I push my fingers into my EAAARS
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a turbulent era – one that saw the emergence and inexplicable widespread popularity of certain strains of American heavy metal. It was a strange milieu, with bands like Deftones, Korn and Limp Bizkit leading the nu-metal charge, and other acts like Mudvayne, Powerman 5000, Sevendust and Coal Chamber making hay while the sun shone. It’s hard to talk about this era without mentioning Slipknot – the only non-Wu-Tang Clan masked nine-piece to ever really hit it big in American music. Hailing from Des Moines, Iowa, Slipknot have outlasted many of their contemporaries, and despite some recent turmoil, have come together to release .5: The Gray Chapter, the band’s fifth full-length album.
In 2010, founding Slipknot bassist Paul Gray (#2) died of an apparent morphine overdose. In 2013, founding member and upside-down drumming aficionado Joey Jordison (#1) was fired from the band. How does Slipknot fare without two of their most venerable contributors? Not terribly, but metalheads and fans of the Slipknot of old will quickly notice that .5 lacks both innovation and the nihilistic abandon that made Slipknot such a big deal in the first place.
As with any Slipknot release, Corey Taylor’s (#8’s) charisma is a driving force behind the music. On introductory track “XIX” Taylor welcomes us in, shouting out an unhappy, self-absorbed vignette over minimal percussion and what sounds like detuned bagpipes. These lyrics more or less set the tone, and it’s an anachronistic one. While morbid negativity and nihilism were desirable lyrical preoccupations in Slipknot’s early days (see NIN, Eminem, Alice in Chains, et al.), that market has been forced into retreat by the sun of millennial optimism. This may seem like a weird point to make about Slipknot, but the fact is that they are big enough to need to target an audience before they record an album – if they want to stay famous – and it’s hard to say whether any significant new audience would be attuned to this kind of sustained misery.
Musically, .5 just lacks the oomph of Slipknot’s earlier work. 2001’s Iowa was jam packed with body-moving riffs and raw emotion. Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses contained a number of dynamically rewarding, well-crafted hits. It’s hard to imagine anyone destroying a house to any of .5’s tracks, especially ones like “The Devil in I,” “Killpop” and “The One That Kills The Least,” which go way overboard on maudlin, post-grunge-style singing. The album’s overall production is super-clean, leaving the guitars lacking presence, and drawing unwanted attention to how few truly quality riffs there are to be had on .5.
However, there are a few standout moments. “Custer” is a wild pastiche of studio banter, brooding spoken word, lively syncopation, elephantine trumpeting, DJ scratches, electronic manipulation and distant clanging. Most notably, it sounds like the band are goofing off a bit and actually having fun. It’s striking how much this shows in the heightened energy of the song. “The Negative One” is also infectious, with stomping verses and a catchy-as-hell, DJ-scratchin’ chorus that will take you straight back to 2003.
In the end, .5: The Gray Chapter is too measured to please any but the converted, and too stuck in the past to compete with the metal’s underground innovators. Some would say that true expressions are timeless, and that idea extends to heavy metal as well. Recorded music may get louder and genres may grow, fade and cross-pollinate, but it’s always easy to tell when a piece of music was forged in the fires of inspiration and emotional honesty. .5 sounds more like an album that was made to keep the band together, relevant and relatively popular. The results are hardly a failure, but if you didn’t like Slipknot already, this album sure as hell won’t be the one to win you over.