The rug has been pulled out from underneath Slipknot. Following the tragic death of lynchpin bassist and original member Paul Gray the Iowa masochists became an unlikely source of inspiration and hope. Despite being visibly overcome by the loss of their bandmate, they found a way to honour both their headline commitments and Paul’s memory. The resulting shows were brutally cathartic, highly charged affairs that carried a resonance rarely felt at larger than life metal shows. Far from feeling hollow and hypocritical, Slipknot felt saintly, accumulating a boundless supply of goodwill.
The favour they enjoyed for the best part of six years evaporated in 2013 when drummer Joey Jordison (arguably the band’s most technically proficient performer) left the band. Whether he quit or was fired is still the subject of some debate, but the perception of Slipknot was fundamentally altered. Far from appearing stronger and more unified in the wake of a tragedy, the band suddenly seemed fractured and fundamentally altered. With two stalwarts in the rearview mirror Slipknot’s hotly anticipated fifth album, .5: The Gray Chapter, was fast becoming a source of apprehension and intrigue, rather than outright optimism.
“This song is not for the living, this song, is for the dead”. The first sentence, the first sentiment expressed on …The Gray Chapter feels like a radical departure. Corey Taylor is bellowing directly at the audience atop a creeping, ever so slightly warped, funereal dirge. There is nothing abstract about his grief - no soul scraping vagaries, no loosely worded angst - just a straightforward and utterly unavoidable soliloquy masquerading as a call to arms. There’s something thrilling about hearing Corey second-guess himself and think out loud (“I’m too busy being calm to disappear, I’m in no shape to be alone”). It might feel like a cliché to say it, but “XIX” feels like glimpse behind the masks; casting away the baggage of being Slipknot while confronting the very real, very specific pain the group has endured.
This exhilarating directness both recedes (almost immediately) and recurs in stranger more tangential ways. The appallingly named “Sarcastrophe” feels like business as usual: tightly coiled noise, satisfyingly snakey grooves and dated scratching. There is some industrial tinged foreboding on display but not enough to represent any kind of sonic paradigm shift. Still, even as Slipknot set about getting down to bulldozing business, there is the nagging feeling that something has changed. Corey’s vocal is inescapable. More so than ever before, he’s forced into the foreground. Rather than his melody soaring out of the onslaught, the singer’s every grunt and rasp sits above Slipknot’s customary sonic warfare. This doesn’t necessarily blunt or alter the band’s attack, …The Gray Chapter is primarily a forceful onslaught, but each track feels more personal and more direct.
There is another forceful dynamic at play: an audible tug of war is taking place between the vicious Slipknot of old and 2014’s arena headlining juggernaut. “AOV” is cleverly arranged to maximize its approachability, but buried beneath its agile chorus is a fast-rapping and fundamentally teenage maelstrom. “The Devil And I” couldn’t be more different – built on powerful post-Pantera guitar work that emphasizes slow muscular elasticism, rather than incessant hellfire. The vocal difference is equally stark. Corey feels every bit the twisted stadium sized heartthrob and less the horror movie villain.
“Killpop” takes this sound to its logical extreme with a startlingly mature reflection on a relationship that doesn’t rely on axe-wielding violence or corrosive metaphors to get a reaction. Slipknot are clearly unused to being this open and stumble into some clumsy forced rhymes, but ultimately draw the listener in with candid insights: “Lost inside my dirty head, something tells me I’m the one whose kept”.
This split between vulnerable bigness and slasher flick bravado is amplified by Slipknot’s decision to constantly set one sound against the other. The aforementioned “Killpop” is followed by the brilliant escapist thrills of “Skeptic” – a track which offers the album’s most riotous riffage and its most satisfying shout along chorus: “The world will never see a crazy motherfucker like you, The world will never know a man as amazing as you”. Of all the tracks that deal with Paul Gray’s death, “Skeptic” is the most celebratory and is all the better for it.
There was worry that this album would be consumed by heavy-handed grief. Slipknot need no encouragement to serve up moribund gloom and vacuous anger, but “Skeptic” goes someway to allay those fears. It certainly stands as a welcome counterpart to the more traditional downhearted naval gazing of “Goodbye”. Atmospherics wizard Craig Jones deserves credit for helping …The Gray Chapter avoid maudlin tedium. His haunting quirks and sonic flourishes give the album the feel of a malign oddity - helping Slipknot’s fifth stand apart from its predecessors, even as it consciously endeavours to imitate them.
It’s to Slipknot’s immense credit that on even their worst efforts they manage to find an intriguing wrinkle. The tedious and trite bluster of “The One That Kills The Least” is elevated by a clean un-showy solo that swirls delightfully into the final chorus. Still, for all the signs of maturity on display, Slipknot still find scope to satisfy fans of “People=Shit” with “Custer” – a messy and dated offering that bellows empty imbecilic gestures before arriving at a brain-dead chant of “cut, cut, cut me up, fuck, fuck, fuck me up”. One for the purists, as it were.
By the time lead single “The Negative One” rolls around a clear image of …The Gray Chapter has emerged. Despite its divergent desires to both lurch back to the Slipknot of old and forge ahead to pastures new, the album ultimately feels mature and singular. There are potential hits hiding in plain sight, but on the whole this is a true start-to-finish collection that exudes a sense of human fragility and fallibility. Slipknot feel more grounded than ever: less demonic apparitions symbolizing great undefined recesses of hate and anguish and more a group of individuals interested in having a slightly psychotic, but ultimately frank, conversation with their audience.
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