For the Love of Meth: Korn’s New Album Taps Embarrassing Nostalgic Nerves
[After I’ve written this article, I can’t help but think the best course of action would be to delete it and never mention the name Korn again. Yet, like every other irrational human on this planet, I decided not to, and have penned my thoughts on the band’s latest release, The Paradigm Shift, which many music reviewers are hailing as a return to the band’s 90s roots, and therefore a boon for nu metal music.]
Like any responsible adult, I haven’t followed Korn since high school and have missed a half dozen of their previous albums. There’s something unnerving about finding that you still have a sweet spot for what is known as “nu metal”, and it’s especially disconcerting to crave blasting one of the highlight albums from that genre.
I’m talking about Korn’s mainstream 1998 breakthrough, Follow the Leader. Just like the irritating scar on the bottom of my foot, I’ll carry the experience of that album with me throughout life, blemish or not. I can’t get rid of the sucker, no matter how hard I try.
I was in junior high when Korn took rock radio hostage. Before that, I’d been holed up in my claustrophobic North Dakota farmhouse bedroom listening to Pantera, Metallica, Slayer, and Sepultura, while reading Stephen King novels and shooting hoops with a sponge basketball and a flimsy, orange rim that clipped over the top of the shut bedroom door.
But when Follow the Leader was released, my experience with music changed. Nothing had sounded as bright and musically diverse as Korn (despite the fact they knew nothing or cared not for any musical history). They were vivid cartoon characters, splashed with color, but animated by darker vibrations.
There was the mysterious popping and clicking of the loose bass strings against the fret board. The dance-groove drumming. The down-tuned guitars either working in tandem to create that freight train rumbling, or the high notes plucked and combined with a number of spooky, atmospheric effects. And then there was Davis, the stringy-haired, Adidas-wearing, heavily-abused man child baring his soul to God, to the audience, to himself, to nobody in particular, and sounding damned convincing doing it.
A couple years later, while the snow swirled outside and the dreadful winter drew longer, I would teach myself to play electric guitar and clumsily hammer out metal songs from bands with names like Coal Chamber, Godsmack, and Staind.
I wouldn’t have noticed this latest Korn album, just like I hadn’t been interested since Untouchables, however, an ArtistDirect review, which handed The Paradigm Shift a perfect five-star review, tapped an emotional nerve that threw me back to that chilly old farmhouse bedroom. Not since Follow the Leader has this band been so inspired, seems to be the consensus among major reviewers.
I disagree, but not totally. While PS is engaging and mildly satisfying, it is not spontaneous or creative like 90s Korn. Rather, it’s mined from old Korn resources, canned, properly packaged, and shipped out en masse. It’s another corporate boondoggle, even featuring a song called, “Never Never”, which could have been written and performed by the Devil’s latest child sex slave, Miley Cyrus (can’t you see her shaking her finger, sticking out her tongue, and then singing how she’ll never, ever, never love again?). It’s about as unique as an order of large fries from McDonald’s.
Here’s the paragraph that inspired me to listen to The Paradigm Shift:
Take the soft vocal break in the middle of “Prey For Me”. The succinct sharp seven-string chug that James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian “Head” Welch pioneered subsides and Jonathan Davis croons a haunting and hypnotic bridge, “Goodbye, so long, wish I could stay but everything is all wrong”. Then, it kicks into a full-on bass, drum, and guitar onslaught as he screams his heart out. It’s classic Korn…
I don’t know how many times I played and replayed the videocassette on which I’d taped Korn’s 1999 Woodstock appearance. I’m embarrassed to say it was a magical music moment. I say embarrassed, and I almost hesitate to call Korn’s music “music” because after listening to Bach, Vivaldi, Verdi, and the saddest composer of all time, John Dowland, the range of standards for creativity and artistic ability change.
Maybe the nu metal music lends meaningful shape to our deranged modern human reality, cut off from the very necessities of life as we trek lonely paths through traffic-congested cities, with our feet pounding on pavement rather than soil or grass, and our ears hit with slashing sounds like honking car horns that tipple over the bass rumble of jumbo jets and a hundred idling car engines stuck in a traffic jam. Maybe that’s something Vivaldi could never quite capture. The other question is, Why would he want to?
In 1999, my family only had five TV channels. Videos were not easily uploaded or streamed online. So when NBC (I think) aired “Blind” and “Twist” from Korn’s Woodstock performance, I taped it. For a 14-year old, there was no greater musical moment possible. I watched the kilted Davis scream his heart out, jump around, and do his chicken dance while holding onto his mic stand (prior to the custom made alien stand that seemed to signal the downfall of the band, as well as guitarist “Head”‘s departure to find Jesus, quit meth, and, finally, to rejoin the band for this latest album ten years later).
Jesus had no need for meth, and neither do you…(and that wasn’t meant to be hate speech against meth heads, but rather a calculated opinion based on my meticulous research of history around the year zero to thirty-three AD)
One year ago I confessed to my self-proclaimed Communist professor that I couldn’t help that I really enjoy all varieties of heavy metal music. It’s a weak spot I have, I said. But I can’t get enough of the stuff. This was just after we’d discussed the mathematical perfection of music in the Baroque era.
“Oi,” he said, “metal music?” and chuckled to himself. “Like what those meth heads in Northern California listen to?” he asked. “They drive around in raised trucks with knobby tires and get tribal arm band tattoos?”
Well, sure, I’d said. But I certainly have never been a meth head. I hate toxic chemicals. I don’t even like brushing my teeth with the corporate poison toothpaste. I get my highs from carrot juice, sublingual shots of Vitamin B, and a strong cup of black coffee. And when I do these drugs back-to-back-to-back, I’m hopped up more than I want to be anyway. But I see the connection between meth and metal. It’s all about getting more bang for your buck. It’s about wracking your body to squeeze a little extra juice out of life, despite the damage it does.
But what happens when you can’t kick those embarrassing childhood passions, like Korn music, that linger through your life? And why, as an adult, are there fewer and fewer truly magical moments of slipping into a self-indulgent, emotional artistic adventure? As awestruck as I’ve been while experiencing transcendent opera productions, such as Verdi’s La Traviata, the mood has never reached the peak of sheer excitement like it did as a kid standing in my family’s modest living room, in front of the sound system, blowing my ears out with the same two Korn songs. Perhaps it is cynicism that takes over the adult mind. Or a creeping level of ennui.
Or maybe nu metal is audio meth, and that’s as simple as it gets.
Below is a song called “Freak On A Leash”. Is this my generation’s disgruntled, polluted, and hopeless version of “Spirit in the Sky”? Perhaps bass player Fieldy’s snap, crackle, pop bass is reminiscent of Russell DaShiell’s “beeping” fills.
It’s all Dionysos rising, anyway.