The other day I was feeling perverse. When the new Korn CD showed up, I didn’t just hurl it, I got kinky. I played the damned thing.
And now I’m stuck, like the drowned sailer, waving my hands in a critical ocean of no-fucking-way. As in no fucking way this or any Kornrecord could be good, and even if it was, any self respecting metal-fan couldn’t find the time of day for it — or admit it was good. Really, there's so much awesome coming out every day from everywhere, who could give a fuck about some millionaire nü metal burn-outs?
Except…except…except if the tin didn’t read ‘Korn,’ I bet this would make many a critic’s Band to Watch lists. There are songs here that suggest a grittier, weirder Alice in Chains. Songs here that sound like percussion done by unholy Roman chain gangs. There are songs here that even make you forget how lead yelper Jonathan Davis sounded in the bad old 90s.
Part of Remember Who You Are‘s spasmodic excellence is pure Kismet. At this moment, Korn in is the situation of being trapped between their fanbase’s slavering desire for more shit that sounds like oldKorn, a mass market-driven need to update the sound and an audible urge by the band to be artistically relevant. (Just saying, but when nü metal was Faith No More’s “Epic,” people had no problem with it, probably because Mike Patton presented a super cool version of how listeners felt they were.)
Don’t get me wrong — sometimes Davis still sounds like old Davis, with that crushed-balls, stuck-pig, tenor Trent Reznor thing. But about fifty percent of the time of Remember Who You Are, his voice is the most unpredictable thing going and enhanced by the appealingly raw, four-dudes-in-a-room production style.
On the startlingly inventive “Are You Ready to Live,” we hear a war between musical modes, a battle between being a really good Slipknot song and a really good song by Low, as in the indie slowcore Mormons, complete with Davis sounding like a ringer for Low’s Alan Sparhawk. And you thought we lived in a time devoid of miracles.
Atop pit-ready, rattling track of “Oildale (Leave Me Alone),” which sounds more like a less Greek version of the most recent Rotting Christ CD than anything else I could think of, we get a Davis who’s successfully morphed into the Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad. No, for real.
But all is not well. “Pop a Pill” is pleasingly raw and weird with its cool Arabic-scaled riffs. Unfortunately, it also has the most Korn-y ‘funk’ bass and a return to that vocal style that so troubled us in the 90s. And “Holding All These Lies” is just fucking god awful, not because it’s nü metal, but because it’s crap.
But then you get “Fear is a Place to Live,” which in one song reconciles old and nu Korn. Deep groove disco beat? Check. Indie-pop-ish chorus? Check. Self-loathing monologue (but not a rap)? You betcha.
And so it goes, back and forth, from inspired to lousy and back.
That noted, successive listens had me thinking: if Korn are working so hard to move on, why are we so deadset on dismissing them, sound unheard?
Even in this edgy incarnation, the better songs here face-slap us with the reason Korn sold multibillions: the inglorius basterds can write a song, a for-real tune, not a mess of riffs crazy-glued together.Agoraphobic Nosebleed rules, Anaal Nathrakh rips, but it’s downright useful to have something that’s fairly brutal that you can hum along to while you’re being totally teenage and alienated.
And so, listening to the updated Davis machine, I got to thinking that instead of loathing Korn, we should really be grateful.
People seldom start their metal journey with Behemoth, Meshuggah or Napalm Death. In the 90s, there was easy-to-digest Korn, just like with have Crack the Skye‘s Mastodon with their ELO choruses, both working as catchy gateway drugs to the harder stuff.
Meanwhile, I think there’s another good reason why Korn makes the metal cognoscenti turn up their noses while similar but more arty, less emotionally naked bands like Deftones are accepted. And please, do feel free to say I’m full of something.
At about the same time the first Korn records came out, the literary world was exploding with its own form of nü metal. It was an abrupt gush of seriously fucked up dark young adult fiction (DYA) that was totally narrowcast at teens, really fucked up teens, or teens who saw themselves as really fucked up. Whatever.
DYA heroes and heroines, usually big music fans, wee often latchkey kids from wrecked families. Incredibly despairing and often literally goth, the books were rife with child abuse, violent incest, vampires who did not glitter but did rape your soul, mothers who either over-medicated their kids of sold them for quick cash and, incredibly, worse.
And so a generation before Twilight, authors like Charles de Lint and Francesca Lia Block created full-blown publishing empires off this new generation’s seemingly bottomless need for tales of truly fucked up tweens and teens (why they were so fucked up is up to the sociologists).
Cut to: me, trying to cross 7th Avenue at 8th Street in New York City in the mid-late 90s.
The street was clotted with hundreds of kids outside a Barnes & Noble packed with Charles de Lint books where one of the Korn dudes was doing an autograph session. All with a copies of Follow the Leader andLife is Peachy cradled, gently, in their hands. Most of them wearing worn Slayer, Metallica and Megadeth tee shirts, their older sibling’ metal. Kids who needed to hear their angst mirrored/validated in Davis’ vocal middlebrow but still effective operatics.
And so I think another reason we might dismiss Korn is because they’re fucking embarrassing; neediness and desperation are not pretty. They’re the opposite of the cool swagger of a Devildriver or Five Finger Death Punch, the blustery maniac shrieks and barks of black metal, the cookie monsters of death metal.
So we have Korn as gateway to more awesome metal and as accidental metal therapists (along with Remember’s “Are You Ready to Live” and “The Past,” Remember features the therapeutic “Let the Guilt Go”).
But there’s more.
No matter how good they get—and on Remember Who You Are, they’re often pretty damned good—Kornwill always be the musical equivalent of a metaphorical photo of us at 14, 15 or maybe 16, faces sprayed with spots, hormones raging uselessly, porn sites memorized so Mom, whose probably been drinking again, won’t find them when on your crappy Acer computer. Look at it this way and the title Remember Who You Are almost feels like a threat.
But strip the new CD of all that incredible baggage, and what we have is a band trying and half the time succeeding in not sucking in a pretty unique way, a 2010 band and not a relic, and hitting an easy 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.
You can hate ‘em. You can point out that they’re metal Peter Pans, eternally stuck in angsty adolescence. You can accurately point out that Davis still sounds like a miserable stuck pig here and there and there would be no arguing it. But given all the positive roles Korn have played in the real and greater metal world, and despite how irritating as they can be, and now as good as they can be, its time to finally accept them as one of us. Remember Who You Are indeed.