Korn – The Serenity of Suffering

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So Korn has turned into Sevendust.

The problem hearing albums like The Paradigm Shift when they come out, is that their role isn’t clear. Parts of it point to Korn still experimenting, just unsure what to do with their sound. There are still bassdrops in “Never Never” and “Spikes in My Vains” had something like rapping in it. The new edition also had “Hater”, their poppiest and catchiest song yet. On the other hand, a song like “Love & Meth”, as good as it was, had nothing going for it but the melody. Many tracks showed no interest in sound but just kicking melodies.

In an ideal world, Korn would work on both directions. They would have some weird tracks, some poppy tracks and continue to insert new genres in unexpected places. What the new album proves is that they weren’t confused at all in The Paradigm Shift. Rather, they were lacking inspiration so they couldn’t do anything with the rapping in “Spikes in My Vain”. They have seemed to lose almost all interest in their music.

What’s so disappointing about The Serenity of Suffering is how familiar it is. Nu Metal should never sound familiar. It was always about mixing genres but being catchy at the same time. That’s why silly metalheads and serious critics couldn’t make sense of it. You can stop many of these songs after the first chorus. Sometimes, you can stop them halfway through the chorus. Korn exhausts their ideas within a minute into the song.

I stopped listening to “Rotting in Vain” as soon as the hook kicked in. Korn repeats the same chorus structure for “Please Come For Me”, “Die Yet Another Night”, “When You’re Not There” and so forth. “Take Me” merely repeats its title. It was released as a single and I have to wonder what motivated them to do it. The song barely makes it to B-Side status with how lazy the chorus is. Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to write such a dull hook, not even a songwritier strapped for cash. Someone should’ve reminded them they already had a song called “Hating” back in Untouchables.

Untouchables is a reference point for many reviewers, but what people praise about is exactly what’s wrong with it. Back then, it was necessary. Korn had a bizarre sound but few hooks. “Freak on a Leash” sounds great because of the bass-heavy hook. Its melody exhausts its ideas in the first second, just like most hooks here. Now, I’m not sure what the purpose of this album. Korn proved they could write straightforward rock, so what’s the point?

Yet, there are a lot of hints here of Korn, of their unique personality. “Rotting in Vain” is as generic as you can get until the middle, where Davis breaks into his skat singing. “Insane”‘s hook may sound like a melodic carbon copy of “Let’s Do This Now”, but the band thrashes and adds some aggression to an otherwise ordinary song. Many of the songs also sound way better in the album’s context than standalone. Even “Take Me” sounds better here, since it’s surrounded by other Korn sounds and what dominates is their personality.

Speaking of their personality, it’s not adjusted for this material. Nu Metal was always shallow, so the best Nu Metal was always aggressive, angry and with an edge of fun it. The best Korn songs are “For No One” or “Right Now”, where the band was allowed to boast a little. Davis is an unimaginative lyricist, so much so that “Rotting in Vain” begs to be parodied (Only it’s not attention-grabbing enough for this). So all these songs are only about hooks. There’s no emotion here. The band has nothing interesting to say and in shows. That’s why the album often feels like above average ordinary rock. It’s being played by people who are more fun at parties, but not one you’d share your emotional troubles with.

Two tracks do stick out. “A Different World” is absolutely brilliant. It’s one moment where the emotion is convincing. Davis has a lyrics focus, and the song doesn’t just hurry to the chorus. That little build-up with the rolling drums contrast with the hook, which is itself a contrast. Davis sounds distresses, lashing out but literally backing against the wall while guitars smash behind him. They deliberately chose a steady rhythm. Corey’s guest vocals are used brilliantly, becoming more present with every appearance of the hook. It has a guarantee in the next Greatest Hits package. There’s also “Next in Line”, which proves that Korn can sometimes conjure a beautiful melody. If every song had such a hook, I’d be more forgiving.

On the one hand, I’d rather hear Korn playing a bunch of ordinary rock songs than other bands. On the other, I’d rather hear Korn playing anything but ordinary rock. They still stick out like a sore thumb. You have to do when your guitars screech and Davis’ voice is still one of a kind. It’s not a bad album and it has “A Different World”, but it has no purpose. It doesn’t add anything new to their sound and its set of songs isn’t particularly strong. Korn just goes through the motions, which is fine but I don’t want Korn to be ‘fine’.

2.5 different worlds out of 5

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Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full

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For an album considered to be so influential – Rakim is often said to ‘revolutionize MC’ing’ – it’s amazing how little sounds like it. A lot borrowed Rakim’s ‘smooth’ flow, but that’s one thing. This album’s approach and the rest of his followers are completely different. To be great is to be misunderstood, indeed.

Paid in Full has little in common with the boom bap era that followed. Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon, early Roots cared little how the music sounded. Or, if they did, it was so minimalistic it lost any kind of artistic merit. These were artists who relied on lyrics dense and complex enough to keep you coming. They turned down the musical elements so the lyrics would remain in focus, in a move very reminiscent of Leonard Cohen.

Some of them were successful at that – “N.Y. State of Mind” first grabs you with the quick flow, and then you notice the amount of details and catchy lines that bring its story to life. Some were just okay. Wu-Tang Clan had a macho bullshit charm but a lack of drums. Some were awful, like how the tracks of Things Fall Apart blur together or how Liquid Swords barely has any drums. This approach failed mainly when rappers wanted to convince you how great you are. Despite the rapper telling you over and over that his rhymes are dope and that he’s badass, the music that accompanied him was subdued, smooth and nearly non-existant. The instrumentals of Things Fall Apart and Liquid Swords don’t sound tough or confident but scared to catch your attention.

In Paid in Full, the music echoes Rakim’s sentiment. He’s as good as you heard he is. He’s less dense than GZA, but he’s far more quotable. Density is often a barrier to hide behind, anyway. Rakim sometimes doesn’t need to rhyme. A line like ‘Remember me? The one you got your ideas from?” stings, especially when you realize you know plenty of these lines already. Rakim’s strength is that there is a clear rhythm to his words, a rhythm that invites you more to try to rap along than to marvel at how complex it is.

The music behind helps to make Rakim’s boasts believable. There’s a reason why there are 3 instrumentals here. The beats’ purpose is not to provide background music but to express the same thing Rakim does. The drums are in the front. In “I Ain’t No Joke”, they’re stomping. “Paid in Full” has such a beautiful bassline and break – if someone told me it’s the best Hip-Hop beat he ever heard, I would understand.

When the title-track rolled around, it was clear the true followers of this album weren’t Wu-Tang, Nas or even Chuck D. This where the Big Beat movement started. The danceable break that sounds like it could go on forever in the title-track is what inspired that Properllerheads track from the Matrix and Chemical Brothers’ brilliant debut. It’s no coincidence that Kool Keith sounded more convincing than any rapper when he rode a Prodigy tracK.

There is toughness and confidence expressed in such danceable music. Dancing, after all, requires a level of confidence. Moving catches people’s attention, and their attention could mean negative opinion that some people can’t handle. That’s why people tend to drink before they feel like they can dance. That’s where we get the ‘wallflower’ trope. The rappers that followed turned down this ‘banging beats’ approach, as if dancing was for silly and stupid people. That only made them more musically narrow and scared.

It may seem like a too big conclusion, but the Hip-Hop community’s focus on lyricism always ended up missing a lot of the details. Even music that is driven by lyrics still needs music. You cannot push back the music with hopes the lyrics will become the focus. The focus will only move to how lacking the musical aspects are. Most canonical rappers turn down the musical aspects and all we get are impressive, but boring flows. Paid in Full is great at both worlds, and that’s why it deserves the acclaim.

3.5 breaks out of 5