KoRn's best since 'Untouchables'
KoRn has always been on the bleeding edge of modern Heavy Metal, yet generally gave the impression that they were blazing their own trails. From their ambitious and emotional self-titled debut album from 1994 (which managed to combine nursery rhymes, aggressive scatting, bagpipes (!) and even the lead singer dissolving into tears up through their involvement in the rap-metal and “nu metal” movement of the late 1990s and their return to form in the early part of the new century. But after the impressive 2002 album Untouchables, Korn seemed to be at the edge of a nadir. Jonathan Davis still sounded like no other metal singer and the band was still heavy, yet their music was no longer quite unforgettable. This trend culminated in the angry, yet commercial anti-single “Ya’ll want a Single” that was steeped in so much irony, it rounded the corner back into straightforwardness, back into irony and splashing down somewhere in the sea of missing your own point.
It was beginning to look like KoRn’s best days were behind them and their best albums relics of the previous century. This trend seems to have shifted back to the positive with their eleventh album The Paradigm Shift, which brings back many electronic and melodic elements of the band’s Issues and Untouchables albums. In short, I’m impressed.
The change may be heralded by the return of long time guitarist Brian “Head” Welch to the lineup. This makes The Paradigm Shift the first Head-centric album since 2003’s misfire Take a Look in the Mirror. Luckily, the appropriately entitled The Paradigm Shift isn’t a misfire. Whatever Heady goodness Brian Welch brought back to the mix seems to be working and KoRn sounds young again. Davis’ voice sounds reinvigorated, from his low growl to his soft, lilting falsetto to every operatic turn in between, while the guitars of Head and Munky Shaffer shred over the rhythm section of Fieldy Arvizu (bass) and Ray Luzier (drums).
The album kicks off with “Prey for Me”, a rapid-fire chugga-chugga metal track with a classic KoRn sound to it, with the guitars occasionally receding for Ray and Fieldy’s rhythmic thunder. Davis takes to the microphone with a vengeance here, blasting out his particular brand of pensively introspective and even depressed lyrics with virtually every tone he keeps in his quiver. This continues with the song “Love & Meth”, which details an emotional roller coaster, much as one might feel when under the influence of either of the title subjects. Davis exemplifies this sonic version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with lyrics like “Take me Away, Set me on Fire” and “I’m so lost and lonely now!” Sure this song won’t win any special recognition awards from the Optimist’s Society, but with its ringing guitars and growling-cum-operatic chorus, this is an infinitely listenable track.
“What We Do” evolves from a static resonance into a speedmetal thrash style into a rattling verse with Davis’ voice skipping over the prongs of the guitar rock. Part of the beauty of The Paradigm Shift is the way the songs are arranged superbly for the most part, with each track complementing and setting up the track after it. “What We Do” provides an attractive introduction for “Spike In My Veins”, a complexly layered song with multiple guitar lines and Davis providing his own backing vocals. The song also features the best and most infectious chorus of the entire album with Davis’ tongue-twisting delivery matching some of KoRn’s best.
“Mass Hysteria” takes the fifth slot on the album and continues Davis’ dejected lyrics with yet another impressively aggressively delivered chorus that utilizes both Davis’ growl and operatic prowess with Munky and Head’s guitar’s experimenting with various non-melodic noises for a brilliant metal sound that continues into “Paranoid and Aroused”. This sixth track is a murky experiment in dark metal with lyrics referencing angels and demons and such clearly dark themes that the song might fit perfectly as a metal spoof in some future Spinal Tap project.
“Never Never” is the album’s first single and feels like a song that might have led off any of KoRn’s best 1990s work without falling into the trappings of “throwback”. The chorus is backed by a beautiful “Ah-ah-ah-ah” vocal with Davis’ lead vocal tapping against multiple speeds and octaves for a memorable bridge and refrain. This may be KoRn’s most recent attempt at commercial radio airplay, but the song is well done to the point that only the most dejected and fed-up Metal fans would condemn them for this.
The album begins to stall with “Punishment Time”, but only slightly. Like the best of The Paradigm Shift, “Punishment Time” features many tempos and just about every style Davis’ voice is capable of (except for the Scatting). This ins’t a bad song, but the combinations fit together somewhat haphazardly and the ultimate result feels choppy, forced and repetitive. This, in turn, paves the way for the closest thing to a ballad The Paradigm Shift has to offer. The lyrics for “Lullaby for a Sadist” are unsurprising for such a title and essentially detail a man enjoying cruelty to a woman in simplistic terms. “One, I love hurting you. Two, I love your pain. Three, let’s get together and play this endless game. Four is for the torture and five is for the shame, ‘cause every time you want it, I get off on this game.” The song can be beautiful at times, which brings the lyrics into the obvious area of irony once again and causes the entire thing to collapse under its own weight.
The triumvirate of an agony column concludes with the song “Victimized” which starts with an electronic wall of sound that shatters in favor of KoRn’s twin-guitar attack, underlying Davis’ depressed and pained vocals that range from the sincere and one step beyond pathetic into the bathetic. What saves “Victimized” are the multitude of musical breaks and shifts that form sonic pockets of listenability that somehow manage to form a coherent and catchy song.
“It’s All Wrong” is the beginning of the end of the album. A straightforward driving rock track, “It’s All Wrong” is a litany of reasons that life (or at least Davis’ day) completely sucks and he wants to go back to bed. At about this point a certain lyrical sameness is undeniable in this album. Desperate depressive lyrics to the point of parody or, at least, the point of a prescription for lithium. As if putting a finer point on this theme to punctuate the album, the last song “Tell Me What You Want” is a complex metal song with lots of Davis’ trademark screams all detailing the frustrations surrounding a bad relationship. It’s quite a therapeutic track for purging one’s emotions upon, but the same can be said for almost every song on the album. So by the time we have reached its fitting end in “Tell Me What You Want”, the listener had damned sure better want eleven tracks of anger and depression, because that’s what The Paradigm Shift is all about.
Yes, in many cases, dark, depressing and angry lyrics are exactly what heavy metal is all about and that’s no surprise. However, while much of The Paradigm Shift reaches back to KoRn’s best years musically, the album does miss the boat on something else KoRn had in spades during their best years: lyrical diversity. All told, Korn’s 11-track 11th album is a very fine return to form for the metal stalwarts (whose new album is released 19 years, almost to the day, after their debut), but the lyrics pack a certain brand of sameness into the spectrum of headbanging metallic textures in most every song. While continuing to eschew Davis’ rapping, scatting and bagpipe playing, KoRn still works hard here to create a vintage album for their fans and largely succeeds. This may not quite be KoRn’s best album ever, but The Paradigm Shift is KoRn’s best album since Untouchables and metal fans could do a lot worse than that.