[1 November 2013]
Earlier in the month California Nu Metal rockers, Korn were inducted into the Hollywood RockWalk. Their handprints now grace the same hallowed ground where Queen and AC/DC lay in concrete tribute. Last year, the Deftones received widespread critical acclaim for their epic Koi No Yokan, named Revolver’s album of the year. Is it just me or does it suddenly feel like 1995 redux?
Although the two singers—Korn’s Jonthan Davis and Deftones’ Chino Moreno—have recently engaged in a media war, belittling each other as “bitter” and “stuck in childhood nightmares”, the quibbling hasn’t distracted from the chatter of a unified Nu Metal resurgence. The genre is a heavy metal meets hip-hop hybrid that made both bands kingpins of the west coast rock scene in the mid ‘90s. In back-to-back appearances in Chicago, both bands provided convincing evidence of a takeover, Korn in the throws of a headline tour for their recently released 11th studio album Paradigm Shift while the Deftones supported Avenged Sevenfold’s “Hail to the King” tour.
It’s an interesting time for both acts. They’ve capitalized on new audiences with shifting styles. Both have either survived or resurrected the losses of founding members. Korn reintroduced wayward guitarist Brian “Head” Welch who left in 2005 to find Jesus on a solo career. The Deftones bid a sad adieu to bassist Chi Cheng who passed away earlier in the year, succumbing to health issues stemming from a car accident in 2008. Both groups have come out the other side seemingly stronger. Nu Metal’s style has not always been understood, thank contemporary Limp Bizkit for that. Neither has it been taken very seriously, NME recently called the genre “the skidmark of music,” but the two group’s combined 18 albums have remained highly marketable for nearly 20 years.
For Korn that includes taking bagpipes and nursery rhymes all the way to the bank. The Scottish salute/hopscotch anthem of their first single, “Shoots and Ladders” from the 1994 self-titled debut is the stuff of playground horror stories. Yet to this day it elicits a crowd reaction of communal joy as soon as Davis blows the first note. The same response was seen at the boutique Riviera Theatre halfway through Korn’s performance. The set began with the mind bomb “Blind” and played out heavy with tracks from 1999’s Issues, and 2011’s The Path of Totality -two starkly different albums that met in tandem with surprising cohesive harmony.
Korn’s early albums reflect heavy drum and bass style, a sound that was later enmeshed into high voltage dubstep on Totality. The album was largely produced by turntablist Skrillex, an artist who would soon come into his own in the music business. The record shouldn’t have been the head scratcher it was to so many. Korn has always been a purveyor of experimentation—how else does heavy metal come to mix with hip-hop? From Korn’s very origin music was asking for a shakeup and the group has been keenly aware of its audience’s attention deficit disorder. They continually provided just enough new tastes to keep that fickle audience satiated—both on record and on stage.
Korn’s live show proves to be a practice of balance, a perfect mix of visual ambiguity (human cages, electric strobe, Davis’ Alien-esque mic stand), riotous sound (fully engaged again with the return of “Head” Welch who brings back the double guitar assault) and timed tossups, like the addition of a Pink Floyd cover or making the crowd wait on baited breath for the three biggest hits delivered during the planned encore (“Get Up!”, “Got the Life”, “Freak on a Leash”).
Time has done little to disturb the union of the band, which has found a perfect lineup with the original four members on the front line. Incendiary drummer Ray Luzier stokes the fire from behind, a combination leading to Dolby-like explosions when fully engaged. In an interesting turn of events, newest member Luzier has become the funnel for the band through which all sound travels. His pragmatic timing and chiseled drilling help to find the core of Korn’s aggression. It results in a heavier, more dimensional sound supported by guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer’s shredding and vocalist Davis’ entrapped howling. With time Korn has also learned the art of percolating melody. New single “Never Never” has become their most populist song to date. Then again, versatility has been their platform since the beginning, and will continue to put the ‘Bakersfield Five’ in the spotlight.
If Korn’s tactic has been an appeal to all employing a rainbow of musical styles, the Deftones have engaged a more targeted approach. Over time they’ve whittled down a cache of experimental emo and alt-metal sounds into a slow-metal art project. In turn, their evolving output has been championed by long-time fans and appraised by even the most elite music assessor. They have come to enjoy the holy grail combination of street cred and high-brow approval. But there’s no bombast here, the Deftones are still the face of skateboard culture, graffiti grifters with picks in their pockets have simply grown beyond the confines of basement rehearsals and busking.
Although the band was slated to open for heavyweights Avenged Sevenfold, there was little more than a marquee to discern them from the headlining act. In fact, they played as if they were the only band of the night, moving elegantly from 2010’s “Diamond Eyes” to early hit “My Own Summer (Shove It)” from 1997’s Around the Fur. But it was the four-song interlude of Koi No Yokan highlights that truly stood out. On songs like “Rosemary” and “Swerve City”, singer Chino Moreno has found his inner storyteller. These are roaming songs with building plots and cascading climaxes. Rounding out Moreno’s tales, lead guitarist Stephen Carpenter keeps the stories melody glued to the temporal lobe while bassist Sergio Vega hints at the foreboding suspense soon to be unleashed in the narrative.
The main message of Koi No Yokan seems to be metal can have feelings too. It can be slow and nurturing and even effeminate. It comes to the fold live as Moreno looks to the horizon from every corner of the stage, assessing his audience and singing directly to them. It’s a give-and-take show, a push-and-pull interactive performance that involves the crowd as a player in the overall scheme. It’s a hard act to follow. Many left before Avenged Sevenfold took stage in a vain attempt to hold attention. This is exactly how bands like the Deftones or Korn maintain 20-plus-year careers. They adapt, they evolve, but they always care about the end result. In the face of indie rock and wanton pop stars, should there be any question why Nu Metal retains its popularity? Perhaps these trifling genres have woken a sleeping giant.