On ‘The Loss’, the penultimate track from Korn’s new album, ‘The Nothing’, frontman Jonathan Davis sings, “happiness is a club I’ll never be in.” It’s a stifling, hopeless image, one with little light at the end of the tunnel, and a lyric that sums up not only this album, but the band’s 26-year career in general. All metal bands deal with bleak topics – drugs, abandonment and suicide – but few of them have wrestled with despair quite as candidly and brutally as Korn.
The Californian band broke through in 1993 with their self-titled debut, which – for better or worse – single-handedly pioneered the nu-metal scene. Since that genre fell off a cliff in the noughties, they’ve lost and regained their grip on relevancy and pursued the zeitgeist with mixed results (see their unfortunate brush with dubstep back on 2011’s ‘The Path Of Totality’). But critics mostly concurred that 2016’s ‘The Serenity Of Suffering’ was a strong return to form.
Despite the ups and downs, though, their constant has been Davis, the band’s tortured voice and soul, a man who’s never been afraid to lay his pain right out on the slab and look it dead in the eye. His troubled past – a childhood of abuse and an adulthood of insecurity and depression – has given him a lifetime’s worth of demons to purge on early Korn tracks such as ‘Daddy’ and ‘Blind’. But after a hellish 2018, the band’s 13th studio album finds him wrestling with grief and loss.
Last year Davis lost his mother and then, just six months later, his ex-wife Deven, who died following an accidental drug overdose. ‘The Nothing’ isn’t as heavy as ‘The Serenity Of Suffering’, which was a return to the nasty, sludge-swilling sound of their first albums, but it is a darker record.
While the rest of the band headed to Nashville to record the music with producer Nick Raskulinecz, Davis shut himself away in his Bakersfield studio to write the lyrics, describing the process as “cathartic”. On ‘The Darkness Is Revealing’, the vocalist sounds lost and confused among guitarist Brian ‘Head’ Welch’s claustrophobic barrage of disorientating, down-tuned riffs, before the track opens out into a verse reminiscent of something from his 2018 solo record ‘Black Labyrinth’. Later, on closer ‘Surrender To Failure’, he sings, “for every good thing I’ve done there’s a price to pay”, considering life’s crueller tendencies and why certain people seem to be dealt a more difficult hand than others.
‘The Seduction Of Indulgence’, a harrowing interlude on which Davis repeats, “skinning me, stabbing me, touching me, licking me, raping me” over clattering drums, recalls ‘Daddy’, on which he sang about being molested as a child, proving that there are some horrors in life you can’t always outrun. Sometimes answers simply aren’t forthcoming.
Occasionally his delivery is clunky – a recurring issue throughout Korn’s catalogue. “Tell me what to feel / This shit can’t be real,” he howls on ‘H@rd3r’, while ‘Idiosyncrasy’ has him bellowing, “God is making fun of me!” Korn have never approached pain in a particularly eloquent manner, but sometimes a simple approach works best. Opener ‘The End Begins’ – on which the lonely sound of bagpipes is joined by lumbering drums, Reginald ‘Fieldy’ Arvizu’s trademark, punctured-lung bass and a droning vocal – has Davis sobbing audibly in the vocal booth by the end.
In 2013, the return of original guitarist Head, who left Korn in 2005, delivered a re-energising shot in the arm that the band are still feeding off today. Recent singles ‘You’ll Never Find Me’ and ‘Cold’ recall their glory days. The former is built on a slamming riff reminiscent of the band’s 1999’s classic ‘Falling Away From Me’, complete with a creepy, dolls’ house shiver, while the latter features a maniacal, rabid-dog scat from Davis. Overall, though, ‘The Nothing’ most closely resembles Korn’s 2013 record ‘The Paradigm Shift’, on which they coated their distinctive rumble with a dark electronic sheen and subtle experimentation.
‘The Loss’ is the most surprising track here, an initially Korn-by-numbers anthem smothered with thick, dense riffs, which slows to a haunted house waltz at the midway point. Korn are still packing out arenas a quarter of a century after they first emerged, and it’s largely due to their penchant for bone-shaking choruses. Here, though, they’re especially massive, augmented by Davis piling on up to 20 vocal tracks to create a huge payoff. In particular, ‘Gravity For Discomfort’ feels like it could leap out of the speakers and give you a wallop.
In a year in which the giants of metal Rammstein, Slipknot and Tool have all delivered belting albums that will ensure their legacy endures well into the future, the pressure was on Korn to deliver. This urgent and important record will ensure the veterans don’t get lost in the shuffle.