Review Summary: Still Slipknot’s crowning achievement
Oh what a time the late 90s/ early 2000s were for heavy music. Feel that nu-metal-shaped wave of bile course through your soul. Everywhere you looked, patches crudely sewn onto hideously baggy jeans. Backpacks held together by safety pins, bike chains and dangly Korn fobs. The epidemic was even claiming good bands and bastardising them into obnoxious caricatures of their former selves (shudder at memories of Machine Head’s Burning Red/ Supercharger era). It is hard to look back on the moment nu-metal infiltrated the mainstream charts and semi-successfully managed to retain a loyal fanbase for such a long period of time without raising a smile or two. It was obnoxious, infectious, and perhaps most tellingly, it was f**king everywhere. But it was also a good deal of fun. Ask any longtime fan of heavy music, and they will undoubtedly have at least one nu-metal act that they have a soft spot for. This branding onto the public consciousness has allowed the genre, perhaps not to survive, but to assist certain tropes and stylistics in latching onto other, more popular genres, allowing the distinctive sound to continue spreading to this day. Although they undoubtedly exploited their own image to sell their music, Slipknot have always been one of the main antiheroes of the nu-metal wave, punching through the scene hardest and loudest. It would not be unfair to call them pioneers of this sound, and although the quality of their music has undeniably lapsed in recent years, their distinctive energy and style has remained largely true to the sound of a bygone era.
The band were more chaotic, heavier and edgier than their contemporaries; the perfect foil to limp bizkit’s faux tough-guy image and Korn’s murky, brooding lonerism. Their first self-titled album launched them and their attention-grabbing image to global prominence, and their sophomore release just added more fuel to the fire- both LPs an angsty whirlwind of choppy, distorted riffs, industrial percussion and ill advised electronic components. They sold well and they were relatively well received, but they also opened the band up to a slew of criticism that they still battle now. But the noughties were nearly at their mid-point; bands like Three Days Grace, P.O.D., and Papa Roach were bleeding through into the mainstream, and Lamb Of God were laying down a thick and heavy sound to appeal more to nu-metal-infatuated purists. The genre was reaching saturation point and everyone was picking a different road to run down. To this end, although it represents a crossroads for the band, Vol 3 is not a reinvention of the signature sound. Rather, it is a gentle tweaking of the formula, managing to remain true to the band’s original vibe whilst simultaneously allowing it to become more expansive overall. The reduction in prominence of the grab-bag of nu-metal party tricks such as turntables, ‘rapping’ and overall edginess is a welcome change and the result is an album that feels more serious, thus more engaging.
Featuring a generous selection of both headbangers and ballads, the balance on the album is consistent and well-maintained; contemplative musings followed by explosive, violent catharsis. Tracks such as ‘The Blister Exists’, ‘Opium of the people’ and ‘Pulse of the Maggots’ are groovy, schizophrenic showstoppers, with the first a noteworthy high point. Its’ lurching chorus riff and superbly constructed mid-point breakdown are both satisfying and appropriate, vicious and so-very slipknot. But this familiarity is cleaner, more polished and overall, of higher quality. The drums no longer rattle like aerosol cans, the guitars no longer sound so tonally muted, the production is no longer so muddy. The resulting sound is far more aurally pleasing and much more enjoyable. The distorted, half-mumbled verses of tracks such as ‘Duality’ are a prime example of this, retaining a creepy, angry energy that capitalises on the hip-hop infused tone of earlier releases, but thanks to clever production choices never feels too overt or crowbarred-in. ‘Circle’’s divertingly dark slow-burn is a rare moment of earnest clarity for Slipknot, and it is nicely balanced with following track ‘Welcome’, an anthemic, stamp-along blast from start to finish. Similarly, ‘The Nameless’ with its groovy, albeit slower riffing and pleasantly intertwining vocal harmonies in both the verses and chorus, are well executed and straddle the boundaries of both ballad and heavy metal. On both counts, the combination works.
There are, however, occasions on the release where some unfortunate choices result in less than desirable outcomes. The ‘Vermillion’ tracks, despite their generally solid quality, do not have anywhere near as profound a chorus as they need for the sustained tone. Likewise, ‘Three Nil’ is a somewhat weak follow up to ‘The Blister Exists’ and feels throwaway in comparison. ‘The Virus Of Life’, despite having some pleasingly heavy drops, feels overlong and a little awkward, with its plodding pace, distorted, shrieking vocals and chugging guitars. And let’s not forget, this is a Slipknot album- the lyrical content is not exactly stellar. Having said this, the decision to not use any curse words appears to have forced frontman Corey Taylor to be a little more creative with his lyricism- so whilst nowhere near perfect, in this regard it is a step up from both the self-titled release and Iowa, having diluted down the teenaged ‘no one understands me’ vibe to more palatable levels.
Still riding the waves of previous success and already with a legion of fans snapping at their heels, Slipknot was never going to have to work particularly hard to produce an album that would fly off shelves. It is a credit to the band then, that they managed to surpass both their previous albums in terms of quality, but also to tighten their sound to such a high level. Of course it is not perfect, but the bands’ name has become almost synonymous with ‘unrefined’, and this is exactly what is on display here. It is also why Slipknot are at their peak here; they have embraced their sound and honed it to the most precise it can be. Modest experimentation and deviation from established formula is welcome, and the faster tracks thankfully lack the attempted edginess and more chaotic instrumentation of earlier releases, and the grief-tinged nostalgia of more recent efforts. Overall, the experience represents Slipknot at their most complete, most expansive and most thoughtful, allowing for a sound that feels tonally serious, comparatively mature and consistently enjoyable.