Slipknot had reason to celebrate when its new album, “.5: The Gray Chapter,” debuted at No. 1 on “Billboard” magazine’s top 200 chart when it was released last October.
“I remember when we first started selling records, in order to have a number one, you’d have to sell at least a half a million if not more, for the rock side of things,” Slipknot guitarist Jim Root said in a recent phone interview. “And now it’s a fraction of that. So it kind of really shows you the state of where everything’s at. I don’t put too much into that anyway because we don’t see a penny off of record sales and we never have. For us it’s all about touring.”
Of course, the fact that Slipknot, which headlines its Knotfest multi-day festival on Oct. 25 at San Manuel Amphitheater in Devore, is even around to sell 130,000 albums is a major achievement – maybe even cause for celebration – in itself. In May 2010 bassist Paul Gray died of an overdose. It was a devastating blow to the group.
Ever since forming in 1995 in Des Moines, Iowa, Gray had been a key creative force, helping the masked band of metal marauders craft their intense, thorny sound and their foreboding look.
The sound and looked connected in a big way with metal fans, as each of Slipknot’s four albums – the 1999 self-titled debut, 2001’s “Iowa,” 2004’s “Volume 3: (The Subliminal Verses)” and 2008’s “All Hope Is Gone” went platinum and produced multiple singles.
Gray’s death, though, threw Slipknot’s future into major question.
Beyond his musical contributions, Gray was a close friend. And while there were signs the surviving members would continue as early as summer 2011, when the band regrouped for some shows in Europe, the members were careful to say they were taking things day by day and not sure about the future of the group.
But Slipknot then returned to do the 2012 Mayhem tour and by that time, the band members – Root (who wears number 4 in his on-stage uniform), percussionist Shawn “Clown” Crahan (6), vocalist Corey Taylor (8), guitarist Mick Thomson (7), DJ Sid Wilson (0), percussionist Chris Fehn (3) and sampler Craig Jones (5) –were discussing plans for a new studio album, and that talk turned to action in summer 2013. And if Gray was no longer physically with the band, his presence was very much felt throughout the writing and recording process, according to Root, who stepped up his involvement in the songwriting for “.5: The Gray Chapter.”
“I mean, I wasn’t really conscious or aware of my process in writing (before),” Root said. “I realized when I was demoing (new songs) in my garage, I was kind of approaching the way I put these arrangements together a little bit differently than I normally do. I was like really exploring the fret board and trying different places on the fret board to play certain riffs, or how to get into certain riffs in other ways.
“Then I kind of realized that’s sort of the way Paul would work,” the guitarist said.
The band as a whole certainly rose to the occasion on “.5: The Gray Chapter.”
It’s another potent effort, an often dark album that strongly reflects the emotional upheaval of the past four years, with multiple references to Gray’s passing (most obviously on the disquieting ballad “Goodbye,” which recounts the painful day the band gathered after learning of his death). Driving rockers like “Skeptical,” “AOV” and “The Devil In I” mix heavy riffs, slamming drums and notable bits of melody. Meanwhile, songs like “Sarcastrophe” and “Custer” push the album in a heavier and noisier direction behind their breakneck tempos, snarling guitars and gutteral vocals from Taylor.
Just as Gray’s presence was felt on the album, he is being honored on tour by the fact that Gray’s number 2 uniform has been retired. In fact, Root declined to name the musicians who are playing bass and drums on the tour.
“Paul was taken away from us, and that can never really be replaced,” Root explained. “And we’re not the type of band that will ever be like, we’re not going to throw a mask that looks just like Paul’s mask and slap a number 2 on their shoulder and say this is our new bass player. That’s not how it works. They’ve got to try and find their way within our band, and as they do that, as it evolves, then we’ll figure out what they should have on their sleeves, if anything. Right now, both of those guys have blank sleeves.”