Itís easy to imagine that the title of the fifth and latest Korn album, Untouchables (Epic), is meant to refer to the band themselves. After all, the Bakersfield (California) quintet were one of the first groups to bring hip-hop braggadocio to rock and roll ó and after almost a decade of new-metal dominance, theyíve proved themselves as untouchable as Jay-Z. But a quick glance at the albumís cover art suggests a different interpretation. Itís a sepia-toned illustration of a herd of contemporary Oliver Twists, all with sullen looks and ghostly features pointed straight ahead. Theyíre mostly white, male, and up to no good. Which makes them perfect Korn fans. And as frontman Jonathan Davis recently explained to MTV News, theyíre the untouchables.
"The untouchables are part of the caste system in India," Davis revealed. "I think that America has its own untouchables, made up of all the kids that get tattoos and piercings. They just want to express themselves and do something different. But if they want to be rock stars or do movies or go into art, their parents shun them and say they need to get a real job."
Since the release of their classic í94 debut, Korn (Epic), Korn have proudly carried the torch of the white suburban underclass. Their fans come first ó and to celebrate the release of Untouchables, the band came up with their most innovative fan-friendly gesture to date. The night before the album came out, they played a private one-hour show at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City and digitally simulcast it live to more than 40 movie theaters across the country. The bandís more conventional Tour with No Name started last week; it will make its only New England stop this Friday at the Hartford Civic Center.
Kornís hip-hop boasting doesnít stop with the title Untouchables ó they puff their chests out again on the discís first single, "Here To Stay." When it comes to being a rock star, being cocky is just as important to these guys as giving back to the fans. Coming off a three-year break, their longest ever between albums, theyíre eager to reclaim their spot at the top. Theyíre untouchable, theyíre here to stay ó but as usual, Davis is more interested in singing about his inner demons than about the whims of the music industry. "The hurt inside is fading/This shitís gone way too far/All this time Iíve been waiting/I cannot grieve anymore," he bleats on the chorus. When he sings "Iím here to stay" near the end of the song, heís not bragging. Heís at the end of his rope, another personal trial just barely behind him.
Davisís angst has been one of commercial metalís primary attractions for so long that it seems a foregone conclusion that Korn are here to stay. In the early days, they were a Nine Inch NailsĖinspired alternative-rock band with an ear for hip-hop rhythms and a devastating metallic edge. Their first big hit, "Shoots and Ladders," was a maniacal collage of nursery-rhyme buffoonery that hardly signaled revolution. But by the time their í96 follow-up, Life Is Peachy (Epic), had yielded another novelty hit ("A.D.I.D.A.S.") and an angst-rock conniption actually worth taking seriously ("No Place To Hide"), it was clear that alternative rock was spinning off in a new, heavier direction ó and Korn were leading the way.
Korn ushered in the golden age of new metal with the í98 release Follow the Leader (Epic) and the first edition of the rock/rap Family Values Tour. That album remains the bandís biggest seller on the strength of the kooky, dance-friendly anthems "Got the Life" and "Freak on a Leash." Kornís success paved the way for subsequent breakthroughs by their buddies Limp Bizkit and Deftones, and the í99 disc Issues (Epic) was their darkest and most powerful work since the first album. Today, an entire generation of commercial rock bands is copying their low-end rumble and hip-hop fashion sense ó you can even trace the backward E in the logo of todayís most vital pop star, Eminem, back to Korn.
Despite not having a new album, Korn left their mark on last yearís pop charts thanks to the lofty sales numbers of Linkin Park and Staind, both of whom played the Family Values Tour early in their careers. But for the first time since grunge died, new metal no longer holds a monopoly on the rock landscape. Limp Bizkitís steady decline, among other things, has opened the floodgates for emo pop, garage punk, and even the second coming of grunge ó all of which share new metalís lust for adrenaline but reject its inherent ugliness. Korn would probably be the first to agree that rock and roll has been craving this kind of variety and competition for quite some time. But it raises an obvious question: can Korn still cut it?
With Untouchables, the godfathers of new metal have gone to great lengths to prove they can. They succeed mightily on "Here To Stay," which kicks off with an explosive guitar riff Beavis and Butt-head would have loved before busting into the sexiest Korn dance groove since "Got the Life." Not only did Davis recently start taking singing lessons, but heís also come up with plenty of vocal melodies worth showing off. Despite the legions of imitators theyíve spawned, guitarists James Shaffer and Brian "Head" Welch continue to squeak and growl in their own inscrutable language. Bassist Fieldy uses excessive distortion even when everybody else quiets down, and drummer David Silveria maximizes the groupís impact with his loose, minimalist style. In other words, after all these years, Korn still sound . . . well, weird.
Suspicion arises whenever a band take three years between albums, and the making of Untouchables wasnít without roadblocks. The group took some time off so Silveria could have surgery to correct a nerve problem that was preventing him from playing drums. Davis wrote music for the movie Queen of the Damned; Fieldy put out a hip-hop solo album under the band name Fieldyís Dreams. Korn also made a conscious decision to take their time, and they hired hands-on producer Michael Beinhorn (Soundgarden, Marilyn Manson) to oversee the project. Beinhorn suggested they use the state-of-the-art Euphonix R-1 Digital Recorder, which had previously been reserved for classical and jazz recordings, to achieve extra clarity. Industry rumor has it the band ran up the largest recording tab in the history of rock; even if they didnít, the disc bristles with the kind of extreme precision modern metal is eternally in search of.
Thanks to Davisís improved singing and bruising vocal melodies, "Here To Stay" is one of the most commercial singles Korn have ever released. The rest of Untouchables doesnít always follow suit, but it does take one well-executed step toward the middle of the road: the pretty goth ballad "Alone I Break," which sounds like a giant pop crossover hit waiting to happen. Its opening drum loop and eerie synth washes reveal a serious new-wave jones, and when the whole band join in on the chorus, theyíre playing quietly and strumming acoustic guitars. Davis locks himself inside his room and gets really morose: "All the shit I seem to take/All alone I seem to break/I have lived the best I can/Does this make me not a man?" With Trent Reznor as their muse, Korn have discovered that resorting to violence isnít the only way to summon their patented brand of dark intensity.
Mosh-happy Korn fans need not fret: "Alone I Break" is the only quiet song on the album, and the band have plenty of more raucous surprises up their sleeves. Guitarists Shaffer and Welch add to their vast repertoire of classic riffs on "Thoughtless," which is already getting some play at rock radio; it brings back fond memories of another Beinhorn art-metal production, Soundgardenís Superunknown (A&M). Silveria and Fieldy lay down an unshakable pop groove on "One More Time," which shimmies like a cross between Metallicaís "Until It Sleeps" and Bon Joviís "Liviní on a Prayer." Davis brings the pain on both, using his new-found love of harmony to match the bandís frisky beats with the appropriate monster choruses.
Kornís angst has rarely been as palatable as it is on Untouchables, but the anger and decadence of old still surface on a couple of tracks. "Beat It Upright" is a gleeful S&M fantasy with a slinky strip-club groove ó itís not so much sexy as it is sinister, and you can picture the perverted grin on Davisís face when he sings, "I will spank that ass just for fun." Heís got a fucked-up reason to live on "Wake Up Hate," an old-fashioned new-metal fight song that twitches like a rattlesnake. Songcraft is more important to the band than ever these days, but it hasnít robbed them of their bile.
Korn spend most of their time looking for something profound on Untouchables ó theyíll probably never be Tool, but at least theyíre heading in the right direction. Davisís most introspective moment comes on "Hollow Life," a low-key goth tune with a surging metal bridge and a spooky choral backdrop. "All alone/Where is God?/Looking down?/We donít know," he muses as he slips in and out of a creepy falsetto. Itís a long way from "Shoots and Ladders." And for a band who realize so acutely that evolution is the key to longevity, thatís just as it should be.
Korn, Puddle of Mudd, and Deadsy perform this Friday, June 21, at the Hartford Civic Center. Call (860) 249-6333.