Since losing guitarist Brian “Head” Welch to Christianity, Korn have embarked on their most productive musical spree since their nu-metal heyday. Commencing with 2005’s not-all-that-bad See You on the Other Side, they’ve squeezed in three compilations, a DVD, revived their Family Values tour and played at countless festivals around the world. Perhaps it took the loss of a member to motivate them, or maybe they just want to remind us all they’re still here. Less than two years after their last, their eighth studio album is ready for release.
Such extensive touring obviously has a toll: David Silveria missed his family so much that he understandably decided to take a break from the band’s rhythm section. Everyone else in the Korn Kamp, though, dominated by the persona of singer Jonathan Davis, seems to have no time for a family, not when they’ve been trying so hard of late to develop their rap-metal formula and remain relevant (it’s 13 years since their classic debut), so they’ve soldiered on with a replacement and recruited a new session member, keyboardist Zac Baird.
Korn never were much concerned about melody, and whenever they try to convince us otherwise it generally falls flat (“Alone I Break”, this year’s MTV Unplugged), always focusing their efforts on an extremely heavy, bludgeoning sound and twisted, deranged vocal antics to get their rage across. However, on Korn (a declaration of evolution in itself -– the self-titled), a.k.a. Untitled, it’s as if they signed off Nine Inch Nails’ tight, pneumatic beats and have gone about merging it into their own down-tuned, explosive nu-metal. The album plays like a deformed MTV mash-up.
Which presents a simple problem: Korn shouldn’t sound like this. At its heart, Untitled is really quite a heavy record –- more than, say, Linkin Park’s Minutes to Midnight — but is boring-as-heck and doesn’t suit the band at all, bogged down in multi-layered experiments that come and go in unpredictable dribs-and-drabs, but without a shred of atmosphere or surprise to personalize it, meaning that it still winds up an erratic, powerless and paper-thin exercise in futility.
Producer Atticus Ross, who first collaborated with the outfit on See You on the Other Side, must be commended for his understanding of the electronic ‘beat’ and how to best apply it to their dark, malevolent churn. His labors fit the group up with a cold industrial credibility, and steers them away from The Matrix’s pop songwriting and hip-hop fusions, although it’s ultimately difficult to consider that a positive, as it’s already been done with considerably more skill by the very band Korn is aping — a few months ago on Year Zero.
Most egregious of all, Davis sounds tortured for all the wrong reasons. Digitally processed to a shiny, double-tracked edge to hide that he’s no longer young, he can no longer scream “WON’T YOU GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY FACE! NOW!” (“Good God”, 1996) and make it sound both marrow-chilling and like he’s having a nervous breakdown. His lifeless voice commits any number of atrocities all over the disc, and it’s worst when he’s trying to carry a tune on one of Untitled’s many downright ridiculous choruses: from falsetto mewing, to an off-pitch, wobbly baritone, sandpaper-coarse croaking and his unique but horrendously out of place here gruff, adenoidal, squared yap (Come take me (may)!”).
Speaking of which, Davis needs some hooks. There are plenty of potentials here, but they’re buried beneath mirk and Reznor-worshipping chromatic warp riffs, or poorly timed delivery. Other Side’s “Twisted Transistor” had a biting, radio-ready catchiness to it. “Evolution” shouldn’t even be a single. It runs its course as a time-shifting, key-modulating junior commentary on global warming (“Why? Do I deserve to die? I’m dominated by/ This animal that’s locked up inside!”), a melody so sparse its atonal and as much charisma as a bedpost.
Untitled even bears some unwelcome similarities to Metallica’s St. Anger in that it beats an already-overused phrase into exasperation through rep-rep-repetion. They contrast “It’s starting over” with “Nothing much has changed”, which is kinda like Kid A-era Radiohead contrasting “This isn’t really happening” and “This is really happening” only, you know, Korn doesn’t have the artistic index to make the connection. Sure, Davis was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) last year, very nearly killing off one dreadlocked headbanger, and it’s all very well to translate your harrowing, near-death experiences into your writing… Except when introspection is expressed this banally, you wonder why you should care. “I’d rather be dead than carry on”, Davis moans in “Do What They Say”, an example of a line worthy of Korn’s depressed, nihilistic beginnings. But it’s roared listlessly over a thudding backdrop, destroying its potency. It’s misery for misery’s sake.
The album begins with an intro of creepy carnival-after-dark music, a motif that recurs throughout. The effect is possibly slightly unnerving, but everywhere else, the huge production and engineering team jump in to make the record’s tracks sound more like strict, droning machines than the soundtrack to a B-grade horror movie. The only flash of auditory dissonance in Korn’s faux-industrial-metal swipe is the lamely titled “Bitch, We Got a Problem”, which kicks off superbly withn a squealy guitar line and unusual time signature under Davis’ uneven flow, and loses its momentum upon reaching an irritating sing-songy chorus that falls into self-parody: “Which one, which one of you is into me? Which one, which one of me is into you?”
Other songs like “Hold On” and “Ever Be” bring back the guitars, but highlight how much Fieldy’s scratchy bass heaviness and the band’s brutal rhythmic grooves are missing from the proceedings. Rarely if ever do the tempos lift above a perpetual mid-slog, draining the performance of all its catharsis. Let’s not even get started on the abysmal “Love and Luxury”, beginning with Davis busting out a laughable Right Said Fred impression (remember “I’m Too Sexy?” Like that). It makes even See You on the Other Side’s stinkers look delightful.
Davis needs to ease off the smothering dominance he splashes over the record. It was acceptable for him just to belt it haphazardly on Korn’s earliest outings –- it fit in with the notion of exploring his psyche. Untitled is a different story. This work needs to breathe if its bold experiments could ever work, and he insists on lavishing his over-dubbed whining all over the thing, at the expense of his other band members (Munky’s seven-string guitar, once sounding so cool, is given the back seat).
Still they keep up the pretense in the name of progress (“It’s evolution!” as he gulps during “Evolution”), and with a total count of 13 cuts to wade through, most of which range from bad to awful, it’s easy to skip over the interesting or tolerable. A drill of concentrated feedback and drumming tears up some rather blah piano arrangements on “Kiss”, while only “Killing” rubs off genuinely menacing, a rumbling deathmarch that packs a real punch. It’s no exaggeration to say this is the heaviest the band has been in quite some time. Finishing on a series of impressive death-metal growls, “Killing” is still somewhat detracted by the babbling chorus about ‘killing them with lies’ (Korn’s anti-war statement?). And that’s forgotten by the time the unforgivable “Hushabye” rolls around, once again a case of a perfectly promising verse overrun by the one of the stupidest choruses in the history of nu-metal: “Why, why, why, Hushabye?” How could anyone sing that without a guilty conscience?
Korn really do want to evolve. That much is obvious. That said, going by Untitled it’s hard to believe they’re anything but a rich, less-than-smart band who are stumbling for a new foothold now that their adolescent traumas no longer carry weight. According to Davis, the album is influenced by the Cure and the Beatles? Yeah, right. This self-titled sounds like Korn trying to play watered-down nu-Korn, or Nine Inch Nails, or, if such prestigious tie-ins really do exist here, it’s in such a heavy-handed and amateurish way that the former artists would probably run a mile from it. Though not as bad an album in itself as the spineless Unplugged, Untitled still offers us nothing to remember and isn’t even particularly accessible in spite of its stiff, softer-around-the-edges polishing. It sounds like Korn has lost the will to live.