Over the last few years, the members of Korn must have had something of a guilty conscience. Since the departure of Brian “Head” Welch to Christianity, the band has desperately been trying to mature and outgrow the nü-metal stereotype they were until then credited with, perhaps realizing that they need to have something to show for the fact they’re getting older too. Frontman Jonathan Davis is now 36; parental angst is probably no longer ideal for someone of that age.
This tactic has worked, to an extent, in Korn’s favor, keeping their heads above the water while bands like Limp Bizkit crashed and burned (The Unquestionable Truth, anyone?), and as the band started to turn their maturity obsession towards the acoustic guitar in another attempt to broaden their audience, we should have guessed it would be inevitable they would eventually go and give us an MTV Unplugged. No one can deny it’s an interesting idea, if done well, to show that the veterans of angry music are serious about their evolution, and it must be acknowledged that Korn can do it live: last year’s Live & Rare proved that. So, what the hell went wrong?
When it comes to the rock band, it’s no secret that MTV Unplugged can be sometimes nothing more than old men getting out acoustics to show that they can play them. There have been a few exceptions, Nirvana and Alice in Chains coming to mind first here, and Korn wants to join them with their own performance, but just can’t. Korn is anger. The tortured music they’ve crafted for over ten years now is of more importance than their talent, their musicianship, and the members behind it. Taking the anger out of Korn, as this show does, makes them look both limp and pitiful.
That, and the absence of their downtuned guitar assault. Here, it’s replaced with piano and the violin or cello arrangement, and you have to wonder if the band is actually trying to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s saying something about a band when keyboardist Zac Baird, ‘session member’, gets more attention than the band’s guitarist, James “Munky” Shaffer, who plays a few notes throughout the whole thing and must have looked bored out of his mind. On the up side, “Fieldy” can still squeeze his stringy bass sound into an acoustic bass, but possibly worst of all is the tin-can drumming, omnipresent and impossible to ignore. Chester Bennington is in the audience, learning how Linkin Park can do the same thing in a few years time, and Jonathan Davis himself, not a great singer in the first place, but able to wring his roars with testosterone-fuelled emotion when he chooses to, is exposed as woefully thin and grating in this setting.
There’s no better example of this than on “Blind”. The rage and menacing guitar lines have been sapped into a folky, bouncy, happy tune. We should doubtless be thankful this is the only cut taken from their masterpiece debut, still a swirling coil of pure, undisguised anger, as none of the others could possibly have survived such utter mutilation as this. Suicide song “Falling Away From Me”’s piercing riff doesn’t sound eerie or unnerving anymore, just comical, especially as its put to slow death over light piano chords. “Freak on a Leash” is warped into a mopey piano duet featuring Amy Lee, who applies her over-dramatic, over-enunciating swoon to every second line and a cringeworthy chorus where they sing together: their voices don’t match at all, and this has been done before with Seether. Worse, the scat, still the song’s best bit, is left out altogether.
“Love Song” and “Throw Me Away” from their latest studio album, See You on the Other Side, are slowed down and balladized up to (im)perfection, and further marred by Davis’ refusal to use his pained scream, making his way through in a mumbled whisper instead. Their eyebrow-raising cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” is done without Thom Yorke’s confused emotions, and so Korn play it with resignation. Even their medley (“Make Me Bad / In Between Days”) with the Cure reeks of wasted opportunity — all Robert Smith gets to do is whine “make me bad” at the end of each line (except in his dejected British accent, so it comes out “make me bah”), then he sings his own song and leaves. The only number that works is “Hollow Life”, which has been played in an acoustic rendition since the Family Values Tour last year anyway, so it would be inexcusable if it was anything less than gloomy and haunting by now.
It’s perfectly acceptable for every band to want to evolve, but Korn seem not to know how. Their contribution to MTV’s Unplugged series has them trying to fit their songs into a mold that won’t fit, and without any sense of adventure: the piano pretty much plays the guitar parts with little variation, and only their slowest hits make the final cut (“Got the Life” is the fastest song on the disc). The sad fact is, Korn are really not a bad band at all, but this fiasco will rectify all the haters that say they can’t do anything but pummel a few notes on their six-string. Let’s hope heartily they don’t continue to slide down this path for their new album, due in July. There might be too many bands that have performed at MTV over the years to label this as ‘one of the most awful Unpluggeds ever’, but it’s certainly one of the most embarrassing.