Anger and sorrow: two emotions inextricably linked, the yin and yang of loss. Emotions that can drive human beings to implosion or to greatness. In the not too distant past, judging by a number of tragedies and crises in the Slipknot camp, implosion seemed a likely outcome.
Then again, Slipknot have always seemed on the edge of implosion, and this is part of what makes their music—and live performances, especially—feel so dangerous, yet so intoxicatingly fun.
Anger and sorrow are also the driving forces behind .5: The Gray Chapter. Balancing these emotions within the context of a metal album, without sounding forced or contrived, is no easy task, but Slipknot pulls it off with aplomb here. Take “AOV,” for starters, which alternates between furious verses and choruses you just have to sing along with before it slams the brakes completely and sinks into a bittersweet bridge section tailor-made for late nights under black lights. Or “Killpop,” a dark and twisted pseudo-ballad reminiscent of something from Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, minor and major key melodies intertwining and tightening like piano wire until the song explodes into complete chaos.
There’s a more mature sense of violent abandon here than we’ve heard before, and calculated, as if each swipe of the band’s musical blade is carefully measured before it sinks into flesh. Tracks like “Sarcastrophe,” “Nomadic,” and “The Negative One” tread familiar terrain, but with fresh vigor. Each will no doubt go over like a storm in a live atmosphere.
And, quite simply, this album just sounds scary…in the best way possible. “Custer,” “The One That Kills The Least,” and interlude “Be Prepared For Hell” play like excerpts of a horror movie that exists only in the band’s mind—or the listener’s. Even the members’ new masks seem to reflect this, Corey’s and Clown’s in particular; the former conjures imagery of serial killer Ed Gein, who danced under the moonlight wearing the skin of his victims, and the latter is most certainly not something you’d want to see peering down at you when you wake in the middle of the night.
.5: The Gray Chapter also feels rather more organic than 2008’s All Hope Is Gone, which is surprising, perhaps, considering the band had lost two of its primary songwriters in Paul Gray and Joey Jordison since then. Tributes to the passing of Gray are felt all over the album, lyrically as in the chorus of “Skeptic,” where Corey shouts, “The world will never see another crazy motherfucker like you; the world will never know another man as amazing as you,” and musically, with guitarist Jim Root (who handled much of the writing this time around) subconsciously channeling Gray’s spirit during the creative process.
But there are curveballs, too, the band clearly not interested in just proving to the naysayers that they can still rage at full clip for an hour straight. “Goodbye” sounds almost uplifting, dare I say heartwarming at times, album opener “XIX” plunging even deeper into unexpected territory by utilizing glockenspiels and keyboards beneath the anguished poetics of what may be Corey Taylor’s most powerful performance yet.
As an album, .5: The Gray Chapter is something of a small miracle, considering that many fans—and some of the band’s members, maybe—didn’t expect it to happen. Even before the passing of Paul Gray, the question was there: Will there ever be a new Slipknot album? But this is a band that thrives when threatened, when doubted, when challenged. Without that anger, without that sorrow, this album might not exist.
And that would have been a terrible shame because it’s one of the greatest of the band’s career.
.5: The Gray Chapter is available October 21 via Roadrunner Records.
[Originally published in The Backstage Beat, 2014]
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