How Korn Outlasted Nu Metal

Livestream concerts were promised as one of the great saviors of the pandemic-plagued music industry, but they rarely lived up to the hype. One exception? Korn’s Monumental, a high-budget blockbuster performed on the set of Netflix’s Stranger Things drive-in experience that proved why the California band has outlasted all of its peers from the much maligned nu metal era.

The performance is meticulously lit and stage-directed. It sounds excellent (this is the band that spent $4 million making an album singer Jonathan Davis calls “The heavy metal Aja, after all). The performers are so in sync barely a word is uttered between songs. Most nu metal live shows–like the ones depicted in HBO’s recent Woodstock 1999 documentary–relied on the festering anger of a crowd of largely white, suburban young men to give them an edge and cover up for pedestrian musicianship. But the members of Korn are each among the best in the world at their instruments, and more than that, their shows are so captivating because they’re not just about anger for anger’s sake–they’re about catharsis.

“We were the freaks and outcasts growing up and we started a band as freaks and outcasts and we attracted freaks and outcasts who were bullied, abused, all of that stuff,” says Korn guitarist Brian “Head” Welch.

Korn, which was founded in Bakersfield, CA in the early ‘90s, has released a steady stream of successful albums over the last 25-plus years, the first four of which reached multi-platinum status. Their recent records might not be dominating the zeitgeist like Life is Peachy and Follow the Leader, but they’re still charting solidly in the top 10 and enabling the band to play arena shows in the U.S. and abroad.

Korn still feels bold and iconoclastic in its own way. Save for 2011’s The Path of Totality, which saw them collaborating with dubstep acts like Skrillex and Excision, they’ve largely stuck to the approach that made them the outsider’s insiders in the first place. The formula has basically stayed the same: pummeling percussion, a double helix of power guitar from Welch and James “Munky” Shaffer, and Jonathan Davis’ vocals which grapple with pain, loss, and alienation.

So has the vibe. “We’ve always been rebellious,” says Davis. “The band’s name is Korn, for fuck’s sake. It just sums everything up about our attitude.”

But the group has found itself under a different sort of spotlight lately. A recent HBO documentary about the chaotic Woodstock 1999 drew connections between the anger of those nu metal-loving, belligerent male fans, and our present political and cultural bifurcation.

“I think that HBO documentary, they twisted it to make us look like some bad influence or some shit,” says Davis, who appears in the film as a talking head. “I guess we’re just doing our job and rock ‘n roll has always been given a bad reputation.”

Critics have long made note of the misogyny, homophobia, and excess that permeated the nu metal scene, but the members of Korn assert that the band was always meant to be more of a salve for those who need support. “If you think of bands like Limp Bizkit, they’re more of a party band. Linkin Park was more emotional and vulnerable,” says Welch. “Korn was more [about] mental health and the pain of going through things and unresolved issues. Unresolved issues and resolving them through the music.”

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