Slipknot: Paul Gray’s 10 best songs
“The only way I can sum up Paul Gray is love,” said Corey Taylor in a tearful emergency conference held the day after his bandmate has passed. “I will miss him with every fibre of my heart, as will everybody at this table and everyone who knew him… he was the best of us.”
Born in Los Angeles on April 8, 1972, Paul Dedrick Gray was in many ways the beating heart of Slipknot. He took up an interest in music early on thanks to some guidance from his older brother William ‘Jay’ Matthews, who introduced him to bands like Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and KISS. Before his teenage years had even begun, his two greatest musical revelations had arrived in the form of Suicidal Tendencies’ 1983 debut and, not long after, experiencing Slayer live in the flesh.
“I saw Slayer on the Hell Awaits album and that changed my world,” he once said. “I had to get a real guitar and do it. Just seeing them up there with the red lights and smoke… it was all evil. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
By the age of 16, Paul was living in an apartment with his friends Frank and Chris, jamming Danzig songs in the living room under the moniker Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But the novelty of freedom at such a young age soon wore off and he called his mum, now living in Des Moines, to see if he would able to sleep on her couch and start a new life in Iowa – where, while playing in death metal bands Anal Blast and Body Pit, he would eventually meet the other original members of Slipknot. It would prove to be a life-changing decision, as was his switch from guitar to bass…
“There’s a funny story about how I got playing bass,” he explained in his Behind The Player instructional DVD. “When I moved to Iowa, I didn’t have any friends or know anybody. I went into the local music store and heard some guys talking about needing a bass player for their band, they did covers of Slayer and Metallica songs…
“So, not knowing anybody and wanting to meet people, I told them I could play bass – even though I had never played one in my life. One of my brother’s friends had a weird right-handed bass, which I strung left-handed, and a practice amp. I went down and played with them. I didn’t know any of the bass lines but I knew all the guitar parts, so I faked it. They thought it was cool… that’s how I got playing bass.”
As one of the three founding members of Slipknot, Paul Gray fast became one of their key songwriters – his name more often than not found in the credits for the tracks that weren’t assigned to the group as a whole. The bass player often partnered with ex-drummer Joey Jordison, fleshing out early anthems such as Surfacing and Spit It Out, the former including riffs he’d written back in his Body Pit years.
His knack for finger-twisting, down-tuned riffs including extreme slides and bends is what made their assault all the more bludgeoning, a skill which he’d undoubtedly sharpened as a death metal-obsessed teenager. Early producer Ross Robinson, who worked on the group’s self-titled debut and its Iowa follow-up, went as far as labelling him the band’s secret weapon, blessed with absolute integrity and a talent for coming out with the most unbelievable ideas.
There was, however, a lot more to the man than extreme noise – Paul cited names like Flea and Bootsy Collins alongside more audible influences such as Cliff Burton and Steve Harris, describing the latter as “an idol” for his ability to play all over the bass and leave no fret untouched.
As well as his work in Slipknot, he also filled in on bass for desert rockers Unida – fronted by Kyuss singer John Garcia – and other projects like Drop Dead, Gorgeous and Reggie And The Full Effect. Then, of course, there are the two tracks he performed on as part of the Roadrunner United project, enlisting the crème de la crème from the legendary label’s roster to collaborate for its 25th anniversary.
Tragically – after writing, recording and touring four albums in the greatest metal band of a generation – Paul passed away on May 24, 2010. But his music lives on, much like the band he was fundamental in creating. Today, we celebrate the songs which epitomised his pivotal role within The Nine…
(sic) (Slipknot, 1999)
As far as opening gambits go, the first musical track on Slipknot’s debut is as good as it gets. Largely penned by Paul and Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan before the band had formed, the song was originally titled Slipknot – though the group ended up using the name for one of their first shows. It’s a mission statement that encapsulated The Nine’s bloodthirsty ambitions and set the bar incredibly high early on, the verse shifting between a staccato and muted delivery to a more open, groove-orientated feel for tension and release. Slipknot had arrived. The world would never be the same.
Eyeless (Slipknot, 1999)
The riff that appears two minutes into Eyeless could very well be the ‘Knot’s finest. It features a pre-bend that has an almost rubbery, time-warp kind of feel and returns at the end of the track, switching to half-time while Corey continues roaring, ‘Look me in my brand new eye!’ It’s these extra touches and twists that gave an unmistakable feel and identity to the band’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of sonic violence.
“When it came to music, Paul was up there with some of the greats,” remembered Corey, in a heartfelt tribute to his old bandmate. “So many things set him apart from the rest: his attention to detail; his ear for hooks; his approach to a riff; his ability to hear several variations on a riff so it never felt repetitive; his vision for songs or passages; his single-mindedness when it came to fighting for what was best in a song… I could go on and on here.”
Purity (Slipknot, 1999)
Though omitted from later reissues, the ninth track from the Slipknot debut still towers among their darkest moments: lyrically, thanks to a title inherited from a fictional story about a girl who had been kidnapped and buried alive, and sonically, with Paul dialling in a woolly bass tone containing virtually no treble frequencies. The deep, menacing notes heard during the intro and verses build an almost horror movie kind of suspense in between the grinding guitars and its hair-raising ‘You all stare but you’ll never see there’s something inside me’ chorus.
Scissors (Slipknot, 1999)
There’s a reason why the low-end on the debut album closer feels extra rumbly, even ghostly, at points. Instead of sticking with the drop B tuning used on its other tracks, Paul used a drop A tuning with this thickest string another octave down – which he described as a super low, almost sub-woofer kind of frequency. It required the heaviest gauge top string he could find in order to hold the notes well enough to record. Paul himself remarked on how it was a sound you felt rather than heard, more atmospheric than melodic in nature.
People = Shit (Iowa, 2001)
For a taste of Th Nine at their absolute world-commanding heaviest, the opening 25 seconds of People = Shit will be hard to beat. Any doubts over Slipknot sustaining the brain-melting brutality of their debut were answered in a vicious storm of blastbeats and tremolo-picked guitars that felt even angrier and more possessed than before. Here we go again motherfucker, indeed.
By their own admission, it was a chaotic time for The Nine – Clown once described the sessions as “hell” and this track in particular as their way of saying, “Fuck off and leave us alone.”
Left Behind (Iowa, 2001)
Originally titled Lust Disease on an early demo, Iowa’s lead single might not be one of Slipknot’s fastest or heaviest, but its riff is certainly one of their busiest from the earlier years of their career – using double notes, slides and chromatics that snake their way around the fretboard. Its complexity is countered by the open-string drone that dramatically brings everything to a close – the guitar and bass amps ringing out together in a hellish orchestra of earth-shaking noise. Given an exclusive listen to the second full-length in the months ahead of release, Kerrang! ran an early assessment of the new tracks, describing Left Behind as “considerably more melodic than the rest of the album, providing a brief moment of respite from the outright nastiness elsewhere”.
Iowa (Iowa, 2001)
The 15-minute epic that closes the ‘Knot’s second album showcased a very different side to Paul’s playing, more ’90s rock than extreme metal in feel – sharing similarities with the kind of lines heard in bands like Tool and Pearl Jam. As his bandmates drift in and out, it’s really just #2 holding everything together from beginning to end. The same was said of his personality, Corey often describing him as the glue of the band – the one member who lived and breathed Slipknot all day every day, “the world’s best cheerleader” to bring them together no matter what challenge or hurdle lay ahead.
Duality (Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses), 2004)
Simple as it may be, especially when compared to their earlier tracks, Duality is also the sound of The Nine at their most effective – its four minutes and 12 seconds condensed down to three and a half for a single version that would become directly responsible for converting new armies of metalheads around the world. Rhythmically, however, the song was a bit more challenging; Paul’s verse basslines picked as strict alternate 16th notes throughout, which, once you factor in the boiler suit and pig mask for the live shows, would have been a quite a workout for his left arm.
Vermilion (Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses), 2004)
When asked about the song which best summarised Paul’s contributions to Slipknot, it’s interesting that Corey and Clown have singled out Vermilion as his magnum opus – both admitting they were moved by the chillingly real sense of pain and struggle on the bass player’s original demo. The track also been a source of inspiration for Paul’s successor, Alessandro Venturella, who told this writer about “filling a great man’s shoes and doing him justice” for a 2019 Bass magazine cover story around the release of We Are Not Your Kind. “If you listen to Paul’s note choices on Vermilion, he was all over the shop and it sounded great… I wanted to try things like that.”
Psychosocial (All Hope Is Gone, 2008)
“I was writing lyrics when Paul and Joey played this to me,” Corey told Kerrang! in July 2008. “I looked at the sheet I’d been working on and at the bottom was the chorus for Psychosocial already… This song was meant to be.” The breakdown after the guitar solo remains a highlight of any Slipknot live set, its members falling into a Meshuggah-esque groove as Corey screams of, ‘The limits of the dead!’ Using a mixture of palm-muting, chromatics and pauses to twist and stretch the listener’s ear in new and unexpected ways, it would be one of Paul’s final contributions to the ‘Knot.
The founding bassist’s untimely passing remains one of metal’s most heartbreaking tragedies, Slipknot’s loyal legions left no choice but to ponder the prodigious creations his mind would have gone on to conceive. But more importantly than anything else, Paul Gray’s songs and performances have resonated louder and prouder with each and every passing year. He will never be forgotten.
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