It's been four years since co-founding bassist and principal SLIPKNOT songwriter Paul Gray passed away. A lot of grief and reported pent-up energy has propagated the band's return, which emerges amidst the controversial replacement of drummer Joey Jordison. Departure or dismissal, that's as much a mystery as the identity of the new guy under the mask taking Jordison's place. SLIPKNOT has opted to stay mum on the issue, but the new members are believed to be drummer Jay Weinberg and bassist Alessandro "Vman" Venturella.
As the world turns in the SLIPKNOT camp with new leases and new costumes, held down by its "official" members Corey Taylor, M. Shawn "Clown" Crahan, Jim Root, Mick Thomson, Chris Fehn, Sid Wilson and Craig "133" Jones. Following a prolonged grieving period, Jim Root got to work penning material for SLIPKNOT's fifth album, ".5: The Gray Chapter". The album was completed with input by the rest of the band plus Greg Fidelman (having also worked with SLAYER and METALLICA), who returns to the SLIPKNOT cause following their previous collaboration on "Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses".
As might be expected, ".5: The Gray Chapter" is a largely dark, often moving listening experience. Summoning a return to their punishing roots in a number of spots, SLIPKNOT continues to evolve as songwriters, which means more melody, more clean vocals and tighter arrangements than ever before. However, as uncomfortable as their previous album "All Hope Is Gone" might've made some fans, ".5: The Gray Chapter" is a logical advancement between old and new SLIPKNOT, made unavoidably bittersweet by the band's adversities.
Quirky tones from a vintage pump organ ring like twisted bagpipes, while a humming synth and xylophone chimes ring in the solemn opener "XIX". Corey Taylor wails in relative clean mode, "I've been too busy being called to disappear, I'm in no shape to be alone contrary to the shit you might hear". Not quite within his STONE SOUR range, some SLIPKNOT fans may stand leery of where ".5: The Gray Chapter" is headed from this point. Instead of immediately hitting an obvious rage fest, "Sarcastrophe" hits a slow stride with wallowing guitars and percussion on the intro, taking its time before flying off from that point. As SLIPKNOT breaks away, the riffs drape behind Corey Taylor's bellowing and the combined electro pulse and clouts from the new drummer, who exhibits a hair more grind tendencies than Joey Jordison's contributions to the band. Jordison is perhaps more precise and snap-tight, but the varying speed and crunch tempos delivered into "Sarcastrophe" allows SLIPKNOT to establish its usual madhouse-carnival feel with a few extracurricular touches.
"AOV" zips into some of the thrashiest tones SLIPKNOT's yet delivered, but that breakneck velocity only applies to the intro and bridges. The band throws out slower, bopping grooves which gives Corey Taylor a chance to huff-rap the verses and ultimately hit a full-clean swoon (aided by soothing background vocals) on the melodic choruses. As SLIPKNOT's grown more progressive with each release, they roll the bones on a break-in slowdown sequence, which is quite articulate and tastefully brief. This, before sending "AOV" on a melodic sing-along to the end, which caps with rhythmic percussion and battering riffs. Whether or not you subscribe to all of the mucking about SLIPKNOT's being doing since "Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses", the band is hitting a zenith of creativity, regardless of who hangs with them for the journey.
"The Devil In I" chugs out of a warbling doom line at the beginning and sets itself onto a morose but tuneful course with moody guitar chimes, dirge-loaded bass and empathetic swills from Corey Taylor. The choruses are a little too safe, but a massive and quick-stepped breakdown plus a grinding bridge thereafter keeps the song robust and hectic. "The Devil In I" dumps right into "Killpop", which threatens to come off like STONE SOUR meets NINE INCH NAILS and maintains nuances of each along its skulking path. The clattering percussion behind the dejected yet soaring choruses is great, as are the crazed tempo spikes that jerks "Killpop" toward a chaotic wrap-up and abrupt stoppage at 3:45.
Lyrically dedicated to Paul Gray, "Skeptic" picks things back up with a clobbering groove and chunky riffs that should satisfy longtime followers along with "The Negative One". To some latitudes, "Skeptic" comes off like "Album of the Year"-era FAITH NO MORE with SLIPKNOT's own embellishments. "I know why Judas wept, motherfuckers!" Corey Taylor next screams into "Lech", a track that rips and skids and repeats the scheme, but that's not all you get. The back and forth drum patterns are so well-plotted you never want them stop, but inevitably they change course to slower breakdown rhythms before jacking up once more and even thrashing out in spots. "Lech" is a tricky bastard of a song, but it scorches in every spot it's designed to, which gives enough of an adrenaline charge to allow the squirming and dragging electro pulses of "Goodbye" to serve as respite. Corey Taylor's cleans swim amongst "Goodbye"'s echoing culverts, even staying largely in soar mode once the heavier masses take over the song. The double-timed rhythm assuming itself over "Goodbye" gravitates toward a terrific guitar solo and the threat of a thrash break never happens as everything stops at the song's climax.
"Nomadic" mashes up the manic blitzing mindset of SLIPKNOT's early years with charged-up, harmonious choruses. It's "Wait and Bleed" for this era. Again, it's subjective to the listener if the changes to SLIPKNOT's to music are palatable, but you can't ask for a tighter stream than the band executes here, whirling out a mini-hurricane during the solo section along the way. The reckless haste of "Custer" gives way to a spoken-word passage by Taylor, but soon his rant-scats take over in-between the crushing velocity and the barking "cut me up" and "fuck me up" mantras. These serve as the song's invitation to pogo and to scream along blindly at live gigs.
Corey Taylor has cited himself as one of the most hated men in metal music, which can be considered valid or self-hype, though it's guaranteed there are many listeners who will be throwing darts at his picture while spinning ".5: The Gray Chapter". SLIPKNOT is forever changed and that has less to do with the internal strife and more to do with the fact this band has grown tremendously as musicians over the years. The six-year interval between this album and "All Hope Is Gone" has sparked a ton of resourcefulness, songwriting that manages to make sense of the mainstream euphony that was a rude awakening for many fans. No matter how close to the border of AOR this album gets at-times, it's a still a SLIPKNOT album. The nerve-shattering interlude "Be Prepared For Hell", followed by the thrash, grind and turntable-scratching mayhem gusting behind "The Negative One", are proof positive.
Without trying to be melodramatic, for the misfortunes SLIPKNOT's faced, ".5: The Gray Chapter" is an album that answers their own call. The slow but compelling closing number "If Rain is What You Want" serves as a final bereavement march in memory of Paul Gray, marking both an end and a beginning. It, like most of this album, is heartfelt and appropriately allayed after an extensive mourning period that unfortunately generated other casualties in Gray's wake. Let those get on board who will. The others will no doubt continue throwing darts at Corey Taylor's picture.