Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Music Review: Korn - The Serenity of Suffering

Well it's been about a week and a half since Korn's new album The Serenity of Suffering was released, and it's mostly been getting solid reviews as a return to the band's heavier roots.  My esteemed colleague Mike Drinan and I have each listened to the album multiple times and thought we'd discuss our respective takes on the record.  So here goes....

Justin: Ok, now that we've had some time to really digest it, what are your thoughts on the band's 12th outing?

Mike: I like it a lot. This album suits my preference on how I like Korn to sound. I love the deep, bass-heavy guitar riffs and Jonathan Davis' guttural screams mixed with his scratchy scatting. In fact, I love Jonathan's vocals on this entire album, with the exception of "Take Me" where I didn't like how he enunciated certain syllables in a weird way (Instead of singing "me" he'd stretch it to sound like "may" and continued doing this throughout the song). For the most part, he sounds intense, melodic and violent, really fitting the musical tone of the band, especially on the track "The Hating". He rarely went quiet on any of the songs and that's just fine with me. On their last album The Paradigm Shift, he didn't sound as emotionally committed. I saw an interview with Head and Munky where they said Jonathan had to fall back in love with heavy music after the direction they went in prior to The Paradigm Shift.  I thought this disconnect came through on that album which contributed to me feeling indifferent toward it. It's nice to hear Jonathan sing with that same power again. Musically, the band sounds like they're firing on all cylinders on this album. The guitars give each song a great backdrop to support Davis' vocals and on a few songs are pretty melodic. Fieldy has sort of taken a step back in the sense that his bass isn't as featured as on previous albums. I still hear it but not as prominently.

The highlight of this album for me was the buildup in "Everything Falls Apart" where Davis sings "There is nothing in my head" over and over, louder and louder until the band just breaks through and opens the song up with that constant heavy pounding. Holy shit I loved it!

All in all, I loved this album and think it's their best since Untouchables.

Favorite tracks: Insane, Rotting In Vain, Black Is The Soul, Everything Falls Apart

Justin: I am very underwhelmed by this album.  It's slickly produced, competently written and well-performed, but it feels to me like a band going through the motions.  It doesn't have the emotional punch of their early albums; there's only so far you can take the "I had a fucked up childhood" thing once you're a millionaire rock star without it sounding forced.  I much preferred the variety of The Paradigm Shift and Untitled, where each song stood out from the rest and had divergent hooks and grooves.  Sure some of the results were mixed, but at least with those albums I could easily identify each song.  On TSOS I feel like every song blurs into the next, with the exception of "Rotting in Vain" and "Take Me" to a lesser extent.  Most of the riffs sound stock to me, unlike on TPS where Head's return to the band seemed to ignite a creative spark.  In terms of heavier recent Korn I liked Remember Who You Are much better than this album; again, it was uneven but on songs like "Pop a Pill" (one of my all-time favorite Korn songs) and "Oildale" I felt like Jonathan actually meant what he was saying and the raw emotional power was there.  I'm not sure if it's just that slick production doesn't really fit Korn's musical style, or if it's the fact that almost every song on TSOS is in a minor key, which for me makes them feel logey and drab (Initially Korn separated themselves from every other heavy band by almost exclusively writing chorus hooks in a major key).  But aside from the two aforementioned tracks, plus "The Hating" and "Everything Falls Apart" there isn't much on this album that excites me.  I miss the urgency of "What We Do," the quirkiness of "Spike in My Veins," and the power of "Prey for Me" from The Paradigm Shift.  I'm pretty sure every song on TSOS is also in the same key and close to the same feel/tempo, which doesn't help separate them from each other, and Davis doesn't stray much from about a five or six-note mid-range, where on "Pop a Pill" for example he really belted out some higher notes.  In terms of the "death growl" vocals, they sound too polished for me.  In the Life is Peachy days his screamed vocals had a real visceral quality and rawness, but here I think the glossy production robs his screams of their teeth.  For me all these factors just make this album kind of a drag to sit through, despite the lack of any truly bad songs.  I find the whole album just middling.

For me this album ranks solidly below TPS, Remember, and Untitled (but just above The Path of Totality and certainly ahead of Take a Look in the Mirror and See You on the Other Side).

Also, where have you been, Jonathan's always pronounced "me" as "may" or occasionally "muuuy."

Mike: I've noticed Jonathan's pronunciations since the beginning but on "Take Me" it just really rubbed me the wrong way. When he does it on the other songs, it doesn't seem as pronounced as it does on that one.

So, with all that, let me talk about my criticisms of this album. First off, I took your advice and gave TPS another listen after listening to TSOS and I feel the drumming is better on TPS. I don't necessarily feel it's bad on TSOS but there aren't any fills or moments that make me want to hear it again. The rhythm section on this new album, I kind of feel, isn't at its best. Luzier has small moments where his drumming shines but Fieldy isn't really there like on previous works. I also kind of felt let down by the end of the album. The last two songs "Next In Line" and "Please Come For Me" are disappointing compared to the beginning of the album.

I agree with you about the slick production, but I feel because it's so well performed it doesn't take away from the album at all. I think the intention with TSOS was to just make it heavy. There isn't much variety among the songs here and I can understand it when you say you can barely differentiate between them. I can hear that too. I'm not as musically gifted as you so I couldn't tell a major key from my house key (rimshot!) but there are many parts on this album that do excite me and get me going and it feels like those moments are in every song for me, except for "Take Me" and the final two tracks.

The Life Is Peachy days are incomparable. Can't touch 'em. You're right, his vocals were much more raw and powerful then but I think he's returned to that somewhat and I like it. I think the production assisted him getting deeper in his screams too.

The album doesn't have a wide variety of sounds and styles, and it does come across as tried and true, and I'm also one of those people who wonder how far you're going to stretch the history of abuse until the theme becomes stale and muted. However, after 5 or 6 albums where a band evolved a little bit, experimented, expanded their range with different sounds, is it bad for them to hit the reset button and make an album that plays well to the majority of their fan base?

I still rank this one higher than any of the albums after Untouchables.

Justin: I definitely agree about the rhythm section on this album.  I think Luzier is a much stronger drummer than Dave Silveria ever was and I loved his work on Remember Who You Are and The Paradigm Shift.  His parts gave the songs an urgency that Silveria's drumming lacked (I've always felt his playing sounded rather lazy).  But on TSOS I don't think Luzier's strengths are accentuated.  For one thing the songs are all back in that slower midtempo feel and it sounds like Luzier just isn't given enough to do.  As for Fieldy I barely feel his presence at all on this album - what is this a Metallica record??  Fieldy's unique, percussive bass tracks are a big part of Korn's signature sound, and without that the music begins to sound like all the Korn imitators.  I also found myself very aware of the lack of overall groove on this record, and I dunno if it's the mix or the flatness of the drumming.  But none of the songs get my head moving or my feet tapping like Korn songs usually do.

I actually think "Please Come for Me" is one of the better tracks, again in part due to the major key hook (a major key is defined by a raised 3rd note in the scale - when you think of a typical doorbell, that's a major 3rd, whereas the children's taunt "na na na na naaaa naaaa" features a minor 3rd).

I get the desire to go back to basics and just be a heavy metal band again, but a) I don't feel like this album is even particularly heavy compared to the last one, and b) this just feels like a safe record to try and win back the fans they lost while experimenting.  Perhaps Ross Robinson would've been a prudent choice for producer (I'm actually sad Head didn't play on Remember Who You Are, because he probably could've fixed up the weaker songs on that album and it'd be in the Top 5 Korn Albums conversation as a result).

This album actually reminds me of Megadeth's 2007 record United Abominations, which was a return to their heavy roots.  Everyone lauded that album for being a straight-up metal record and reinvigorating the band, but for me the whole thing fell flat in execution.  It sounded like a band trying to sound like Megadeth, rather than Megadeth itself.  It just didn't have that distinctive Megadeth snarl of the earlier albums or the urgency of a youthful band ripping shit up.  That's kinda how I feel here.

Mike: Head leaving the band I would chalk up to one of the reasons I strayed away from Korn. I've often felt he was one of the main creative forces of the band behind Davis. Jonathan I think knows this too. I've felt the music suffered so I wouldn't doubt that if Head had remained in the band for all those albums, they would've been stronger and I might've liked them a hell of a lot more.

As a fan, I allow a band one album to go back to basics and try to win back fans before progressing forward again. I felt that way about Metallica with St. Anger, even though that backfired before they tightened things up for Death Magnetic. However, if Korn comes out with something that is like TSOS Part 2, I'm going to be disappointed because then they'll just be playing it straight to satisfy fans. This makes it two straight albums where they've injected that heaviness back into their playing. Next album needs to be a step forward with something different.

Justin: Stylistically it doesn't much matter to me what Korn does as long as the songwriting is there.  I like the overall sound of this album, I'm just not all that impressed with the songs.

I give The Serenity of Suffering **1/2 out of *****.

Mike: I really like TSOS. For me, it's a return to form and the band sounds fantastic for the first time in a long time.

I give it ***1/2 out of *****.

Thanks for reading our discussion!  Comment below with your thoughts!

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