s bracingly straightforward. When even Rage Against the Machine’s firmly anti-police “Killing in the Name” could be stripped for the adrenaline rush of its “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” refrain, System of a Down correctly ascertained they didn’t have room to be poetic. But despite that lack of subtlety, “Prison Song” is far from deathly self-seriousness, as lines like “Nearly two million Americans are incarcerated in the prison system” are somehow able to coexist side by side with Daron Malakian proclaiming “I buy my crack, my smack, my bitch right here in Hollywood” in a Queen style theatrical vocal affection.
Toxicity is perhaps best appreciated as a series of vignettes twirling around “Prison Song” and its three singles “Chop Suey!” “Toxicity” and “Aerials.” It’s easy to get hung up by the perceived slightness of “Deer Dance” or “Science” on their own, but together they weave a rich tapestry of Los Angeles disillusionment, their dry grooves soundtracking the claustrophobia of living in an endless city surrounded by mountains. Songs like “Bounce” and “Shimmy” torch like brushfire sweeping across bone dry California hills , filled with energy and potential before being hushed back to nothing. Meanwhile “ATWA” drifts over the world in beautifully off-kilter harmony, wistfully watching it pass by.
But it’s those three singles that stand the tallest like downtown LA skyscrapers making focal points in the mire. “Toxicity” has become the album’s de-facto party starter, a deathless karaoke classic you can also play at your wedding. Its furious rhythms collide against each other with brute force, signing tense peace treaties during the bridge before going on the offensive in the choruses. “You! Now that you own the world, how do you own disorder?” demands Tankian, less the bemused observer he was on System of a Down and now the righteously furious protester being hauled from the courthouse. “Aerials” finds the band at their deepest and darkest, its meditations on life as a river sounding like the deepest wisdom over baroque strings and Daron Malakian’s aching guitar crescendos collapsing into a vicious breakdown. “When you lose small mind / you free your life” they cry out together, like prophets bringing down lighting and fire to make their point.
And then there’s “Chop Suey!” Twenty years of radio replay and the exhausting strip mining of its eccentricities for meme fodder can’t rob it of its power. Like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before it, if you can somehow absorb it in a vacuum, free from cultural omnipresence, it will knock you flat on your ass.
Only two days after the 9/11 attacks Serj Tankian would pen and publish “Understand Oil” to the band’s website. A deeply well considered essay, it reasons that we must understand why the terrorists did what they did and how the “war economy” will only propagate the root causes, positing, in all caps, that “it’s time to put our needs for security and survival, achieved only through peace, above and beyond profits.” The essay was quickly snatched offline by the band’s label and the singer was accused of justifying the attacks. Two decades later, and science continues to fail our Mother Earth, the war economy is still a fatal tumor upon our nation’s limbic system, and we shimmy shimmy shimmy to the break of dawn yeah. 14 years after having its songs blacklisted from Clear Channel and the band accused of being terrorist sympathizers, a Toxicity deep cut - the one about group sex - would feature prominently in an advertisement for a children’s movie.
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Around the Fur
Along with prog and nerdcore, nu-metal takes its ranks amongst the least sexy genres of music ever created. If effective sex jams need enough atmosphere to allow erotic energies to flow, nu-metal runs right up in your face with their screeching, weeping, wailing, howling anger while the
band batters away at the ugliest chords known to man. Grown men pouring their guts out in violent ways does not make for sexual music and when nu-metal bands do attempt to write sexual music the results are somehow even more gruesome.
And yet there’s the exception that nonetheless proves the rule; Deftones. Not only do Deftones make intensely sensual music, they're one of the sexiest rock bands in history. From the title track of their demo Like Linus, you could hear lead singer Chino Moreno fumbling towards an elongated moan technique that would resonate from Ozzfest to the strip clubs around the world. On sophomore album Around the Fur, the transformation is complete.
Though they’d later disown it, Around the Fur’s cover photo - an attractive girl sitting by a pool photographed at such an angle distorting her into alien proportions - clues you into what’s inside before pressing play. Around the Fur ratchets back the pitter-patter rap stylings of Adrenaline for an array of sensual whispers that might be confused for singing. On “Mascara” Moreno flicks his words around like a magician manipulating playing cards. “I feel soon I will sink into you. What do you think?” he murmurs from deep in a raggedy plush couch. But on Around The Fur especially, Moreno can’t disentangle the seduction from violence. Moreno would later write about how angry he was during this period, and despite spending most of the record letting that anger simmer, when it’s time to pull the lid off you’ll feel the heat. On “Lotion”, he’s talking tough while sounding like someone yelling at himself in the mirror. “Rise up off the fucking knees and I'm about to train you for a second, try to find your fucking heart.” The final cries of “I feel sick” feel wretchedly desperate, like a child waiting for his mom to pick him up from the school nurse.
Meanwhile, guitarist Stephen Carpenter leans into his power chords so slowly that they start shedding sex. If the opening riff of “My Own Summer (Shove It);”was played at a more genre appropriate 91 BPM, it would be another bounce riff for someone to sing about their girl problems over. But here, at a sluggish 72 BPM, it menaces and tenses like a viper’s strike. On “MX” Carpenter, along with bassist Chi Cheng and drummer Abe Cunningham, lock into a groove that pummels you from left to right, up and down with
What Deftones did better than maybe any other nu-metal band was world building. Around the Fur takes place in its own universe, where unfathomable beauty of “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” can coexist with the shrieking temper tantrum of “Lotion.” Where the deeply nu-metal “Headup” can eat from the same table as the disturbingly sexy “MX.”
On “MX”, the album’s closer, Moreno offers some poor unsuspecting woman these flattering compliments: “You’re so sweet. Your smile, your pussy and your bones.” before taking a moment to consider girls, money, new clothes, and “thirty nights of violence.” Two stanzas later he shoves her over the railing. “You make it so easy,” he whispers. What a charmer.
Episode 2: Medecine Cake
The year was 2002 and American nu-metal was hitting the skids. Linkin Park and Papa Roach had infested the pop charts, Fred Durst was unavoidable, Korn were losing their touch, Deftones a non-issue, and Slipknot becoming exhausting. Americans were already getting weary of this
particular brand of angst, and then 9/11 came along and mopped up whatever was left of America’s appetite for destruction. Nu-metal was living on borrowed time.
However everywhere else in the world, nu-metal wasn’t just culturally relevant, it was cool. While Americans were smothered by drop-tuned angst mongers, the rest of the globe was desperate to receive the next foreign import, anything to break the monotony of shiny euro-pop and watery sods like Stereophonics and Travis clogging up the airwaves.
Fontainebleau, France sextet Pleymo’s approach to nu-metal (“neo-metal” or "crossover" en France) was one of unabashed enthusiasm. After their raucous debut Keckispasse? landed them a deal with Epic Records, they dived into their sophomore effort with a new layer of professionalism. Speaking to French magazine Rock Sound in 2001, frontman Mark Maggiori is frank about the pressures of being vaulted to the forefront of a new wave of French heavy metal and how what happened next would either open or shut the door for the next generation. As such, Pleymo upholster the Limp Bizkit/Korn/Deftones pastiches of their debut with game-tight updates of Meshuggah and Slipknot. Songs like “Ce Soir C'est Grand Soir” and “Muck” pull off head spinning feats of time signature trickery and off-keel accents like Olympic runners passing batons in lockstep, the physical feat obviously impressive but no strain is visible. In fact, for the entire duration Pleymo never sound like they’re having anything less than a blast.
If Slipknot was the call, Episode 2 is the response; pulling the same weight and intensity but trading the homebrew meth and horror movie vibes for MDMA and anime. There isn’t a shred of angst, the only time it feels anything other than pumped full of joy is the gorgeous sunset over neo-Tokyo of “Star FM-R,” a moment of blissful reflection that glows and sparkles like title cards over a long haired anime character facing the horizon. While every other band were making songs about the hating, the pain, hating the pain, and the pain of hating; Pleymo were waxing rhapsodic about what a sick filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was (“It's my tribute to a master of his art. I think he was the one there's not many of his kind”) and sketching out characters and concepts that make the album’s visual universe huge. Ostensibly a concept album, Episode 2: Medecine Cake’s plot is mostly inscrutable and serves as thematic binding for the album.References to a Dr. Tank can be as ignored as you’d wish— what truly matters is how fucking hard it goes. What binds Pleymo’s excitable drop-b metal experiences to our modern age is a production that favors thick nightclub ready bass resonances over AM/FM radio ready sonics. Fabrice Leyni fresh off producing French hardcore heroes Suprême NTM’s self titled blockbuster, brings a bass first intensity to Episode 2 that adds gravity and bounce to the classic nu sound. The deft drumming and fierce bass-work of “United Nowhere” and “Compact” is especially felt through the heavy yet roomy production.
As “World” comes to a close, Dr. Tank preaches to a crowd of applauding aristocrats; “The neo-metal scene is a fad for stupid teens. Three chords are enough to play!” It’s a sly moment, a bit of meta-critique in a genre that was more likely to agree with the sentiment than fight it, but for a band as in love with nu-metal as Pleymo the very existence of Episode 2 means there’s no need to refute.
7. Limp Bizkit
Generational griping is corny - every generation thinks they did everything better than the next one - but we may have to acknowledge that Gen X got the experience of being a 13 year old boy better than any other. If your interests were aligned with America’s marketing
departments, then popular culture was your oyster. Wrestling, video games, music, saturday morning cartoons, breakfast cereals, and cable TV all existed to serve you radically xtreme programming at all times. No one band was more ready to please this demographic than Limp Bizkit and Significant Other is their absolute peak. Here they were, the WWE theme song-ing, breakdancing, turntabling, dirty word slinging gods of your adolescent life.
The reason this formula worked so well was because nobody was more stoked by the juvenile excesses than the frontman himself, Fred Durst. Look no further than the iconic, MTV dominating music videos of this era: whether is Fred having skateboarders bust sick tricks around him in “Break Stuff,” an army of ladies tailing him in “Nookie,” or trading flips and kicks with Method Man in “N 2 Gether Now” – the overriding feeling radiating from Durst at all times is that he is fucking stoked this is happening. This is the man becoming the moment. For a glorious second, an average white boy in a backwards red cap was everything and everywhere.
Durst’s performance exists in the tension between being enough of a grown man to know there’s always going to be a bill to pay, with a world that’s offering him enough money to potentially never care again. When he runs through the people and places he’s thankful towards on “Show Me What You Got” he’s not full of grace as much as consolidating his rolodex, rattling off names like the “cc” field on your boss’ christmas year end email. “To The Firm, you always got my back / Korn for the love and the swappin' up of tracks / My brother Cory D, my man Terry Date / We brought it to the plate and you made it sound great!.” His wiser angel is “silent when [he] would choose to speak” (“Re-Arranged”) but off the clock he’s introducing a song called “Break Stuff” with a skit of himself… well, breaking stuff. The chorus of “Nookie” doesn’t even have an explicit version, it’s just “you can take that cookie and stick it up your YEAH!“, as if Durt can’t believe he’s getting away with “nookie” and doesn’t want to push his luck. Or maybe it’s because he knows that it’s much funnier to say “YEAH!” instead.
If you pick up a guitar in the right tuning, you can make sounds that resemble these riffs - anyone who’s strummed a drop-tuned guitar once or twice has stumbled onto the opening chords of “Break Stuff” - but on closer inspection of Wes Borland’s playing, you realize you’re far from the truth. Significant Other is the album that sold a million tab books. Dig the intricate, shifty tapping on “Re-Arranged” or the suddenly complex riffing that “Break Stuff” becomes on the bridge. Borland might know how to play his role, but that role is far more than just setting the backdrop for Fred’s antics.
Behind Wes and Fred’s yin and yang is one of nu-metal’s most rock solid rhythm sections. Bassist Sam Rivers is an irresistibly creative force in his own right (I mean, “Re-Arranged” alone…) while John Otto’s forceful wallop was taking ‘em to the Matthew’s Bridge long before Fred made it official. Throw in DJ Lethal’s old school hip hop turntable expertise and you have a band powerful enough to briefly convince the world that Fred Durst was a musical genius instead of a guy clever enough to ensure he had the best band in town to get him there.
Due to its perfect opening four track run, Significant Other has picked up the reputation of being ‘frontloaded.’ While it’s an understandable impulse, certainly nobody is skipping their way straight to “No Sex,” missing out on the surprisingly elegant “Don’t Go Off Wandering,” the irrepressibly bouncy “9 Teen 90 Nine,” or the infectiously fun “N 2 Gether Now” would be a shame. Sure, if you trimmed maybe one or two tracks from Significant Other you may come out with a technically better album but you’d lose what makes it such a perfect embodiment of the moment. This isn’t just Limp Bizkit at their peak, but the entire CD-crazy record industry racing towards the apex of its ‘you just had to be there’ ceiling. When selling a plastic square meant packing every second of the disc within, even if that meant ceeding the end of your album to Matt Pinfield and Les Claypool interludes.
There was only one moment in time when a doofy dude from Jacksonville Florida could grab the world’s ear and wallets. That time is gone. After defying gravity by turning around a follow up album the very next year, 2000’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, which remains to this day the fastest selling rock album in Soundscan history, the bubble had to burst. Wes left the band, a nationwide search for a new guitarist went nowhere, Fred tried to pick up the guitar himself, and by the time they hired the plenty talented in his own right guitarist Mike Smith it was too late. The resultant album, 2003’s Results May Vary, is the house lights coming on and everyone heading home; a turgid collection of ballads and misogyny. Even after reuniting Bizkit’s original lineup several years later they would waste time fruitlessly chasing relevance, briefly signing to Cash Money and chunking out awkward power ballads. Limp Bizkit seemed to be slumping into the irrelevance their critics always wished for them.
But just this year, something remarkable happened. Fred Durst, the eternally boyish avatar of 90s recklessness, donned a silver wig and deemed himself king of the “Dad Vibes.” The resultant album, the impeccably titled Still Sucks, finds the band at peace with their legacy and enjoying each other’s company with nothing to prove. Even better, fan reception has been near universally positive, and the new songs are as well received as the old ones at shows. Despite it all, Fred Durst and Co. figured out how to age gracefully. As David Bowie said in his seminal 1971 single “Changes”; “Time may change me, but you can’t change time.” Fred Durst paraphrases that same lyric, on Significant Other deep cut “9 Teen 90 Nine,” but with one one important caveat attached to the end; “So fuck it.”
“Heavier than Iowa.” This has been the inside straight on every Slipknot album to follow. The new Slipknot album is going to be the one that makes Iowa look like child's play. The band has tapped into that essence again dude and they’re gonna do it, it’s going to be heavier than Iowa, Corey
burned his fedora and Clown isn’t doing NFTs anymore bro this is gonna be it. But it never is. Nothing is heavier than Iowa.
In ZA/UM’s 2019 role playing game Disco Elysium, the end of the world is manifested as a great rumbling sub-bass emitting through a tiny hole in the earth that can be, after passing the right skill checks, side chained against a disco beat to create a true hardcore sound. That’s Iowa. The end of everything sidechained against a B-tuned guitar, the greatest metal drummer of his generation, and a severely misanthropic frontman. The title of Iowa’s first proper song “People = Shit”, doubles as the album’s modus operandi. “Noises, noises, people make noises people make noises when they're sick,” observes Corey Taylor on “Disasterpiece” like someone just stepped out of a time machine and let him scroll 2022 Twitter for an hour. “Nothing to do except hold onto nothing.” “The whole world is my enemy and I’m a walking target” declares “I Am Hated.” It may scan as teenage edglording, but it’s all derived from the most adult form of angst: hating the shit out of your coworkers. The band, fully in throes to the drug and alcohol addictions they had avoided so strictly while crafting their debut, were at each other’s throats throughout recording. Producer Ross Robinson literally broke his back during the sessions and just kept coming to work anyways, because he wanted to just get it over with as much as they did.
Taylor once likened Iowa, Slipknot’s home state, to a “non-stop shit eating fest” and to get out of there they had to “make the loudest noise possible.” If that’s their debut, then Iowa is the even louder noise they made to keep themselves out. From the abrasive intro, to the gauntlet throwing first song, to the melodic single to the amorphous closing dirge; Iowa is nearly a song by song response to the challenge set by their debut. Incredibly, it clears nearly every bar set by its predecessor. Whether or not these songs are “better” is debatable but they certainly do go harder. “People = Shit” out sickens “(sic),” “Left Behind” catchier than “Wait and Bleed,” closer “Iowa” more desolate than “Scissors.” The whole band sounds like they’re manning stations in a B-52 bomber that’s being fired upon from all sides. Mick Thompson and Jim Root’s drop-B guitar onslaught chatters and whirls like twin chainguns while Paul Gray and Joey Jordison’s rhythm section keeps the apparatus in motion with a solemn confidence.
While North America was about burned out on nu-metal, England was watching Britpop eat itself alive and hungry for the next thing. Stateside, Iowa peaked at number three on the Albums chart and would be referred to as “a god-awful gaggle of Korn-fed, mask-wearing Midwesterners” by Entertainment Weekly. Meanwhile, in England, Iowa impacted like a meteor, debuting at number one with the NME heralding it as so good it “could almost restore your faith in humanity.” It would wind up ranked as their sixth greatest album of the year, behind Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and well ahead of Radiohead’s Amnesiac. One year later, Slipknot would shoot their live concert film Disasterpieces at the London Dockland Arena to a sold out slavering crowd. The Iowa world tour saw them not only packing houses across the globe, but doing it while sharing stages with bands they had inspired like American Head Charge and Mudvayne. The word was out, Slipknot were a global phenomenon. Nu-metal had lots of great music yet to come, Slipknot too, but nothing would be heavier than Iowa.
5. Linkin Park
[Warner Bros; 2000]
Hybrid Theory is a perfect metallic cube of a record. The intricate cogs and mechanisms that keep it in motion are encased inside protected by a flawless silver surface that reflects nothing but your own anxieties and problems back at you. Hybrid Theory is a transmission from a long-ago
world in which a metal act wasn’t just competing with the top pop acts of the day but defeating them. NSYNC's No Strings Attached, frequently pointed to as the peak of the CD era, sold half of what Hybrid Theory would sell worldwide. So successful was Hybrid Theory, that Linkin Park immediately had to fight off the boy-band accusations from their detractors; far from a 100% correct comparison but not 100% incorrect either. What strikes most immediately about Hybrid Theory is how deeply pop it is; it’s debatable that no album has ever synthesized pop music and heavy metal better. Not Metallica's Black Album, not Appetite for Destruction, not Back in Black, nothing. Swap the bridge and you could have handed “Runaway” to P!nk with no other changes, Pharrell must have been paying attention to the chopped up drum beats on “Papercut” when plotting his own rap-rock N.E.R.D project. What are modern iconoclasts like Grimes or Rina Sawayama if not visions of an alternate world where “One Step Closer” was recorded by Britney Spears?
For the half decade leading up to Hybrid Theory, nu-metal had been conquering Soundscan and TRL but the singles chart remained mostly immune. Neither Korn nor Limp Bizkit had ever broken the top 50 on the Hot 100, while the likes of Deftones, Coal Chamber and Slipknot never left a scratch. Linkin Park changed all that by gracing “In the End” with zillion dollar hooks and sent it all the way to #2 on the Hot 100.
To the legions of preteens and teens that were finally allowed to own a nu-metal record (Hybrid Theory contains not a single swear) this seemed like the last album they’d ever need. This is as "all killer no filler" as it gets. More than just the album’s hit singles, this lean efficiency is why it kept moving six figures a week well into 2002. Radio stations played deep cuts like “Runaway” as if they were singles. If Linkin Park hit you at the right age and right time they were a band you could build a life around. Unlike their larger than life peers Linkin Park were their fans- obviously nerdy guys that were into anime, Xbox and cleaned up their (green) rooms after making a mess. They had a fan club, did web chats, signed autographs, released a full remix album just a year later, cultivating their own cutting edge visuals that combined hip-hop culture, graffiti and Adult Swim.
For a band that made such completely incredibly uncool music, their influences read like a hip indie publication’s best albums of the 90s list. Shinoda cites Refused’s seminal The Shape of Punk to Come as being essential to Linkin Park, going as far as to say “without [that] there is no Linkin Park.” The comparison might seem off at first - stridently political post-hardcore heros are responsible for your little brother’s favorite nu-metal band? - but upon inspection makes perfect sense. Until this point, nu-metal was loose and groovy, but Linkin Park tightened everything to a fine cinch. They bottled Refused’s can-I-scream? energy while grabbing Depeche Mode’s clean melodic sense and Nine Inch Nails’ dense layers of electronics and synths to buttress their guitar and bass combinations. Jay-Z’s futuristic flow and pop sensibility, Black Thought’s internal rhyme schemes. Aphex Twin’s digital sound manipulations. The turntable showcase on “Cure for the Itch” giving way to dusty loops and aching melody that could make DJ Shadow bob his head. All of this baked into the by-then standard nu-metal formula of downtuned riffs, angst and a DJ created a sound that was at once a logical next step and something without precedent. It’s staggering to imagine a fusion that dense coming on a debut album this seamless, yet here it is. As such, Hybrid Theory works as a sort of musical philanthropy; priming millions of kids to get into acts like Cannibal Ox, Boards of Canada and Far later on in life.
Hybrid Theory changed popular rock music forever. In the wake of its incredible sales figures, rock bands discarded any lingering pretenses of rock ‘n roll naturalism - let alone the blues - in favor of Linkin Park’s cut-and-paste Pro Tools methodology. Even their forebears like Korn and Slipknot would forsake their earlier jammy songwriting stylings for Linkin Park’s rigid structures and pop songwriting. Meanwhile, indie rock would sprint backwards to revive the post-punk sounds of the 70s and 80s with production techniques that strove to sound as much like one band in one room recording to tape as possible. Luckily for them, the world conquering success of Hybrid Theory spawned a backlash big enough to create a platform for those bands - and you could argue that the ripples of Linkin Park's success are as responsible for the popularity of The White Stripes as much for Imagine Dragons. The line between Hybrid Theory and preset pack modern rock bands like Bring Me the Horizon and 21 Pilots is a straight one. Hybrid Theory’s influence is still a testament to its quality, even if some of the wrong lessons were learned.
If you can allow this author his indulgence, this was thee album for me growing up. Chester Bennington, arguably the finest rock singer of the 21st century, a songwriter who understood me before I did. From the melancholy lilt of “In the End” to the shattering screams of “By Myself”, his golden throat was a conduit of pure angst; flowing directly into the headphones of millions looking for a safe space to explore those first tender feelings of depression and anxiety. A voice that could make something as petty as an afternoon grounded sound as devastating as the end of the world. This longing, for an innocence where the mildest inconvenience could be felt as deep as death, makes the reality of “Pushing Me Away” ache. Bennington, spent from an album of bloodletting, sings straightforward and pretty. “We’re all out of time!" raps Shinoda, "This is how we find how it all unwinds," announcing not just the end of the album but the end of an era. As the song digs in for that last chorus, it all slides away like a VHS tape in fast forward. For a brief moment, as processed drum loops flicker and flutter to a close and a lonely synth trigger is switched off, I find myself communing with that innocent childhood self again - cradling a discman in the backseat of a minivan staring out the window - and then it’s over.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released in North America on September 29th, 1999 for the Sony PlayStation One. With its blend of addictive gameplay and iconic soundtrack, it quickly became a runaway smash hit, selling in excess of 300,000 copies in the first year of release. Crucially
for our purposes, the game was such a hit that Sacramento based recording studio The Plant put the game on a TV in the lobby; which is probably the reason why Deftones’ reality shifting masterpiece White Pony arrived a few months later than anticipated. Guitarist Stephen Carpenter recounted to The Ringer in 2020; “[Producer] Terry [Date] would give us grief because we were crushing on that all the time. Terry’s like, ‘We’re in the studio, guys. This costs money.’ We’re like, ‘Whatever, we’re playing this video game.’”
The same way the Sony Playstation brought video games into the third dimension, the addition of DJ Frank Delgado to the Deftones lineup was a game changer for the band . By the time this album was released in June of 2000, DJs in metal bands were well-trodden territory, and Deftones drafting their own turntablist must have felt like a blatant sell out maneuver to those trusting Chino and Co to fly the flag for melodically inclined nu-meta,.but Delgado adds much more than just some wicky-wickeys. As Moreno put it to Launch in 2000 he takes the Deftones sound “from 2D to 3D.’ Songs like “Change (in the House of Flies)” would be unimaginable without Delgato’s ghostly synth wails. His scratching during the breakdown to “Korea” is the closest he comes to a genre-typical turntable solo; only it’s choppy and distorted like someone keeps bumping the needle off the groove. Delgado’s subtle touch clicks the buckle between Deftones’ alternative efforts and their nu-metal firmament, subtly fleshing them out without getting in the way of a band working at this absolute peak.
Abe Cunningham stamps his passport to drummer Valhalla throughout White Pony – as delicate as morning dew dropping into a shallow puddle in one moment (“Digital Bath”) then heavier than cannons in the ocean the next (“Elite”). His playing is unafraid to speak softly and carry a big stick. Cunningham’s pendulumite lumate drum fill coming at the end of “Change (in the House of Flies)” feels like the climax of the entire record.
Moreno elevates his reputation as nu-metal’s only sensualist, forsaking singing for a series of moans and wails that flit and flicker through the tracks like… well you know. From the murder fantasy of “Digital Bath” to the being murdered fantasy of “Knife Prty” even the most depraved cocaine fantasies of White Pony sound electric, a current of fires sex that must travel somewhere across Los Angeles’ rooftops and skylines. When Tool’s Maynard James Keenan appears on “Passenger,” a Cronenberg-ian sequel to “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away),” he is coming into Deftones’ universe and not the other way around. It’s the sexiest he’s ever sounded, a man who is used to crooning tales of prison sex and anal fisting simply marveling at the ecstasy of being driven somewhere.
Madonna, meanwhile, wasn’t hearing it. Dismayed by the adventurousness on display, Madonna and her record label Maverick Records was nonplussed by the radio-unfriendly “classic for the real heads” that Deftones had handed in, but put it out anyway in good faith. As the weeks ticked by and “Change” started to slide off radio while Linkin Park and Papa Roach were cleaning up, Maverik began getting impatient. Singling out the chorus to closer “Pink Maggit,” Maverik Records convinced Chino it could be reworked into a straightforward rap-rock track and give them the single they needed. The result, “Back to School (Mini Maggit),” so thoroughly blew the minds of everyone at Maverik that not only did it get the big budget video treatment the record was reissued with that song at the top instead of “Feiticeira.”
This was a huge slap in the face to the band’s artistic vision yet it somehow paid off incredibly, as the placement brings the album full circle. Never before has such invasive label meddling worked out so well. When that "Back to School" chorus comes exploding back around on finale "Pink Maggit" freed from its forced rap-rock shackles, it is like God themselves pushing the clouds aside to let magnificent rays of sunshine through. Moreno was adamant White Pony was a full album experience, built to be enjoyed from start to finish, and it’s an incredible exception that a record label intervention as severe as replacing the opening song to the album would help that objective along.
White Pony’s melding of Mogwai and Prince into the firmament of nu-metal represented the outer reaches of the genre’s journey into space. The same year White Pony was released to a moderately successful commercial reception, Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water and Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory would both ship several million more units. The path White Pony blazed wouldn’t be followed… yet. White Pony and Deftones at-large survived the critical mauling of nu-metal at the turn of the decade, and now thrive as an increasing number of young bands felt emboldened to namecheck the album as a formative influence. Bands like Loathe, Fleshwater, and Nothing have all found creative spaces to employ White Pony’s formula of post-rock, new wave, and nu-metal. The reclamation of White Pony by the indie critical cognoscenti was so total it became cliche to mention just how different and better Deftones are than all those other nu-metal bands they were mentioned with. But they weren’t. That’s what makes White Pony the masterpiece it is. Deftones found themselves at the creative forefront of a ceasly creative scene and merely snapped all that inspiration together. It’s nu-metal as new-metal, as innovative today as it was 22 years ago.
3. American Head Charge
The War of Art
“Keys, Audio Terrorism” is how Aaron Zilch is credited in the linear notes to American Head Charge’s 2001 major label debut The War of Art. Between the militarism of the band name, the album title, and the cover art, it’s understandable if you find it all too cute by half at a glance. Then you press
play. Before anything resembling a musical notation happens, The War of Art opens with four BZZZZTKNKS – like a VHS tape recording of a refrigerator falling into a junkyard played into decay over and over – and then the entire band comes exploding to life. Let the audio terrorism commence.
Singer Martin Heacock and bassist Chad Hanks met in an out-patient facility for recovering addicts. Their final assignment was to write and present a song to the class for graduation. This extends to their work in American Head Charge. These songs do not flow forth from inspiration as much as a necessity to avoid falling back to the bottom. The opening violent reaction is a struggle to keep oneself alive, not happy or content. It took nine long months in the studio to create The War of Art and it feels every second of it. That the result is neigh fucking brilliant is nothing short of a miracle.
Released on August 28th, 2001; The War of Art follows in the tradition of albums like Dark Side of the Moon, Disintegration and OK Computer; records that immediately force the realization that the horizon lines are much further away than you thought and rock music can be larger than you ever believed. Its most relevant predecessor is King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King - another album made by men that sound like they have glimpsed infinity and lived to tell - but where Crimson sounded shook to their core American Head Charge sound fucking amped. “Song for the Suspect '' laces its second verse with a psycho circus organ that sounds like being trapped in a tilt a whirl on fire. The drop riffs of “Pushing the Envelope '' and “Shutdown”, with their oh so satisfying 1-0 pull offs, jam a finger through your brain and firmly push your cro-magnon pleasure button. Just before 9/11 was about to sour America’s appetite for direct critique, songs like “Never Get Caught” find AHC at the hilt of some contemporary happenings. Lyrics like “Wrapping you up in an American flag I fuck you for the glory / No complaints from my friends / They keep their fucking mouths shut,” were self fulfilling prophecy as America descended on Iraq with their coalition of the willing. The key to The War of Art and its relationship to America is that it’s about more and doing whatever it takes to get more without rest. Songs don’t resolve; they burst into flames and skid to a halt. Big fat slabs of nu-Metal Machine Music assigned to sampler pads being slammed all at once.
Rick Rubin’s reputation as a producer tends towards sterling respect or a general sense that he wasn’t pulling his weight. Whatever he did or didn’t do, someone needs to stand up and be counted for this. The War of Art packs an unreal amount of sounds into compact songs without ever feeling like a cluttered mess. Crunches, crashes, bangs, booms, snaps, sirens, squeals, samples, (literal) industrial lifts, whirs, whizzes and the occasional KABOOM! All of it sounds as natural here as a major chord. On de-facto demo album Trepanation, the SFX sat atop the songs. The War of Art bulks up the arrangements considerably, finding space within them to absorb the audio terrorism until it’s operatic enough to imagine Jim Steinman’s Bat Returns to Hell for his Third Overtime Shift. On “Never Get Caught” the demo’s clearly audible dialogue snippets (“Here you are all equally worthless,” “You are the motherfucking anti-Christ”) get scratched and clawed until they slot straight in between the guitar and drums. “Seamless” in particular gets a shocking overhaul, from a thin wobbly industrial-groove to an elephantine bounce that cracks open to reveal a piano ballad, a lounge crooner singing til the room is empty, before effortfully plunging back to bounce. The War of Art never for a second sounds less than perfect, amongst the best produced metal albums of all time.
The War of Art is Ministry’s Military Industrial-metal Complex rock on a post-9/11 Pentagon budget. If The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste was Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, The War of Art is the Jerry Bruckheimer remake, maintaining the paranoia and anxiety while adding a hundred million dollars worth of explosions. All over The War of Art are depictions of effort and persistence: reaching, pushing, pulling, pushing, tie it up in knots. The phrase “A Violent Reaction” evokes ignition. The sound of “A Violent Reaction” evokes a fleet of 18-wheelers all going full tilt at once.
Meanwhile, Cameron Heacock pens lyrics that summon S. Burroughs and S. Thompson in equal measure. “Seamless” reduces sex to grotesque spasms “steeped in my misogyny” inside a “colostomy bag.” “Americunt Evolving Into Useless Psychic Garbage” battering hardcore thrash with Heacock ramming a dentist drill into his own exposed brain, “Its never time to start believing everything will all work out” he screams. “Swift disposal, empty cavities.” These are lyrics of tactility; rarely is the “pain inside” considered, instead Heacock dwells on the feeling at the ends of his fingers. “Reach and Touch” is illustrative as song title and modus operandi; “So as to reach and touch what hurts me.” Heacock’s obvious vocal debts to Mike Patton are paid in full with an almighty bellow that sounds like nothing less than an ancient god returning to take back his kingdom. When he turns a weary croon to an earth cracking roar on “Fall” it’ll chill you into silence or inspire you to run through a brick wall.
True to its title, The War of Art is about how making art is hard fucking work. Nine months in the studio finally produced this album, a long time considering how close many of these songs were to finished on Trepanation. It took a lot of coal to keep this machine going. “Nothing Gets Nothing” is that machine finally shuttering to a halt, the violent reaction failing at last. The song doesn’t groove so much as lurch, every beat a great and terrible colossus struggling to put one foot after the other. “The less I give / It's easier / The more we give / It's nothing,” croons Heacock before summing one last titanic volley of strength: “NOTHING! GETS! NOTHING!” Cut to black.
Powerful people with big money were convinced American Head Charge was the next big thing. That tank on the cover is not Photoshop, it is a real tank parked in downtown Los Angeles. When The War of Art stalled out at a measly couple hundred thousand copies sold, Rick Rubin lost interest and the band left American Recordings. A seemingly never ending run of bad luck followed: death of guitarist Bryan Ottoson in 2005, a successful Indiegogo campaign followed by death of bassist Chad Hanks, and finally Cameron Heacock’s arrest in 2018 for stealing guitars. Googling “American Head Charge” now means you’re as likely to find two news anchors bemusedly chuckling over Heacock’s mugshot than his music. Meanwhile the album’s superstar producer Rick Rubin seems to have never mentioned the album again.
The one upside to all that misfortune is that The War of Art is the rare classic that can be taken on its own terms. There’s no uphill battle of legacy to contend with because it has no legacy. No 20th anniversary reissue, no best of the decade lists, no retrospective documentary, no oral history, nothing. This might be the most words ever shed on the damn thing. Thus, The War of Art, a mega budget major label album, has become a hallowed secret whispered amongst the faithful. In comment sections and message boards those that truly understand agree; The War of Art is a masterpiece.
The America that The War of Art was released into wasn’t ready. Pre or post-9/11, nu-metal was designed to be insular angst mongering. System of a Down’s proud politicking, Deftones’ lyrical spacities— the exceptions not the rule. Now that The War of Art’s “borrowed dreams of some imagined future” have come to pass it is very ready. The “systematic shutdown of diminishing returns” we call this country as it dies from entropy (more guns, more news, more content) and atrophy (cities in decay, infrastructure crumbling, a government near comical in its inability to meet the moment) is the reality of American Head Charge’s opus. Where its sirens and squeals shuddered by thrashed keyboards, Chad Hanks’ six-string bass guitar scraping the bottom of oil wells and Martin Heacock’s “Mike Patton playing Bane and The Joker at the same time” singing finally feels at home. Legacy? American Head Charge never thought twice about legacy, they simply moved forward because they knew “if we stop it all falls down.” The War of Art is American Head Charge building a wicker monument to their legacy - their superstar producer, the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, the tank parked in downtown Los Angeles, the band members yet to leave or die or both, the 9/11 that hadn’t cost them their careers yet or the country that proceeded to eat itself alive while the entire planet screamed for relief - coating it in gasoline, then burning it to the ground.
In 1996, riding the wave of excitement freshly stirred around 7-string guitars, dignified ax slinger Steve Vai and guitar company Ibanez produced 7th Heaven, a showcase type VHS tape you’d see looping in local instrument shops. The special features guitarists of incredible skill
flaunting their 7-string in all its glory. Complex finger picking, shearing solos, even Wes Borland makes an appearance to flex his dazzling tapping ability. And then there’s Head and Munky of Korn. Where the other 7-string-technicians waxed over the new ability to use the 7th string as a bass note in new complicated chord shapes, Head and Munky have to explain the first chord used in “Blind” is something they just… made up. Yet, out of every guitarist featured in 7th Heaven, nobody is responsible for more 7-strings sold than those two ametures. Munky and Head, along with their bandmates in Korn, were the ones stirring that excitement, bringing the 7-string back to life without knowing how to properly play them.
Twenty years later, Head would explain to a crowd at Guitar Center that that opening chord to “Blind” was their “Mr. Bungle” chord. Mr Bungle, the brainchild of Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, was the then pop star’s attempt to flip the rule book upside down and translate it to pig Latin. The music created was a near impenetrable work, totally worthless to the pop charts and too esoteric for even the most seasoned critic to appreciate, but to the members of Korn it was raw creative material. Great ideas just waiting to be excavated and repurposed to their own ends. That end would be their 1994 debut album Korn. The first nu-metal album.
Korn is clearly, to its substantial benefit, the work of ungifted people. There are no Kirk Hammett flights of virtuosic guitar soloing here. No Neil Peart level drum excellence or Freddie Mercury vocal feats. Nor the conceptual excellence of Bowie or tortured genius of Cobain. Instead what you get is effort, victories notched by sticking with it. Consider how much this heavy metal band risked embarrassment putting such unrepentantly sensitive and (literally) weepy lyrics out there. A-melodic singing runs aground on sloppy guitars, a bass tone that sounds like being hit in the temple with a drumstick and bound together with a mix flat as the Mojave. Even previous primal classics like The Ramones still feature understandable chord shapes and melodies, most of the guitar work on Korn is pure noise. By classic rock standards, even metal standards, this shit is horrible.
Perhaps it’s best antecedent would be The Velvet Underground and Nico, another wildly influential avant classic that does sound, quite frequently, like shit. Both records break all kinds of decorum— rules about melody, harmony, structure, and rudimentary musicianship are destroyed in favor of a rabid DIY passion. The bridge of “Need To” is Davis tensely muttering the title to himself again and again then a clenched “Fuck” like he’s trying to finish the lyric but can’t figure it out. “Predictable”s refrain goes “I’m gonna try, I’m gonna die.” “Help me god” Davis whips his microphone cable against his music stand at the end of “Ball Tongue” and seethes with anger. Throughout Korn he’s dragging inspiration out of himself with booze, meth and perseverance.
Frequently, what’s dragged out ends up being ragged, tortured stuff that isn’t smoothed over with poetics or deft songwriting. From “Daddy”: “You raped, I feel dirty/It hurt, as a child [...] I scream, no one hears me/It hurt, I'm not a liar.” It’s an urgent and uncomfortable search for answers in a pile of trauma. When it breaks down into literal tears at the end, it sounds like Davis is really pushing to get it all out. John Lennon’s primal scream therapy sessions over a funk metal jam running aground. On “Faget,” Davis comes as close as a presumably cis man can to reclaiming that titular slur for his fellow misanthropes, performing “allyship” in a world where the term didn’t exist. Certainly, “Faget” wasn’t intended to be ammunition for bullies - Witness Jonathan Davis recoiling in horror upon learning “Blind” made the tracklist of a Jock Rock compilation - but for the bullied. “I’m just a pretty boy whatever you call it, you wouldn’t know a real man if you saw it,” Davis seethes during the bridge, “It keeps going on day after day son, you’re fake and don’t want none.” Finally he weaponizes his own sexual confusion, “You can suck my dick and fucking like it.” It’s an incredibly potent, moving, fucking devastating explosion that takes on more dimension when another, just as massive, bridge comes barreling through on a single refrain, “All my life who am I?” There’s nothing clean about “Faget.” It doesn’t work in any 2022 sense, but as a song from 1994 it’s a loud-quiet-loud revolution.
Korn is Korn snapping all the pieces together perfectly in the first four minutes and 19 seconds, and then spending the remainder challenging themselves and the listener to figure how to put them together again. As miraculous as Korn is, they couldn’t figure it out themselves and instead inspired millions to try instead. What stands out most on Korn isn’t the pieces, but the puzzle board behind them; the blank spaces where the jigsaws are supposed to come together but haven’t yet. The ensuing decade following Korn’s 1994 release would see thousands of bands snapping them together in ways Korn never could have anticipated, but none of them would have had the chance if Korn didn’t exist. The sound of nu-metal would become dominated by tighter industrial sounds, polished songwriting, rapping and DJs but little of it would sound quite like the album that made it all possible. For a record as obviously game changing as Korn it’s too brillantine, too bizarre, too iconoclastic to be replicated. Instead, Korn served as living proof that it could be done. The door was open for the purely passionate. Being a tortured genius or a music theory major or a beautiful singer wasn’t a prerequisite. You could, in fact, be the opposite of all that and still change the world.
“I need some Christmas in my drink.”
It is April 4th 1996, and Joey Jordison is so excited he’s ready to pass out. After furiously spreading the word through poster distribution, 200 people had shown up to a Des Moines, Iowa nightclub called
Safari where Slipknot were preparing to make their big debut. Finally, after years of assembling the band and spending well over $40,000 on a mere demo, Slipknot had arrived. They pressed through the crowd, their dirty homemade masks electing as much confusion as fear, to take the stage with feedback bleeding through the speakers. Before the band could play a note, Jordison grabbed the microphone and demanded of the audience.
“I need some Christmas. In my drink.”
During the holidays, the fervent drummer’s grandfather would hoist his glass of Coca-Cola high and let loose the phrase, “I need some Christmas in my drink.” This was the family’s cue to pass him a bottle of Jack Daniels to spice up his virgin glass of soda. For whatever reason Jordison decided this was how he would kick off the career of nu-metal’s most spectacular band.
“I need some Christmas in my drink!”
Over and over and over he screamed. The audience got nervous. Up there in his cheap Halloween mask Jordison looked like he was cracking under the pressure. Why this phrase? The purging of childhood demons? A legit request for some Christmas in his drink? Whatever the case, once finished with this strange ritual he sat down at his drum set and launched the band into the song that would become “(sic).” The Christmas had arrived.
Slipknot’s self-titled debut album is the dividing line between the first and second waves of nu-metal. No more a crusty offshoot of industrial flowing from LA but still too abrasive for total pop synthesis- Slipknot shook nu-metal’s lingering stigma free by simply being undeniably good. So good that its impact resonated well outside of nu-metal almost immediately. Metalcore bands quietly reoriented themselves in its wake, while existing thrash and groove metal bands were put on notice. If recent blockbusters Follow the Leader and Significant Other had shown that this sub-genre was a unit shifter of the highest order, then Slipknot proved conclusively that nu-metal was here to stay. Not just grunge successor, but the true punk-and-pop follow-up Nirvana’s Nevermind deserved.
Grunge’s approach to trauma could be - somewhat reductively - described as ‘wallowing.’ Bands like Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam created beautiful, muddy pools of lost time and regret. Nostalgia and trauma. Conversely, Nu-metal was concerned with catharsis at all costs. Bands of angsty boys bypassing the “poetry” part of songwriting and just howling it out. This process is described in the lyrics of “Surfacing,” “Picking through the parts exposed [...] Over and over and under my skin/All this momentum is doing me in.” In Slipknot’s world, pain is purely physical. Something in the immediate environment is causing this and if it can be reached it can be defeated. The album’s overriding “me vs you” thesis could be just as easily read as an attack on self. Singer Corey Taylor is determined to liberate his madness and only one of us walks away. His first lyric on the album is “Enemy, show me what you wanna be,” the demand to see your true self is even more urgent than victory.
The grimness of the album is overstated; there’s too much life here for it to be the dark, overbearing torment-scape that it’s often sold as. Taylor, for one, seems to be having a blast with his goofy gangsta persona (“I guess it’s time to bury your ass with the chrome/straight to the dome”) while also surprising with his deftness (his flow on “Liberate” is solid). All over the record is an unbridled passion for playing; these guys are good and they know it. That energy beams brighter than all the lyrics about hate and pain ever could.
Until Slipknot’s arrival, nu-metal had been defined by a sloppy passion, enthusiasm overpowering accuracy. Korn’s ‘diy’ approach to guitar technique, Fred Durst’s economical rap stylings, or Coal Chamber’s knuckle dragging grooves. Meanwhile, Slipknot showed up with a sound that shreds through thrash, bounce, blast, and groove so effectively that it makes a nine piece band sound as regimented as a platoon. For a band with two percussionists and a DJ, it’s remarkable how nobody sounds like deadweight. Across Slipknot every member has equal importance, muscles activating and resting for each burst of drop-tuned guitar or rattling percussive accompaniment or turntable scratch. But if Slipknot stands shoulder to shoulder there’s one member who leads by a nose: Joey Jordison.
Joey Jordison was Slipknot’s drill Sergeant, pushing the band to be harder, faster, stronger through from rehearsal to studio to stage. It was his original efforts that put the band together and earned him the designation of #1, and it’s his mind blowing drum technique that makes Slipknot so untouchable. During the breakdown of “Only One”, he unleashes a fill that dispenses with meter - ricocheting between 93 and 84 BPM - before collecting itself and effortlessly snapping back to tempo. On “(Sic)” and “Surfacing”, he flips riffs from thrash to bounce with a quick reordering of the drum n’ bass drum patterns that devastate the set metric and lift feet from floor. His blast beats are helicopter blades that are whipping through the air so intensely it keeps the whole apparatus airborne. In short; he was the Christmas in their drink. A slug of hard alcohol that binds the sugar rush together and knocks you on your ass.
Producer Ross Robinson was deep enough in his own career that rendered Joey Jordison and Co starstruck while still green enough to approach Slipknot with the ravenous hunger of a junior proving he’s here to stay. Recorded at the same Indigo Ranch that produced Korn only five years prior, Slipknot finds Robinson refining his “whatever hits hardest” production style into something definitive, a firm middle ground between amateur thrill and professional sheen. A curiously flat for the genre snare is placed into the center of your skull and cranked until it becomes the unstable black matter the rest of the music orbits around. Taylor’s voice is jacked enough to pierce, but with an artful clipping that renders his screams trapped by the booth yet free to roam about your skull. The turntable spinback in “Eyeless” astounds. “Tattered & Torn”'s haunted forest of car alarms and EKG monitor beeps will shear the skin off your earlobes. Slipknot is never anything less than an auditory feast.
Released on June 29th, 1999 Slipknot would become a slow burn success through the band’s single-minded dedication to touring. Videos abound of the band leveling unsuspecting Ozzfest crowds, transforming skeptical audiences into diehards and accidentally expounding all the energy they were saving for the headliners because of the sheer power on stage. This tightness would almost immediately become the default state of the scene, as bands like Linkin Park and Papa Roach filed in behind them with click track accurate precision. In what could reasonably be called “a moment,” multi-Grammy awards winning jazz musician Thundercat singled out Slipknot to, of all places, Pitchfork as his favorite album of the last 25 years. Yet, despite there being hardly a corner of metal music untouched by Slipknot’s impact it still doesn’t show up often in high acclaim by legacy press. It’s simply too powerful, too bold, too urgent and alive to be revised and categorized effectively. This two decade old album somehow sounds like it’s being played live right in your ears for you every single time it’s on.
Slipknot is a curious pick for an album that demands the title of “Greatest Ever” because it never insists upon itself. There’s no overriding concept or thematic throughline here; just cylinders pumping forth with the immediacy that powers all of the best nu-metal. Guys with no other options seeing their one shot and taking it. Slipknot exists within its own violent vacuum. Zero nostalgia for its moment or respect for the past; just fuck you all, fuck this world, fuck everything that you stand for. As Taylor states on “Surfacing”; “I am the push that makes you move.” Kinetic energy doesn’t have self-awareness. Slipknot need not concern itself with the millions of guitars it sold or the bands it formed or the wrists that were left un-slashed and the lives saved in its wake. The spark doesn't know it’s going to ignite the fuel that pushes the piston that powers the engine that spins the wheels that makes you move. It just explodes.
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