The lines between genres of metal in the 21st Century have become blurred to such an extent that it’s sometimes tough to justify placing any band in any kind of category (the genre has more “cores” in it at this point than the waste barrel in the Bulmer’s brewery) – so many acts’ styles have become patchworks of what has gone before, if not outright rip-offs of the tropes of other successful groups. Innovation is at a premium in metal in 2013.
Stone Sour are a classic example of the state of modern metal. The Corey Taylor-led group weld industrial, nu-metal, death and thrash elements onto big 80s and 90s stadium metal grooves and choruses, and have done since 2002, basically ploughing the same thematic furrow as Avenged Sevenfold (only with a lot more skill and a lot less pretension). Even so, they’re still an acquired taste. But the recipe has hardly been more appealing than on this concept double-release.
If there is an escape route to make the mishmash approach to metal nowadays sit better with listeners, then it’s surely the concept album; the telling of a story through a series of songs opens up the gates for musical contrast and collision, and there’s plenty of that here. The two albums – based on an original story written by Taylor – are littered with songs that shift from demonic to existential, to rebellious, to soul-searching, to sad to…you get the idea.
Part 1 puts its best foot forward, with the grandiose, high speed Gone Sovereign and the lean, percussive Absolute Zero, the latter of which boasts a killer hook that’s bound to have gig-goers screaming it for years to come. A Rumour Of Skin’s whine-key chorus irritates, but is saved by a moody verse section, and gives way to short, electronic-tinged acoustic number The Travelers Pt. 1. These last two in particular set up the main recurring lyrical themes that appear throughout this part of the story – phrases like “I’m on my own” “I don’t mind” and “Blame it on a broken heart/I’m falling apart again” are repeated in alternate keys or to different melodies, a device Taylor previously employed to good effect on Slipknot’s Vol.III: The Subliminal Verses album, and which works resonably well again here.
After this strong start, however, the album becomes more or less as you were for a modern metal release. Yes the epic orchestral swell of Tired and Taciturn is good, as is the low-slung groove of My Name Is Allen, but it was all just as good in 1992. Even standout tracks like the punchy Slayer workout RU486 and bass-driven closer Last Of The Real have a “heard it all before” feeling to them, ending up with the double-edged sword effect of making the songs almost instantly accessible to a listener, but rarely completely satisfying.
PART 1: 6.5/10
Part 2 continues in this vein, albeit with a much more grungy atmosphere. The majority of songs on this record begin with either acoustic or industrial intros, and aside from adding a few new recurring themes and phrases to the lyrical tapestry, with copious references to fire and the word “decide” cropping up in keeping with the concept (quick review of the tale itself: an occasionally engrossing and dreamlike story that suffers from a truncated structure and a duff ending Stephen King would be proud of) follows this template right to the closing title track.
It could all have been very one-dimensional, even in spite of the aural jigsawing of the songs, but for the fact that its good moments are some of the best and its bad moments some of the worst of the two albums put together. Opener Red City is uninspiring, particularly compared to its Part 1 corollary, but it gives way to the frankly unthinkable Black John, which co-opts a ZZ Top-sounding riff and makes it the core of a pace-shifting industrial groove that shouldn’t work in any way, but absolutely does. Likewise the intense crunch of Peckinpah manages to make good use of Taylor’s guttural-yet-soulful vocal range, with some nifty guitar harmonies thrown in for good measure.
The battle for best track on the album comes down to the looming Gravesend and the reverberant Jerry Cantrell-style The Uncanny Valley. The former has a good build and a meaty sound that puts the production to good use, but Valley shades it purely because it’s one of a very few songs on either album that avoids trying to combine death metal roars with thrash growls and hard rock harmonics, making it a straight-up, no-frills rock track that stands out from this particular crowd.
At the far end of the scale, though, are songs like ’82 with its annoyingly catchy riff, The Conflagration’s dour sacchirine-ness, and this part’s lead single, Do Me A Favour, which sounds like it’s trying to please everyone at once with tricksy editing, bland delivery and a chorus that musically pilfers from the Steel Panther playbook, but only ends up coming across as patronising radio-pandering. Thankfully The House Of Gold & Bones itself finishes the record on a comparative high, the closest thing to a Slipknot track on both albums, and delivered emphatically by the band.
PART 2: 5.5/10
Band performance, aside from Do Me A Favour, is welcomingly consistent; guitarists James Root and Josh Rand cough up some good riffs and solos, even if none of them are going to change the world of metal forever, the rhythm section of Roy Mayorga (drums) and Rachel Bolan (bass) are solid, and Taylor proves he’s better at the scream-sing thing alone than most of his peers’ bands are with two frontmen, mostly by actually being able to sing, as well as going all Dio with lyrics as insistent and poetic as they are impenetrable. The production, too, doesn’t over-cook the bass drums and keeps the differing styles from sounding jarring, thrown together as they are.
So does The House Of Gold & Bones escape being just another in a long line of processed, focus-group metal albums? Yes, but not by much. The concept and its application work in its favour for the most part, especially when playing both records in succession, and when the nonsense of trying to bend a genre already at breaking point is kept to a minimum it delivers some enjoyable songs. But everything still sounds like something you’ve heard before, which is just plain tiresome at this point.
Overall, the entire undertaking could best be described as this generation’s Use Your Illusion I & II: a big, bold project that overstretches itself, and best enjoyed by picking your favourite tracks from both instalments and creating a playlist free of filler and disappointing moments.
WHOLE ALBUM: 6/10