Sound — 6
One could lambaste Slipknot for being death metal poseurs or lamenting on how upsetting it was when they officially tossed their hat into commercial metal with "Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses)," but Slipknot still deserve credit where credit is due, and that's a lot. Taking into account that they've only had four albums in their catalog since their debut self-titled album in 1999, it's all the more impressive that they've amassed such an astronomically large following, and while Slipknot's trademark look is susceptible to being analogized as the KISS of the 21st century, they've commendably done the opposite of wearing their music and their brand down to an incessant money siphon.
Slipknot's works being few and far between is certainly one of numerous reasons why each of their albums stood tall before and after being released. But before Slipknot's fifth album even had a title or a demo for it, the possibilities of the band's end were floating around when bassist and founding member Paul Gray died in 2010, two years after the release of their fourth album, "All Hope Is Gone." After a hiatus for a collective grieving by the band, Slipknot decided to continue, albeit tentatively, and by 2013, a fifth album was finally in the works. Adding along to the adversity that faced this album was that it would also not include the band's top-caliber drummer Joey Jordison, whose status with Slipknot is still not wholly known yet other than he's out of the band. With such a rocky road leading up to it, ".5: The Gray Chapter" shaped up to be the most anticipated Slipknot album yet.
Prior to its release, frontman Corey Taylor described the new album as a mix between "Iowa" and "Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses)," but frankly, you can find essences of every previous Slipknot album in here. From the recurring hectic blastbeat/tremolo sections and the scene-stealing guitar solos in "Killpop," "Nomadic" and "The One That Kills the Least," the post-"Iowa" instrumental savvy of the band is still intact - so much so that you wouldn't even notice Jordison's absence - and a heavier usage of turntablist Sid Wilson and sampler Craig Jones brings back a strong essence of the earlier-era Slipknot to the album. In contrast to the overly-brooding "All Hope Is Gone," guitar riffs are more straightforward a la "Iowa," though as satisfying as the groove-inducing riff of "Sarcastrophe" or the grind that fuels the anthemic "Custer" may be, the meat-and-potatoes approach poses as both a satisfying throwback and a derivative problem. The verses in "The Negative One" bears a similarity to the verses in "Disasterpiece," "Nomadic" is fashioned similarly to "My Plague," and even the bridge riff in "If Rain Is What You Want" feels like a slowed down version of the bridge riff in "I Am Hated."
Another vice found on ".5: The Gray Chapter" is a vice that's been lingering for a while in Slipknot's work: an inability to edit down tracks properly. With just "Sarcastrophe," "AOV" and "The Devil in I" taking up 1/4 of the album's total runtime in the first stretch, it makes for somewhat of an exhausting acquainting period for the album, where mirroring intro/outros and non-sequitur riffs thrown in for the hell of it make these songs (as well as later tracks "Lech" and "The Negative One") longer than they need to be. A perfect contrast to this detriment is "Killpop" - not only being the freshest and most interesting track on the album, it progresses from an introspective, Nine-Inch-Nails-esque soft song to a boiling rager in less than four minutes, which comes to show that it's not simply about how much you cram into a song that makes it good.
Lyrics — 8
With the years leading up to ".5: The Gray Chapter" being seminal for Slipknot in many ways, there's a lot more candor and verbal penance found in these lyrics than in any other Slipknot album. In regards to their long and successful career, Taylor voices the problems he has in the situation he's in - from airing out his discomfort about his status as an uber-famous singer in "Nomadic," where he feels past his prime and demands to everyone "I need you to hate me," and sneering at greedy opportunists in the music industry in "Lech" and "The Negative One," which could possibly allude to the still-unclear falling out of Slipknot and Jordison. But ultimately, much of Taylor's negative feelings on the album stem back to him, with a constant recurring theme in his lyrics addressing the general sense of guilt he holds and the punishment he feels he deserves.
Those feelings of guilt that constantly pop up throughout the album most likely go hand-in-hand with the primary theme in the album: Gray's death. Just the first words in the opening "XIX" ("this song is not for the living/this song is for the dead") clearly states how much dedication the album is going to Slipknot's former brother-in-arms. Nearly every song on the album contains a line that feels inspired by the tragedy - from Taylor threatening the world "I don't want to watch another brother f--king die" in "AOV" and darkly philosophizing "some of us were meant to be outlived" in "The Devil in I," to addressing Slipknot's strengthened resolve after Gray's passing in "Goodbye." But the biggest tribute to Gray is in "Skeptic," where the overall message of Taylor questioning the existence of a god that would let Gray die so tragically is loaded with his personal call-to-arms about making Gray's role in the band eternal ("I won't let you disappear/I will keep your soul alive if I can't have you here").
Overall Impression — 7
Where "Iowa" was meant to upgrade from "Slipknot," and "All Hope Is Gone" was meant to upgrade from "Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses)," ".5: The Gray Chapter" isn't attempting to be the best Slipknot album made, but rather, an aggregate of Slipknot's sound in their near-20-year career. ".5: The Gray Chapter" may suffer from some compositional in-breeding, but given the fact that it's been six years since Slipknot's last album (and thirteen years since the album's sonic patriarch "Iowa"), it's more forgivable of an offense than not, and given the fact that they lost two of their key players before making this album, the result could have been painstakingly worse. Perhaps most importantly for the band, though, ".5: The Gray Chapter" serves as a proper tribute for Gray, and when Slipknot get a crowd of thousands singing along to the chorus of "Skeptic," Gray's spirit will certainly feel alive - which is likely the only thing that matters to them with this album.