To the delight of some and the chagrin of others, Stone Sour have gradually usurped Slipknot as the more prolific focus of mutual vocalist Corey Taylor's career. In total, Stone Sour only have one additional album under the belts vs Slipknot – which would be the subject of this review, Hydrograd – but four of those have been issued since 2010, while Slipknot only boasts a single long player in that interim. In fairness, the greater member bloat of the latter requires a lot more scheduling coordination, but one also gets the impression from various interviews over the years that Stone Sour just offers Taylor a more relaxed, effortless outlet for his creativity.
"Effortless" is probably an overstatement, as there is a lot of craft that goes into Stone Sour's radio-friendly hooks, but this band has seen scant musical evolution since their debut album in 2002; in fact, having formed a full decade prior before getting sidelined by the emergence of Slipknot, Stone Sour still very much sound a product of their time… that post-grunge back half of the 90's where heavy music wasn't easily pigeonholed into a single genre, but still felt regimented and familiar: a little actual grunge here, a groove metal riff there, throw in some Bob Seger and a whole lotta Southern Rock, but most importantly make sure you have the kind of soaring choruses that radio programmers love.
Stone Sour have a limited Billboard Top 100 shelf life, but they've been nominated for three Grammys for Best Metal Performance, so obviously they're pretty visible. Regardless of how their material goes over, though, Taylor and the boys compose with a "run it up the flag" abandon, not really giving a fuck if the mainstream is listening, just merely having mutual mainstream interest in the direction music was heading twenty years ago. They deviated from that template a bit with their previous two albums, the separately released House of Gold & Bones volumes 1 & 2, but Stone Sour have rebounded sharply back from the cold and sometimes sterile vibe of those two records with their new offering, Hydrograd.
Simply put, Hydrograd is Stone Sour's most commercial, accessible album yet. There may be nothing here that quite scratches the zeitgeist itch like "Bother" did back in 2002, but song-for-song this is the band's most focused collection of monstrously catchy tunes. For the remainder of 2017 these 15 tracks will be helping a lot of Sirius DJ's sleepwalk through their shift, let's put it that way. There isn't much by way of the unexpected here, although "St. Marie" is a country-inflected ballad just screaming to be converted into a duet featuring Kid Rock and, I don't know, Kacey Musgraves? (Please don't, though). That one's a pretty solid curve ball but the laboriously titled "Rose Red Violent Blue (This Sons Is Dumb & So Am I)" has a decent chorus but the verses have that "annoying earworm" quality that remind you of 90's one hit wonders like Marcy Playground and "Flagpole Sitta".
Hydrograd is at its best when the band get to the point and play to their strengths, however predicable that might be. "Taipei Person/Allah Tea" has what may be Stone Sour's all-time best singalong chorus, "Song #3" is the kind of song that would be displacing Chevelle and Fuel from the top of the Modern Rock charts if this were 15 years ago (again, if you've turned your back on popular hard rock of the early 2000's this band isn't for you). "Knievel Has Landed" kicks things up a notch with a heavier groove metal verse structure paired with – natch – a soaring chorus. "Hydrograd" also grooves pretty hard but not in a Pantera / Machine Head way.
"Fabuless", probably the band's worst-titled single ever, is the closest Stone Sour have ever flirted with straight up nu metal, the avoidance of which has long been something the group have been praised for considering the time frame of their ascension. This is a risky choice of a single: some people will love it but others may be turned off from the album altogether if its the first song they're exposed to. There are a few low-key gems sprinkled throughout that will probably go overlooked in the shadow of their more accessible peers ("Thank God It's Over", "The Witness Trees", "Friday Knights"), and Hydrograd does start to fade a bit on the final third, but overall we have a record here that would actually be kind of a pop mini-masterpiece if trimmed of a few lesser songs.
Hydrograd is interesting precisely because it's the opposite of its predecessors: House of Gold & Bones 1 & 2 were concept albums that subsumed standout songs within a narrative framework, but Hydrograd is an unapologetic collection of singles, no bones about it.