By Tom Sinclair
Updated September 07, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Call me Pops. The day before my 45th birthday found me standing among the metal maniacs at Ozzfest in Hartford, Conn., bathed in sweat and awe. The 90-degree August heat explained the perspiration, and the sounds from the stage contributed to my stupefaction. Perennial fan of extreme music that I am, I couldn’t believe that metal had become so bludgeoningly monochromatic, so cartoonishly one-dimensional, so dad-blamed…dull.

Oh, it was plenty loud. And the bands were all impressively aggressive. But after listening to Taproot, Union Underground, and Mudvayne back-to-back, the only thing I could tell you about any of them was that Mudvayne wore bizarre costumes. The rest was a by-the-numbers blur of bellowed vocals, fragmented riffs, and machine-gun drumming. This was the new (or, as some would have it, nü) metal, bastard spawn of thrash, speed metal, hardcore punk, and industrial music (hip-hop and Goth trimmings optional). Listening to it is like stepping into the ring with Mike Tyson — it’ll pummel you senseless and, once it’s over, you won’t remember a blessed thing.

Apparently, there’s some cosmic law which ordains that, every so often, a metal band emerge from the slag heap to garner mass acclaim and platinum status. Slipknot, a god-awful gaggle of Korn-fed, mask-wearing Midwesterners who identify themselves not by names but by numbers 0 to 8, are the current lucky ducks. They were one of Ozzfest’s big main-stage draws this year; now their second album, Iowa, has arrived on wings of hype and buzz. It’s an almost unrelentingly brutal disc that, like so much of the nü metal, often seems like a parody of itself. Slipknot’s shtick is to posit themselves as the most violent, depraved, angst-ridden young malcontents on the block — the sickest of the sick. ”I wanna slit your throat and f— the wound,” howls vocalist Corey Taylor (a.k.a. 8) in ”Disasterpiece,” while in ”My Plague,” he threatens ”You f—in’ touch me, I will rip you apart/I’ll reach in and take a bite out of that s— you call a heart.” It makes you long for the wit and inventiveness of Eminem.

The music pummels the messages home with head-splitting intensity. It’s the same he-man-on-steroids aesthetic you find in pro wrestling. Of course, wrestling is intrinsically funny, whereas Slipknot are as serious as a gushing artery. What humor peeks through is largely unintentional (like the ”We are bipolar gods” chant on ”I Am Hated”). The only time things get sort of interesting is when the boys slow down, as on the creepy drug ballad ”Gently,” or the spacey 15-minute title track, which sounds like a hybrid of Black Sabbath’s ”Planet Caravan” and the Stooges’ ”We Will Fall.” There are occasional glimpses of melody elsewhere, but mostly it’s sound and fury; three guesses what it signifies.

Ozzfest vets System of a Down will be touring with Slipknot this fall and, like the Iowa laddies, they’ve just released their sophomore CD, Toxicity. Armenian Americans from California, System are far stranger and more engaging than Slipknot. Oh, they’re as fast as the Flash and as hard as the Hulk, but they have a sense of dynamics, tempering their heaviness with unexpected touches of acoustic folksiness and prog-rock flourishes. Sometimes they come on like Fugazi playing Rush, other times they tread close to Frank Zappa territory. ”Prison Song” features peculiar, Devo-like vocals and politically charged declarations like ”Drug money is used to rig elections that train brutal corporate-sponsored dictators.” Then, lest you think they’re humorless blowhards, they serve up a song that seems to be about a pogo stick (”Bounce”). Their music is crammed full of oddball spoken interjections, hardcore hectoring, and incongruous sloganeering; they’ll gnash at gnarly riffs, then drag in a string section. ”Ariels” drifts into a pastoral-jazz vibe and winds up sounding like, I don’t know, Vietnamese folk music? It all adds up to a bizarro type of metal that has a warped majesty and strength.

If Slipknot make you fear for the future of metal, System of a Down at least prove that not every band of headbangers is chasing its tail. Still, I’m left with one nagging question: If all these Ozzfest bands deify Ozzy Osbourne, how come none of them can come up with a song as good as ”Iron Man”?