[28 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The metal subgenre that Korn played a major role in spawning remains one of the more unfortunate branches of heavy music, and today it’s easy to look back on the late 1990s “nu-metal” fad and wonder with incredulity what on earth it was that millions of suburban teenagers found so appealing about music so thematically negative and compositionally boring. As Korn has gone on to prove over the last decade with subsequent albums that have gotten progressively worse than the previous, the template of simple, down-tuned riffs, stiff attempts at funk basslines, flaccid hip-hop derived beats, and “poor, poor me” lyrics is so limiting that it’s impossible to keep churning that music out and sound fresh. All the relics of that era—Korn, Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, etc.—are nothing but tired self-parodies today; so much so that the original impact Korn had on music, both metal and popular, is largely forgotten. As part of Sony’s ongoing series of definitive artist anthologies, The Essential Korn attempts to rectify that with a two-disc, 28 track retrospective.
No matter what you thought of Korn when they burst upon the scene in 1994, there was no denying they were original. A clever amalgamation of various trendy styles, from the post-thrash groove metal of Machine Head, to the murky tones of Tool, to the vehemence of Rage Against the Machine, to the quirkiness of Jane’s Addiction, to a strong dose of West Coast rap, the Bakersfield, California quintet boiled it all down into a simple, distilled form of heavy music that stripped it all down to its most blunt basics. Produced by Ross Robinson, whose own career would be launched immediately after, 1994’s Korn remains an audacious debut, a blend of the aggressive, the off-putting, the cathartic, and the sophomoric that was unlike anything in the metal scene at the time. Four songs from that record are on this collection, ranging from the contagious (“Blind”, “Clown”) to the borderline idiotic (the nursery rhyme-referencing “Shoots and Ladders”). The provocative “Faget”, however, remains the best song on the album, not to mention one of the most harrowing depictions of teenage social ostracism ever recorded, and is a worthy inclusion here, a much better choice than the decidedly inferior single “Need To”.
The surprising success of the debut paved the way for Korn’s two most popular albums, 1996’s Life Is Peachy and 1998’s massively popular Follow the Leader, and not surprisingly, material from those two records dominates the first disc. “A.D.I.D.A.S.” and “Good God” remain potent songs as Jonathan Davis’s blind rage is juxtaposed brilliantly with the atonal guitar squeals and squalls by Brian “Head” Welch and James “Munky” Shaffer, while the combination of the psychotic scatting of “Twist” and the explosive groove of “Chi” foreshadows Korn’s greatest moment on record. 1998’s “Freak on a Leash” remains the band’s creative peak, as they take that raw sound and create something genuinely accessible, producer Steve Thompson placing Davis’s improving vocal skills at the forefront. From the profane chorus (“a cheap fuck for me to lay”) to the absurdly contagious bridge, it’s a wicked, bizarre piece of pop music, something the band would never be able to top. Still, other Follow the Leader tracks like the infectious, dance-infused “Got the Life” and the aggro “It’s On!” are very worthy inclusions on the compilation.
If The Essential Korn ended right there, it would have been near-perfect. Unfortunately, however, there’s another decade that needs documenting, one that saw the quality of the band’s music drop off severely. The expectations for Korn’s fourth album were enormous, but 1999’s Issues, while selling in the millions, failed to live up to the previous three full-lengths, the music mired in a horribly soupy sound by producer Brendan O’Brien. “Falling Away from Me” and “Wake Up” ditch inventiveness and wit in favor of pandering to mosh pits, while the mildly catchy “Make Me Bad” sounds tired in comparison to “Freak” and “Got the Life”. Sonically, 2002’s Untouchables was a big improvement, producer Michael Beinhorn emphasizing melody over riffs, but sadly the melodies on the three tracks here (“Here to Stay”, “Thoughtless”, “Alone I Break”) aren’t very interesting at all. By the time we get to 2003’s Take a Look in the Mirror, the sound has become so watered down and unimaginative that it all blends together in a big mess of lumbering grooves and angst-ridden whining.
Mercifully, the compilation stops there, ignoring the last two forgettable albums, 2007’s See You on the Other Side and 2010’s awful Korn III: Become Who You Are, but it’s too little, too late, as the second disc is filled out by asinine songs like “Jingle Balls”, “Y’all Want a Single”, and the unnecessary 2004 cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”. Those who do still enjoy Korn’s music after all these years won’t find any reason to buy The Essential Korn, but for those interested in exploring the band, it does have a CD full of all the Korn tunes you’ll ever need, along with a second disc you can use as a handy coaster.