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.5: The Gray Chapter Dean Brown , October 22nd, 2014 13:02

Like most bands who have existed for a couple of decades, Slipknot's history is littered with trials and tribulations; from chart-smashing records (including a 2006 Grammy for 'Before I Forget') and massive headline shows/tours to the death of one of their founding members, bassist Paul Gray, in May 2010 and the recent dismissal of another, drum demon Joey Jordison. So, given the circumstances, the fact Slipknot's fifth studio album isn't a monumental clusterfuck is a surprise in itself.

What's more surprising, however, is the fact that .5: The Gray Chapter sees the band instil some of the same incendiary emotion into their music that fuelled the hell-fire of their eponymous debut and terminally bleak second album IOWA. It's exactly what Slipknot needed to do after the through-the-motions All Hope Is Gone; not to mention since they had to enter the studio without two primary songwriters.

Beginning with 'XIX' is a Slipknot curveball: rather than come out roaring, all blastbeats and hardcore-riddled death metal riffs, the band defy expectations. After the proclamation that "This song is not for the living, this song is for the dead", vocalist Corey Taylor's inimitable talents are pushed into the limelight. Taylor sings the darkly atmospheric opener with deep-set pain and without the saccharine side he tends to favour on Stone Sour's ballads, culminating in the rally cry of "Don't let this fucking world tear you apart!"

'XIX' invokes a striking atmosphere that informs the rest of the album even though it's a different kind of heavy than most of what follows – performance-wise it's like ripping open an old wound, one Taylor has tried to let heal since the multi-headed Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses a decade ago. Said wound bleeds straight into 'Sarcastrophe'. Guitarists Jim Root and Mick Thomson unleash a torrent of twisted, IOWA-esque riffs that traverse numerous tempo changes dictated by new drummer Jay Weinberg (son of drummer Max Weinberg), who does a terrific job of replacing Jordison's trademark tribal thump, double-bass blasts, frenzied fills and hip-hop beats. On top of this volcanic base, Sid Wilson's turntables scratching adds depth of sound and Taylor proves he's not just about pulling at your heart-strings these days: he screams with the kind of animated vitriol not heard from him in years.

The next two tracks continue to thrive on what precedes them. 'AOV' is one of the fastest in Slipknot's arsenal, with Taylor spitting words over the rapid, thrash-fuelled verses and soaring high during the chorus. While 'The Devil In I' – the second song showcased by the band after 'The Negative One' suitably whetted the appetites of hungry Maggots worldwide – happens to be one of the best singles in the storied history of Slipknot. Enhanced by its creepy video, created by the warped mind of percussionist Shawn 'Clown' Crahan, 'The Devil In I' combines every aspect of Slipknot (brutality, introspection, catchiness) to act as not just an anthem for .5: The Gray Chapter but for their career to-date.

Those four songs in sequence scale substantial heights, but unfortunately Slipknot's experimental streak produces uneven results through the remaining tracks. 'Killpop' is a disposable goth metal number that is placed with the intent of adding variation and flow, yet it stunts the album's ascent. 'Skeptic', which is the most literal tribute to the late Paul Gray ("The world will never see another crazy motherfucker like you. The world will never know another man as amazing as you"), is somewhat scattershot: stomping along one minute, taking discordant left-turns the next and finishing with a nasty death metal groove – all without cohesion to make the disparate sections work.

Saved only by the emotion Taylor invests in his lyrics and the gravitas of his delivery, 'Goodbye' and sweeping finale 'If Rain Is What You Want' also lose impetus instead of creating the flow and sense of tragedy intended. The problem with the slower, moodier songs Slipknot have included post-IOWA is that they tread too close to Stone Sour AOR than what you'd hope for from a band who once dropped brutal lines like, "I want to slit your throat and fuck the wound." That's not to say that such dynamics are not welcome on a Slipknot record – Vol 3 struck the required balance and some of the gentler, more textured songs off that album were essential – but besides 'XIX', the lines between Slipknot and Stone Sour become extremely blurred (also see: 'The One That Kills The Least'), and so their inclusion here comes into question when compared to the heavier fare.

The reason for this issue has been mentioned in the press, as it has been said that the majority of songwriting responsibility for .5:The Gray Chapter fell on Taylor and Root's shoulders; Root was fired from Stone Sour by Taylor – a decision that stuck in the craw of the guitarist, who expressed his dissatisfaction online. It was a brave move to make by Taylor and it has to be said that Root's tunnel-vision focus has benefitted Slipknot during a time they badly needed it. In fact, there's a lot of personal pain, aggression and sorrow invested in this album from each member of the band, and its tangible throughout, as you almost choke on the collective bile and residual grief during 'Lech', 'Nomadic' and 'Custer' – three blistering tracks from the patchy latter half.

Borne of difficult, transitional times, .5:The Gray Chapter – like all albums – is a snapshot of the lives of its creators. Because of this, there is moments of clarity and but also moments of confusion found within the music as Slipknot try to re-establish themselves sans two songwriters while the metal world watches; half hoping they burn the place to the ground and half hoping they disappear into oblivion.

Though it's not masterpiece by any means, the fifth installment in Slipknot career is praiseworthy overall, especially given the circumstances surrounding its creation. It heightens the rage that was missing from All Hope Is Gone and invests greater emotional nuance and maturity in the music, as well as introducing new blood and moving out of the shadow cast by missing members who, though noticeable by their absence, were not as essential to the band as we once thought; with all due respect to their legacy, of course. .5:The Gray Chapter acts a stabiliser – a solid platform from which Slipknot can build upon in the future.