Every band needs a gimmick. Especially in the attention-starved world of heavy metal. After the genre’s steely riffs and stomping beats got co-opted by Seattle rock and California punk in the early ’90s, pop’s most barbaric form fell below the media radar and sank to the lower reaches of the charts. The few remaining metalheads wound up coalescing into a kind of underground militia, plotting terrorist revolt against the ruling armies of rap, R&B, and pop.
Now the metal repressed are surfacing but in increasingly bizarre forms. The new mutant strains include such acts as System of a Down, who spike Sabbath riffs with Armenian folk tunes; Soulfly, who cut speed metal with native Brazilian beats; Rammstein, who toss Euro-techno into the mold and sing in German; and Korn, who seem to be locked in a battle to the death with everyone else to come up with the most outrageous mix possible.
On the L.A. band’s first two albums, they gleefully jerked through two or three tempo changes per track, fractured their riffs into needling new textures, and injected lunatic crooning in the least likely places. And, oh, yes, their lead singer played bagpipes.
Wait, it gets weirder. This stuff actually sold! The band’s last album, Life Is Peachy, entered at No. 3 on the Billboard album chart in October of ’96 and went platinum, eventually dragging the band’s self-titled 1994 debut up to equal status. The result cast Korn as the biggest new metal act of the ’90s (tied with the far-artier Tool) and has made Follow the Leader the most anticipated crunch release of the year.
On one level, the album doesn’t disappoint. It’s a big load of dumb fun. It’s also incredibly perverse, going to almost laughable lengths to mess with metal cliché. The cut ”Cameltosis” tricks up the sound of the guitars until they mimic the dynamics of a sitar. ”Children of the Korn” proposes a shotgun marriage between metallic riffs and early-’80s hip-hop breakbeats, while ”Got the Life” challenges the ultimate metal taboo, canoodling with the rhythms of disco. All over the record, singer Jonathan Davis wheezes, yammers, and snorts like the kiddie-cartoon character the Tazmanian Devil. (And yes, he’s still blowing on those damn bagpipes.)
That’s not to say that all of Korn’s stabs at innovation come from either daring or dementia. Like fellow avant-metalheads Limp Bizkit, they’re savvy enough to lift sounds from rap, the genre that became the dominant voice of youthful defiance after metal and grunge flagged. The squealing synths and horror-movie effects advanced by Cypress Hill and Wu-Tang Clan are here recast in metal drag. The guitar work of James ”Munky” Shaffer and Brian ”Head” Welch mimics the leaner textures of hip-hop more often than metal’s fatter, blunter riffs. If that’s not enough, the album features guest raps from Ice Cube and the Pharcyde’s Tre.
Here’s another crossover selling point: Davis’ lyrics provide a new blend of metal and the remnants of alt-rock. To risk a reductive truth: If alt-rockers write about punishing themselves, metal- rockers write about punishing others. Davis wants it both ways. During the song ”It’s On” he commits a deep metal no-no, admitting ”It’s my fault.” But he conforms to classic heaviness in a cut like ”Dead Bodies Everywhere,” a daydream about slaughtering your entire family. Davis intensifies the image of a split personality by singing in two voices: an effeminate whimper and a monster yowl. He’s metal’s first voice for the bipolar.
He reaches some kind of freak peak in a four-minute hip-hop-style mock feud with Bizkit singer Fred Durst, where they endlessly call each other homophobic names, only to perform a major head game on their listeners by having Davis ”accidentally” admit a homoerotic love of his rival.
Like everything else on Follow the Leader, consider this a mix of the comic, the disparate, and the desperate. If that’s hardly innovative enough to rival the classics of metal, at least Korn’s LP gives this once-stagnant style kernels of something new. B-