The new Slipknot album begins with a searing spurt of feedback. That noise continues for a minute and a half, as if writhing in agony, forewarning the faint-of-heart away from the harsh sonics of the Iowa band’s first album in four years. The track in question, “.execute.”, a phantasmagoria of bodiless voices and shrill static, gives voice to All Hope Is Gone — adorned on the cover with a photograph of the band, all nine of them, standing in a bleak landscape, a “Roman wilderness of pain”, to quote the Doors.
All Hope Is Gone, released on August 26, caps off a month of releases by formerly well-known and commercially successfully artists belonging to the nu-metal trend. It started with Shinedown’s The Sound of Madness in late June, and then August brought us Trapt’s Only Through the Pain on the 5th, The Illusion of Progress by Staind on August 20, and now the new Slipknot. If you haven’t been following the careers of these bands since the turn of the century when they were massively popular, you may ask why you should care. After all, nu-metal is dead, isn’t it? Sales have been dropping since 2003, Limp Bizkit has more or less gone out of business, and critics uniformly turn their noses up at anything that formerly bore the dreaded label.
What may be a surprise is that the four albums above have all achieved a proportionally high amount of commercial success. All four releases have debuted in the top 20 of the Billboard 200, with Slipknot taking out the top spot for the first time in their career. There are obviously still respectable numbers of people buying these records in quite despite the current consumer mood of download-illegally-if-you-can-get-away-with-it. All of which raises the question, what does a nu-metal band do when its lease in the popular market is over?
Like everyone else, they evolve. Firstly, they grow out of their self-reflexive, anti-fame stance, partly derived from their love of underground ’90s alt-metal, and partly influenced by Kurt Cobain, whose mark can be clearly heard on three of these records. An obligatory image promotion when these bands had an audience in droves was to turn away from the limelight, posing as though popularity had come only through the singer’s ability to make their angst ring true with scores of disaffected youth. In the dusk days of the genre, it’s more advisable to be proactive in seeking out new fans — displaying contempt and isolation towards a potential listener isn’t such a turn-on no more.
In 2008, the vulnerable adolescent who once allegedly (and I use that word carefully) comprised nu-metal’s core audience is just as likely to turn to emo should they want something accessible to wallow in. Yet each of these records (excluding possibly Trapt’s) has a legitimate artistic goal beyond regaining past commercial success; that is, the lowest common denominator in rock music. The angst that remains in the work of Slipknot, or Staind, or Shinedown, or Trapt is reoriented and redressed. Although every album title in the set may reference general hopelessness — The Illusion of Progress, All Hope Is Gone, Only Through the Pain, The Sound of Madness — Slipknot look fiercely outwards on their new record rather than being obsessively introspective, for example, while Staind turns unashamedly to stirring anthems of devotion.
What these four ensembles are really trying to prove, conveniently in the same month as each other, is that they can disprove the old saying, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” And why not give them the benefit of the doubt? It’s despairing to see perfectly decent ‘nu-metal’ bands ignorantly snubbed, smacked with a blanket sticker of disapproval because of an identification tag they were uncomfortable with in the first place. In fact, Ben Patashnik of the New Musical Express, in his review of All Hope Is Gone, deems that one of its numbers, “Snuff”, “emotes so hard it recalls post-Bizkit mopers Staind.” Yeah, and this is a bad thing why? If you’re going to demand bands don’t “emote so hard” (smooth turn of phrase by the way, very smooth) and unfavorably compare artists, is it too much to ask for an explanation of the reasoning? Is it simply that critics have impatiently written off nu-metal as a relic of the past in their determination to be forward-looking in their assessment of music?
Why is it impossible to constructively discuss what each of the bands offer now, in 2008, instead of coming to the table with predetermined dismissal? Writing one-paragraph reviews on albums like these, coming up with a tongue-in-cheek pun on a band, and then casually writing them off as boring (or too emotional or too formulaic) doesn’t really help a potential listener, because what does it say? That approach is arguably more a testament to that critic’s ego and contempt than any useful statement about the product. Indie can be boring. Metal can be boring. Hip-hop can be boring. Every musician can be boring if given enough spare time and not enough inspiration — hey, look at Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait — but isn’t it lazy and non-constructive to write off their body of work, “It’s boring, try harder next time”? Evolution is a work in progress. Far better to treat these albums as you would any other, regardless of genre associations.
Anyway, if you hate nu-metal that much to begin with, do you really want to piss these artists off? By trash-talking Shinedown, Trapt, Staind or Slipknot, you give them something real to be angry about — like the hypocrisy of the music industry, or the fickleness of the market — and then they won’t be going away. They’ll be holding up the proverbial placard and doing a nation-wide tour and maybe, just maybe, making a big comeback that’ll have you, the naysayer, wishing you had kept your mouth shut. Whatever the case, this handful of August albums are both a strong case for the longevity of the bands that created them and completely distinct in terms of approach to songwriting, timbre, and outlook. Taken together, they prove that nu-metal can be just as diverse as any other genre.
I used the example of Dylan earlier, and because the aim of this shambolic expose is to encourage nu-metal’s survivors to continue the search for their Blood on the Tracks or Time Out of Mind, I may as well dispense with my own dismissal, if only to be positive (or at least damning with faint praise) thereafter. Trapt’s Only Through the Pain is the least compelling of these four records. The California crew crank their guitars up like they’re axes and get real worried, mostly about girls. Chris Brown is not a particularly talented singer, either; his voice is best suited to a bark that doesn’t provide the four-piece with much variety throughout a third album that sounds nearly identical to their first two. The snatches of hooks and melodies within are even more frustrating, because they suggest Trapt couldn’t care less about expanding their fan base and are an insular band, unable to grow. The album is more notable for being released on Nikki Sixx’s label than for anything on the recording.
With the title The Sound of Madness, Shinedown promise us a very catchy concept. Latecomers to the nu-metal scene, the Jacksonville outfit take more cues from slick post-grunge than any other band in this collection. Therefore, their vision of ‘madness’ is to play louder than they did on their first two releases. Moving away from the introspective angst that characterized singles like suicide note “45”, opener “Devour” sets up political targets, but takes care to make sure its top priority is rotation on rock radio.
It’s embarrassing either for me or for Shinedown that I can’t remember too well what their first two albums sounded like, but I seem to remember front man Brent Smith having a good voice. He wastes it on tirades like “Devour”, where he sounds less sub-Chris Cornell and more like a tamer David Draiman, while the washes of guitar beneath him toggle through 1-4-5 chord progressions with none of the disturbed aura the ominous title alludes to. Smith pictures himself the wounded rock star, destined to deliver self-aggrandizing lines of martyrdom such as “I’ve created the sound of madness / Wrote the book on pain”, in addition to a lesson on making the most of today, and, um, the importance of listening to his voice on “Second Chance”. The Weirdest observation made prominently in a rock song this year: “I just saw Hayley’s comet”. Snatches of decorative strings or piano in several tracks heighten the tension, but overall, The Sound of Madness is really stultified rock — most of the band’s firepower is carried through drummer Barry Kerch’s forceful skin-pummelling. Still, if the riffs and execution are generic and unoriginal, Shinedown go some way towards succeeding on their premise to deliver The Sound of Madness as best they can, which must be commended.
Shortly after their last album, Chapter V, was released in 2005, Staind vocalist Aaron Lewis begrudgingly admitted that maybe his band weren’t cool anymore. This is a pretty big confession for any singer to make, and it is referenced on the cover of The Illusion of Progress: a man sits, isolated, his back to the viewer. In fact, Staind themselves confirm this statement of intent on the opening phrase of their first track, “This Is It”: “Here we are / There’s nowhere else to go” sounds over a paranoid, probing riff that searches up and down the fretboard. You have to admire how readily Lewis gives of himself in his music-making. There’s a line in a track called “The Way I Am” in which he blurts, “I’m not really sure of illusions we read on the wall”. Put in the context of the song, from the nature of the lyric itself and its uncertain delivery, there’s no way he could not truly mean this. Staind’s talent is finding melodies that seem to have been felt out amongst the pain and devotion that are the band’s two favorite subjects. Each tune sounds desperately sad in Lewis’ hands — he’s well-versed in the songbook of Layne Staley, and a more natural and intuitive singer than Chad Kroeger or Scott Stapp.
Staind’s progress in moving away from the nu-metal genre can be seen in the new textures it introduces to adorn its new anthems, particularly the warm, Floydian guitars and space-atmospherics of “Tangled Up in You”, more notable for what it musically represents for the band than the pledges of absolute love in the lyric. Intimidatingly good at building their songs to a hanging crescendo that lingers like a question mark behind each, these new garments enhance Aaron Lewis’s beautiful melodies. The AllMusic review of this album is right, however, in pointing out that its contents rarely move out of mid tempo.
As for Slipknot’s All Hope Is Gone, once that introductory stab of nightmarish white noise expires, the album cultivates a sound that is relentless in its intensity. Dense and heavily percussive, it at first appears to feign retreat from the experimental boundary-pushing of Vol 3: The Subliminal Verses. Yet while that disc ushered in new musical ground for the masked poster-boys, All Hope Is Gone’s progress is more lyrical, their rage extroverted upon the world outside their circle of gravity.
Featuring riffs so thick they practically stopper up the blood, Slipknot’s fury is focused to the point of dysfunction through their greyed-chrome industrial funnel. Their songs move in ugly, stop-start phrases, making it consistently difficult to predict where each is heading. The band’s two guitarists lope their way through sludgy riffs bordering on math-metal, the crisp double-kick cascades of drummer Joey Jordison accentuate the bumps, all while Corey Taylor enunciates uneasily in whatever gaps he can find in the onslaught. They’re the only group who can roar material as fucked-up as “Give me a minute and I’ll change your mind / Give me a bullet and I’ll change your life!” and pull it off. The album is almost too efficient at being terrifying, suffocating kind sentiment or tenderness, so when “Snuff” drops it’s a welcome diversion. Only for this sole moment, in which the nine-piece breathe to the accompaniment of a scratchy, low acoustic guitar, only then do we get a glimpse of the bruised, battered soul lying beneath the carnage. Owing more to Joy Division than any contemporary of Slipknot, the song is so glazy, its texture so despairing and barren, that it sounds like no other ‘ballad’. Like the aforementioned “Tangled Up in You”, it’s more significant for what it means in the context of the record than for its words.
A cynic will shelve All Hope Is Gone because it’s not as immediately or visibly a step forward as Vol 3: The Subliminal Verses. It takes some time to absorb the full, splintering impact of All Hope Is Gone. One has to fight to find the brilliance amongst the stifling savagery, and how perfectly the unforgiving lyrical rhetoric aligns with its frontal assault.
That same cynic may scroll to the bottom of this page and claim, because the highest rating I can muster for any of these works is a 7, that there must be little value in an old fad. But if all four of these bands had given up and packed it in when Rolling Stone declared nu-metal dead in 2003, they would not be emerging in 2008, artists who have fought against the popular tide, taking up the challenge to transform, test the waters, and develop towards something that could be called an individual identity. Most of these releases contain some of the best work these bands have ever put to disc, songwriting that can only be described as genuinely honest, cuts strong enough to make me perk up my ears and look out for whatever direction they go in next. It’s when the clamoring publicity has vanished that these artists are able to produce their true art. If you still despise nu-metal and would rather Slipknot, Staind, Shinedown, and Trapt crawl away and die, remember the words of the first’s “Duality”: “You cannot kill what you did not create”.