It’s a sadly all too predictable chain of events; a band will release a spectacular debut, in some cases even genre-defining, and two, maybe three albums into a seemingly promising career, the stagnation has already set in, and the band already sounds mediocre before they even had a chance to build on what they had going for them in the first place. Such is the case with Korn, who produced arguably one of the best metal albums of the 90s in their self titled debut, and (for better and for worse) spawned nu metal phenomenon. The band was able to capitalize on their success and stay afloat for the rest of the decade, but the noughts saw them decline sharply with recycled material and generally horrible ideas (their cover of Cameo’s Word Up!, for one). Then in 2007, minus two original members, the band did the first interesting thing they’d done in years – they actually tried something new, with the experimental Untitled. It wasn’t particularly good, but at least it felt relatively fresh, and produced material you couldn’t get simply by listening to the earlier, superior records.
So now, Jonathan Davis and co. felt the best way to follow this up was with a return to form of sorts, and Korn III: Remember Who You Are has been received as such. I look back and think of a much younger me rocking out to Korn’s first album, which I even still do on occasion, so you can imagine that this concept was rather intriguing to me. Coming off the heels of giving their tired sound a bit of an expansion, and now going back to their roots? Sounds great! There’s only one problem… the album is absolutely terrible.
Right from the get-go, it’s clear that something is very wrong here. While the introductory Uber-Time is an ear catching blend of ambient noise, a sample, and feedback, and really gives you the impression that the proper opener is going to blow you away, it leads into none other than lead single Oildale (Leave Me Alone), which makes it clear that this not only fails to be a return to form, but isn’t even a convincing attempt to relive past glories. The guitar is so bland, and that’s not even the worst part – the chorus is typical anthemic Korn, with perhaps the most uninspired and frankly childish lyrics they’ve used yet (“Why don’t you just leave me alone?!”). Ignore the fact that there is absolutely no energy to this song – just ask yourself why a man pushing forty is using schoolyard retorts and giving the microphone postured moans in his effort to recall his band’s early days. He even has the Adidas jumpsuit! It’s ridiculous. You can’t simply conjure up what you were sixteen years ago and expect it to go well; the idea that anybody thinks this would work is preposterous! For Korn fans who disagree, just watch the Oildale and Blind videos back to back – there is no comparison.
The rest of the album does nothing to improve, or even sound remotely different; it’s just more half-baked attempts at recalling their ’94 selves. As touched on earlier, a huge drawback is the lyrics. Listening to Davis wail about ”being everybody’s whore” on Move On in the midst of talking about trying to please everybody is just laughable. Why then, on The Past and Never Around, for example, is he talking about how everybody lies to him? It makes one wonder why he’s trying to please these people, and this makes it even more difficult to empathize with the perpetually angst-ridden millionaire. Who exactly is lying to him, anyway? These faceless antagonists have been around for the better part of Korn’s career, but it didn’t matter in their early days for a very simple reason – he really seemed mean it. Songs like Faget and Fake were lyrically simple and direct, but his sheer emotion really forced his torment on you until you could feel it yourself. When he sings ”I want to pass my test and complete this tormented life” on Lead the Parade, though, it just sounds postured, and without the driving emotion, it makes Davis’ lyrics sound like little more than high school poetry. The awkward vocal pattern (as well as Let the Guilt Go‘s growing screams of “and thinking… and thinking…”) are basically lifted from earlier records, but with none of the intensity, which is ultimately this album’s problem. Early Korn was dark and intense; even moments where the collective’s jovial nature came out, like Ball Tongue‘s chorus, Clown‘s intro, or even A.D.I.D.A.S. and Wicked from Life Is Peachy, there was a sense of foreboding. Here, it just sounds formulaic and processed.
Some might argue that this genre is an easy one to paint yourself into a corner with, but take a look at Korn’s fellow alt. metal elderstatesmen, the Deftones. They’ve consistently pushed their creative boundaries (albeit with varying degrees of success) and this year put out what may be their best work yet. Korn, on the other hand, ran their sound to fuck before attempting to ape the stylings of their first two albums, and failed miserably. So they remember who they are, well that’s great. Unfortunately, I remember too – and the hungry, pissed off twentysomethings from 1994 would have taken one look at these middle-aged has-beens and laughed their asses off.