Tattoos, dreadlocks, kilts, eye make-up and low-pitched screams… I don’t see a better choice, for Halloween, than talking about a band with trashy habits and a scary sound. Because on the day of the dead, the band who redefined the global rock scene 20 years ago still fights for its life, with almost zero mainstream media coverage. Sure, Korn quit the radio-friendly zone for good with their new album, The Serenity of Suffering. Plus, it’s very possible that they are not on the sanest side during this election time (well, their album actually features a song titled ‘Insane’).
But the nu-metal band from Bakersfield can claim being known and respected by a large part of the millennials worldwide. Back in the 90’s, it was very common to see a kid with a Korn patch on his/her backpack. Even today, you can see it. But now, people in their thirties don’t talk about liking it publicly, at work for example, afraid of being outed as creeps, probably meth users, or plain simple rednecks.
I guess listening to Korn is fine if you’re white trash. But if you ended up becoming a banker, a journalist, a lawyer or a manager of some sort, you learned how to hide your music tastes along the way. Korn can scream as much as they want, they can sell as many records as they do, the five guys from the most snubbed city in California always get the same treatment: the elite’s indifference and contempt. One symptom that can, and usually does, come with commercial success.
With the release of their 12th studio album ten days ago, they reached n°4 on Billboard’s top 10 for new albums, after Lady Gaga, Michael Buble and Pentatonix. A performance they have made happen for each one of their studio album except the first, for their MTV Unplugged and their Greatest Hits compilation. In total, it’s their 13rd time on the Top 10 in the US. According to Billboard, “among rock bands, Korn’s top 10 count (…) is now equal to Led Zeppelin. The only rock bands with more top 10s are the Rolling Stones (with 36), The Beatles (32), Dave Matthews Band (15), Santana (14) and Van Halen (14)”.
Millions of people listen or listened to their music across the entire world. Heavy music lovers who think they changed the course of rock starting with the release of their debut album, Korn, in October 1994 (six months after the other 90’s US West Coast game changer, Nirvana, died with its singer Kurt Cobain). ‘Blind’, the first song of this record coming out of a non-identified mix of metal and hip-hop influences, was featured in the soundtrack of the movie Charlie’s Angels. That’s pretty much all the attention this – let’s say the word – historic piece got from the mainstream audience (and I’m listening to Beethoven while writing this, so ‘historic’ isn’t taken lightly).
Actually, Barack Obama himself mentioned the “lead singer of Korn” once last year at the White House, while awarding a veteran the Medal of Honor. But mainly, they’re stuck in the dark, getting the silence treatment, just like the other bands that came along with them. Maybe they were judged too provincial.
In a rare recent interview, the singer Jonathan Davis reminded the listeners of their modest origins: “We’re all just five guys from this little town in central California called Bakersfield (…), it’s a huge farming and oil industry, so for us to beat the odds and get to this level is just a miracle”, he said of their first years playing out of Huntington Beach. Nonetheless, these apparently not-so-subtle Californian guys invented an up and down dynamics, going from quiet to loud, based on super efficient riffs that got millions of teenagers jumping all over the place from Japan to Germany.
They were able to build on the energy of being a youngster while catching the dark side of teenage angst. As the title of their new album explicitly suggests, Korn is all about suffering, especially as a child, but also making these feelings be worth it through some form of expression. Singer Jonathan Davis doesn’t seem to get the pain away from his father’s abuse. So he keeps screaming, sobbing, shaking his head, and pulling his long dirty hair. It’s not always subtle. It doesn’t get to be always good. But it’s intense rock’n’roll.
Like Rolling Stone Magazine puts it, the “nu-metal titans” have had “more phases than even some fans might remember: dissonance-funk weirdos, unlikely disco-metal boys band, gloom-grunge goths, Matrix-produced noise-dance group, experimental dubstep trailblazers and, at one point, the world’s worst Cameo cover band”.
But overall, Korn has made “music as ugly and imposing as they wanted”. Some painters had fun breaking classical esthetics rules too (let’s say, Picasso). Some others did it without having too much fun but out of mental trouble (Van Gogh). Both ways seem to be Davis’, who talked about using depression and mental troubles as a source of inspiration in a recent interview as well. When musicians get ugly, it goes straight to your ears and that’s less comfortable than a wheat field in a nice golden frame…
That’s especially the case with this not so serene Serenity. For the Rolling Stone’s critic, the record is “ridiculously heavy” and it sounds a lot like their previous album Issues (another album about having problems). “‘Rotting in Vain’ is basically 1999’s ‘Falling Away From Me’ grittily rebooted with throat-shredding screams and some guttural onomotopoeia”, he writes. “And the lyrics on Serenity of Suffering won’t surprise anyone who’s heard at least two Korn songs in the last two decades: ‘I feel it ripping, I feel it scarring me'”. True, it’s not surprising coming from a singer who says he spends more time in a dark place than in a happy place.
But the music journalist also found “some truly weird, inventive bridges and codas that switch moods like a DJ flipping the crossfader”. For those who can get the references, “‘Black is the Soul’ turns into a Helmet song for about 22 seconds; ‘The Hating’ ends with Primus-style syncopation and vein popping screams; Corey Taylor from Slipknot breaks up the seasick carnival ride of ‘A Different World’ with some impassioned croon”.
That sounds like a tremendous program, doesn’t it? Something you should definitely blast on your computer speakers at work, to see if your millennial boss is a non-outed Korn lover.
And their “hit”: