Twenty-five years ago, few rock pundits would have predicted with confidence that KORN were destined for a lengthy career. As the band have admitted themselves on numerous occasions, the intensity of their early days partying was very nearly enough to derail the whole enterprise. Consequently, the Californians' subsequent longevity and current status as alternative metal's elder statesmen has never stopped being surprising, even if the records they have released — particularly over the last decade — have pointed to a strengthening of the chemistry that has powered Jonathan Davis, Munky and the rest forward since that seminal 1994 debut. Proving that it is possible to stick to your original musical blueprint and indulge in endless experimentation, KORN have endured for all the right reasons.
After the qualified triumph of 2011's dubstep experiment "The Path of Totality" to guitarist Head's return for the glossy upgrade of "The Paradigm Shift" (2013) and its sludgy, thuggish follow-up "The Serenity Of Suffering", the last few years have been KORN's most restless yet. But something about "The Nothing" feels definitive, in a way that the band haven't even attempted before. Audibly and unavoidably haunted by the accidental death of Jonathan Davis's wife Deven in August 2018, the band's 13th studio album doesn't exactly take KORN into new territory — after all, haven't all their records been platforms for Davis's personal catharsis? — but there is a cohesion and sharpness of focus here that far exceeds anything they have released in the past. That Davis was able to conjure some of his finest ever vocal performances while in the depths of grief is incredibly impressive in itself, but the fact that "The Nothing" is such a self-evident career peak for the entire band makes this one of the more remarkable stories of 2019. Crank this thing up and, truculent underground purists aside, marvel at the sound of a band that should never have made it this far, absolutely nailing everything that made them great in the first place with some of the strongest songs they've ever written.
The first thing that will knock your teeth out, once bagpipe 'n' drum intro "The End Begins" recedes amid Davis's sobs, is the production: KORN have veered from rugged and raw to grandiose and polished and back again numerous times over the years, but it's hard to deny that their finest albums have usually been graced with a big sound. "The Nothing" is sonically huge and destructive, with guitar tones of deeply satisfying thickness and depth and enough bottom-end to make Cthulhu shit himself. As an added bonus, Munky and Head seem to have reached a new riff-writing peak, literally every song has at least one platinum-plated gem, but where many previous albums have suffered from a glut of so-so KORN-isms, "The Nothing" is a feast of rhythmic curveballs, juddering, left-field heaviness and moments of where-the-fuck-did-that-come-from inspiration. There's a swagger and spikiness to opener "Cold", a song that slams and jabs across an EDM-ish shuffle, with Davis sounding simultaneously incensed and desperate. The song's central riff is mean and vicious, the sentiment likewise, as the horror of loss collides with the fizzling of well-worn emotions. More importantly, KORN haven't sounded this powerful for a long time. "You'll Never Find Me" is straighter but no less gripping, with an archetypal, loping groove that nods to the old/nu-school and a chorus that wouldn't have been out of place on 2005's much-praised "Untouchables". Similarly, "The Darkness Is Revealing" rides on skewed offbeats as Davis questions his grip on reality amid a storm of tooth-rattling goth-funk slurry. Elsewhere, "Idiosyncrasy" is a lumbering, sinister affair, veering from densely atmospheric verse to brutish bridge to insistent, crooked chorus; "Finally Free" is a custom-built crowd-pleaser and call-to-arms, effortlessly dancefloor-friendly but weighed down with crucifying emotional baggage; "The Ringmaster" is a blur of skittering, atonal anti-funk and heart-rending solemnity; "[email protected]" is a brilliantly snotty upgrade for KORN's original channeling of adolescent angst, as Davis asks, with evident exasperation, why life has to keep vomiting up insurmountable obstacles, with yet more hulking riffs underpinning his every pained pronouncement.
A quarter of a century on, KORN have very little to prove, but "The Nothing" doesn't sound like the work of a band with one eye on retirement. Instead, in spite of the hideous realities that inspired its thematic core, this is absolutely one of the best records the Bakersfield quintet have ever made. Let's hope this act of catharsis leads to better days for everyone involved. In the meantime, play this loud as hell.