Review Summary: Those of us who listened to Slipknot through high school, and are now a little older and open-minded, might be curious to see what the band is up to.
You can't please everybody. Slipknot learned that rule early when their association with late 90's nu-metal earned the ire of metal purists. So, hoping to keep their core fans and their reputation, they went away for a while and returned with Vol. 3, an exploration of a more refined, Slayer-like thrash sound as well as their faith in pop melody. The result was a varied but exhausting listen, heavy and catchy, even creepy-gothic, but lacking a deadly sharp edge somewhere in their dense nine-man sound.
Now comes their fourth studio album, and the first thing you'll notice is that the record is sonically satisfying. Producer Dave Fortman managed to balance the sound of nine guys making pummeling noise, and the result is disciplined chaos, enough to get even the most jaded metalhead back into the pits, and like its predecessors, All Hope Is Gone can be unsettlingly dark. Unfortunately, Fortman couldn't help the band push itself to further extremes. Isn't it time, for example, that the band explores the rhythmic possibilities of three (count 'em!) drummers? They touch on this in their smart first single Psychosocial, a muscular foray into mid-tempo groove metal.
So far, these nine guys have proved that they can play a lot of different styles, as proven by Vol. 3's gorgeous and disquieting "Circle", and the only song I would ever play during an autopsy, "Vermillion". This album goes for more of the heavy stuff, but the moods and dynamics are nicely varied. "Sulfur", "This Cold Black", and "Gematria", with its cathartic political bent, certainly work. However, the album loses steam as it goes on, though not because of a decline in the songwriting. Ultimately, the songs sound too similar, and the album ends up sounding weak and exhausted in places where Slipknot's nine members should have pushed themselves into both weirder and more brutal territory. The closest they come is with "Gehanna", which starts in-medias-res with its damaged midwestern psychosis but devolves into bland power chords.
Too often, though, the tunes are stuck in neutrality and convention. For Slipknot, playing slowly still means reverting to melody and softer ballad-ish dynamics, and playing fast still equals dense thrash. Sure, they're good at both----Corey Taylor is a talented singer with a surprising tonal command, and the band can still rock at any pace. But there's the lingering sense that the band as a whole is capable of a lot more if they hone their most disparate identities----heavy metal and diseased slowburn----into an affecting whole, a direction promised by Vol. 3 but unfulfilled here due to the overall blandness of the ideas they work with. Slipknot could learn a thing or two from, say, 80's hardcore punk or, conversely, Meshuggah. Or maybe they could hook up with Steve Albini and rediscover the power of a band playing all together in the same room, because something is missing, and it might have a lot to do with the lack of energy and ambition that such a divided writing/recording process can lead to.
Word has it that the band prepared some "oblique, arty pieces" for the album that didn't make the final cut. One cannot help but wonder if these might have truly fulfilled the band's potential but were ditched in favor of an album that could cater to the metal community in which they are desperately trying to become a legitimate name following too many years at Ozzfest with the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit.
Slipknot's maturation has come during an interesting time in heavy music. Metal fans are running to the underground to satisfy their heaviest urges while simultaneously championing the classics from years passed. What is a metal band to do when such a paradox stands in the way? "The world will not change," Taylor screams. True, so Slipknot should be one step ahead of it, because this reviewer is pretty sure that the band still has something truly extreme, whatever that may end up meaning, up its sleeve.