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100 Albums: "Issues" by Korn

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Korn
Title: Issues
Released: 1999
Genre: nu-metal

If you ever wondered why so much of the early aughts rock scene was dominated by bass-y guitar crunch while dudes whined about their childhoods, blame Korn. Not that they should be held completely accountable for spearheading a movement that was largely implemented by lesser acts, but a lot of the aesthetic and subject matter of nu-metal was pioneered by Jon, Head, Munkee, Fieldy, and Dave. They were a gimmicky band to start out with--they played seven-string guitars with an extra low string (and a five-string bass, although that is already far more common) that were detuned an extra step, making the lowest string of the guitars and bass a fifth lower than a standard-tuned guitar. Detuning is already a thing hard rock bands to make their sound a little chunkier, so the idea here was that detuning so far down makes Korn the chunkiest, most metal band evar!!!! 🤘

In reality, there are practical limits to how much low-end content a song can have without turning into a gross, muddy mess, especially when the instruments are being run through distortion and effects. In that respect, it's kind of amazing that Korn works at all.

[What follows is a somewhat technical discussion of song composition and sonic space, so if that's not your jam, find my closing comments in the last paragraph.]

The secret sauce that makes Korn's sound actually work is that the instruments are doing a lot of role-switching within a song. Fieldy slaps his bass, which turns it into a percussive element. That pervasive "clicking" sound you hear in a Korn song is actually the bass, not something the drummer is doing. This takes him largely out of the low-end of the mix to make room for the guitars, and the drummer will lay on the cymbals which are a covering the high end where a lead guitar usually sits. The lead guitar is in the mid-range where a rhythm guitar would sit because the rhythm guitar is in the bass's sonic space. But then at different points in the song the bass might come forward in the mix while Fieldy plays something more melodic further up the neck and the guitars do something sparse and weird that's sitting in a different register. Singer Jon Davis' voice is relatively high, which means the guitars can take up a lot of mid-range without stepping on him, and these roles are constantly shifting throughout the different movements of the song. That dance, along with Davis' singular vocal style and the oddball noises Head and Munkee are able to coax out of their guitars, are what give Korn a truly unique sound that none of their nu-metal imitators were ever able to come close to.

Metal, especially thrash metal, is noisy and atonal by design, and so the challenge for thrash artists is to make something engaging, but not so melodic that it defies the trappings of the genre. Remember when Metallica put out Load and their fans complained that it was too "alt-rock"? That's because the songs on Load were more melody-forward than their typical albums, and their fans reacted badly. But if you just do the same thing over and over, that's boring. So how do you keep fans engaged without alienating them?

A lot of artists accomplish this by leaning heavily on thematic shock, e.g., Slayer or Marylyn Manson. Others rely on technical wizardry, e.g., Tool or Pantera. (There's a reason some of the best guitarists and drummers in the world are metal players). Some do a bit of both, e.g., Megadeth. Korn face this same challenge, but with an added wrinkle. They specifically target an audience of teens and preteens who are angry at their parents. It's brilliant marketing, but younger listeners have less sophisticated musical palates, which means for a song to be melodic enough to resonate, that melody almost has to be sing-songy--something you could hum to yourself after a single listen. Sing-songy and "metal" are two concepts that don't gel. At all. So how does Korn make it work?

The answer: By honing in on one or two simple melodic elements to be the center of the song, and then building around them in quickly-changing movements. Falling Away From Me is an instructive example. It opens with a lead guitar hook. Then you get a very thrashy section for about twenty seconds that is emphasizing texture over melody. Then you get the verse arrangement, which is the opening guitar hook with a disjointed vocal melody over a simple drum line while the bass and other guitar are doing something small and atonal kind of off to the side, and then we come crashing back to the thrashy section again, and that's all within just the first minute. The chorus, when we get to it, is crunchy and quasi-atonal except for the vocals which are more layered and built around a simple melodic hook with simple, repetitive lyrics. The bridge then takes it in a new direction. The vocals come way up front in the mix and are even more dense than usual, with doubled and tripled lines, layers of harmonies, and even whispers and screams mixed in lightly for even more texture. The rest of the band almost disappears while this builds up. And then back to the opening hook. It's a song built around two very simple main melodic elements that parlays them out into five unique movements that it switches rapidly between. The result is a solid pop song that you can sing along with instantly, but it still has the textures and trappings of thrash metal. It's inviting to new fans, but familiar to old ones.

The quality of Korn's music has peaks and valleys, but Issues is a solid peak. Supposedly a lot of the credit is due to producer Brandon O'Brian who wouldn't let the band drink or party in the studio. The radio songs Freak On A Leash, Make Me Bad, and Falling Away From Me are pretty standard Korn fare, although with a slightly poppier-than-average sound. The record has a number of interstitial half-songs, things that are cool and interesting to listen to for a minute but that would be intolerable for three minutes, and they are deployed expertly throughout in order to give the proceedings even more sonic variation and atmosphere. So what you end up with is an album with a lot of musical variety and unique instrumentation that constantly shifts around, but is built on solid, simple hooks and grooves.