Korn are as synonymous with the nu-metal scene birthed in the mid-1990s as the Sex Pistols are with punk.
That down-tuned, filthy-yet-textured guitar sound; that bass-heavy rumbling; those despairing lyrics; and a vocalist who turns from distraught crooner to flailing devil in a millisecond. Bands like Faith No More, Tool, Fear Factory and Rage Against the Machine may have laid the foundations, blending elements of hip-hop, funk and industrial into a heavy-metal template, but Korn grabbed the bull by the horns and ran with it, unwittingly fashioning a scene that, for better (Deftones) or worse (Limp Bizkit), would go on to help sell a ton of units.
But those days are long gone. Just uttering “nu-metal” at a serious metal-head in 2016 will likely result in sneers and a lengthy bout of eye-rolling. “We never were nu-metal,” say members of Disturbed, Coal Chamber, Spineshank and the like, desperately attempting to ditch the tag as it falls ever further out of fashion.
History has proven that the strong outlive the scenes and in fact thrive with the shackles off. The post-grunge Pearl Jam is a good example. And that is what Korn has been working toward.
While Korn might not be as well-regarded as Pearl Jam by the tastemakers and trendsetters, they’ve retained an enviable fan base and can still headline venues at the larger end of the scale. The guys in the band are in their mid-40s now; they’re fathers and husbands, not the wild and untamed kids who threw their unbridled energy into their phenomenal 1994 self-titled debut album.
They’ve spent the past two decades maturing and evolving. 1998’s Follow the Leader dialed up the rap influences and, following the departure of guitarist and founding member Brian “Head” Welch in 2005, 2011’s The Path of Totality saw the band experiment with dubstep. The results have been mixed to say the least, but at least they’ve been trying.
Head returned to the band in 2013, just in time for the The Paradigm Shift album. That, the band says, was just greasing the wheels. This year’s The Serenity of Suffering, Korn’s 12th studio album (out Oct. 21 on Roadrunner), is the second since Head returned, and the guitarist says that he and fellow six-stringer James “Munky” Shaffer have successfully lobbied for a return to the original Korn sound.
“I was like, I want to feel this,” Head says. “I want to feel it strong inside like we did in the beginning. I want to have energy. I want the fans to move. Munky felt the same way. We had to convince Jonathan [Davis, the band's lead singer] a little bit, but we got there. We had to get used to everything again because the dynamics for them changed with me being back. We had a meeting, and we decided that we had to really like these songs because we’re the ones that have to play them over and over again.”
When Head left Korn in 2005, he cited his drug addiction and new-found faith as the major reasons. He put out a Christian metal album, Save Me From Myself, in 2008 and then turned that project into a band, Love and Death. Still, eight years after leaving Korn, he and the band decided that the time was right for a reunion.
“Everyone’s in a different place now,” Head says. “I do my part. Everyone respects everyone, where they’re at in life at this point, and it’s a good place to be. A lot of bands fight a lot. Korn doesn’t fight. There’s humility in everybody now. Those guys took chances when I was gone and did some different types of music. It was a journey that everyone in the band had to go through.”
Korn certainly sounds like a tighter, more-complete unit with Head back in the ranks. His partnership with Munky was key to the early sound they’re now revisiting, a fact Head acknowledges.
“It’s not me alone; it’s the unity between us,” he says. “Munky comes up with the complicated stuff and the more out-there riffs, and I come with the more melodic choruses, the hooky things. Sometimes it can be vice-versa. I think I bring that Korn sound with the guitars back again. Nick Raskulinecz, the producer of the new album, is great because he had the same vision for Korn. He said that he used to flip burgers and listen to Korn when he was young, so he knew what he wanted to hear as a fan.”
That’s the key. While the men of Korn have spent the past two decades admirably looking to soak up influences from all corners, experimenting and forcing themselves out of their collective comfort zones, ultimately it's that early sound that works best for them. Maybe it’s ironic that the band sounds less constrained when they allow themselves the freedom to do what works rather than struggling to be something else in the name of creative exploration.
Is The Serenity of Suffering as good as the debut or Life Is Peachy? No, but Korn sound like they have found their groove again — and for fans, that’s more than enough.
The Serenity of Suffering will come out Oct. 21 via Roadrunner Records. More info at official.korn.com.