How can Korn, a band whose members are well into their 40s, retain the same anger and emotional punch they had in their prime, especially as successful as they've become?
Over the course of 11 albums and nearly 20 years, Jonathan Davis and company have become the new breed of elder statesmen in their genre -- resisting the temptation of catering to nostalgia while working hard to stay relevant in a landscape they helped create. The band has evolved past the jerky rhythmic and tempo changes, unsettling, unrelenting guitar tones that were more percussive than melodic, and the almost stifling claustrophobic mania coming from the mind of Davis.
As they continued to experiment, over the years, their sound remained aggressive but became streamlined -- not as oppressively dense. The breakneck tempo fluctuations that gave their earlier albums some of their schizo identity have been replaced with rhythmic consistency in performance and timbre, befitting the huge arena act they've become.
And now with their latest, "Paradigm Shift," the quintet -- re-energized by the return of guitarist Brian "Head" Welch -- have released perhaps not their best album, but the best album they needed to make right now, a sonically mature gem created by artists balancing the success they've earned with the knowledge of what it took to get there.
Immediately apparent is that Welch has been missed. After leaving the band in 2004 for a solo Christian rock career, Welch returned earlier this year to the euphoria of fans. The chemistry between him and James "Munky" Shaffer, Korn's other lead guitarist, borders on telepathy.
"Paradigm Shift" is about as close as Korn will ever get to making a Muse record. Each song of this sonically expansive, uncluttered, bombastic release has a strong, huge chorus.
The material ranges from an unapologetic commercial song, "Never, Never," to throwbacks like "Punishment Time," which could have been an outtake from 1999's "Issues." Most of the songs use thick, dense riffs, as in the driving "Mass Hysteria" to the propulsive "Prey For Me." The songs are precise, and not a single note is wasted. Sonically, it's incredible; vocally and instrumentally, a bit repetitive. The electronica that marked most of the group's last album, 2011's "The Path of Totality," is hinted at, specifically on "Victimized" and "Spike in My Veins."
The best track, the moody "Lullaby for a Sadist," is cinematic in scope and harmonically one of the most sophisticated songs Korn has ever created. The only misstep, on the deluxe edition of the release, is "Tell Me What You Want," which feels forced and doesn't hit the bar established on the rest of the album.
But how does Davis -- a Bakersfield family man these days -- keep the angst genuine? Beyond the wisdom that comes with age, the members each have taken their own paths to maturity, sometimes involving spirituality, marriage, sobriety and, of course, personal and professional accomplishment. So what can they possibly be impassioned about?
Consider "Love & Meth" (great pun; strong song): Its themes of loss, isolation and suffering aren't new for Davis. But this is the trick, and the key to Davis' effectiveness: He sings the lines not from the point of view of an anguished twenty-something, but with the hindsight and traveled voice of a man who knows what it's like to have been there. And, brother, those memories sound fresh. His voice is the strongest it's ever been, and a complement to the muscular rhythm section of bassist Fieldy and drummer Ray Luzier.
Today's heavy music has entered an interesting phase: Most of the bands are using incredibly advanced rhythms and quick flurries of double-time rhythms. The harder metal bands are getting more and more brutal, and a lot of post-hardcore bands look a lot like pegged-jeans boy bands while their singers (usually two -- one singing and one growling) go back and forth as they play music that is the aural equivalent of frantic ninja kicks.
While each of those groups are trying to divvy up their own piece of the heavy metal pie, the guys in Korn have comfortably entered into a third phase of their lifespan: They have no need to prove themselves to anyone but themselves. Their fan base is rock solid and likely to grow on the strength of the aforementioned radio-friendly "Never, Never."
Their best record? I don't think so, but it is easily their most mature. They're looking through the mirror at the band on the other side that they had to leave behind in order to become the band they are: artists balancing the success they've earned while not forgetting what it took to get there.
-- Cesareo Garasa is a Bakersfield musician who contributes columns on music and pop culture to Eye Street.