Anger is not pretty or pleasant. It can turn violent, hurtful, even homicidal. But there are times when just getting mad beats getting even, when that backlog of rage, resentment and helplessness is something to be exorcised — channeled to a purifying extreme that leaves you feeling scrubbed raw and new. And Korn know where that’s at. In Follow the Leader, vocalist Jonathan Davis, bassist Reggie “Fieldy” Arvizu, guitarists James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian “Head” Welch, and drummer David Silveria have made an ideal record for those long, black days when all you can do is stand up and scream, “What the fuck! What the fuck! What the fuck!” at bloody-murder volume.
Which is exactly what Davis does at the end of “Reclaim My Place,” starting in a flat, blank whisper over the isolated gurgle of Munky’s guitar. Then Davis pumps up the vigor. His chanting escalates into giddy, visceral, singsong confusion as the ruckus around him — the dentist-drill whine and power-chord fisticuffs of Shaffer’s and Welch’s guitars, the vicious slap of Silveria’s snare drum — rips into last-ditch overdrive.
Davis is not working a wide range of vocabulary or metaphor here. In general, as a singer and lyricist, he prefers direct accusation — “You really want me to be a good son/Why you make me feel like no one?” (“Dead Bodies Everywhere”) — and caged-animal babble (the Busta Rhymes-in-Bellevue outburst in “Freak on a Leash”) to reasoned discourse. But for Korn, the maelstrom is the message. And in a thin-fun year of bilge-water soundtrack albums and glucose-shock R&B, “Reclaim My Place” is top infernorock theater and one of the reasons why Follow the Leader, Korn’s third album, will be the late-’98 toast of Skateboard Nation.
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In attack and distemper, Korn have the Nineties hip-hop, amp-death aesthetic — NIN meet N.W.A; Rollins Against the Machine — down to ferocious perfection. “Children of the Korn” is an emergency-transmission mélange of brittle machine beats, densely packed guitar distortion and the tandem barking of Davis (“All I want to do is live!”) and special guest Ice Cube (“Stop fuckin’ wit’ me!”). A smart, sharp example of Korn’s style of modular writing, “Seed” is two mind games in one: big chunks of deathmarch funk and opaque stretches of echoey dub in which the guitars sound as though they’re broadcasting from a watery grave.
Follow the Leader is also true to an older, vital hard-rock tradition of cleansing brutality and transcendent guitar choler — Blue Cheer’s 1968 speed freak’s delight, Vincebus Eruptum; early Metallica and very early Black Sabbath; the molten heave ‘n’ thump of Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop”; the claustrophobic fury of Steve Albini’s mid-Eighties band Big Black. It may be the fact that Shaffer and Welch both play seven-string guitars, but there is an extra, weighty abrasion to their riffing that, at full throttle, seems to cleave the music in half, pressing everything else in the mix toward the margins. Silveria’s bona fide disco beat is the sucker bait in “Got the Life,” but it’s the crisp crush of bass-and-dual-guitar menace that makes the track fat with tension. When the band abruptly switches from the cold, clipped chorus of “It’s On” to the bright, Big Chord bridge, it’s as if Korn have suddenly stepped out of their angst bunker into A-bomb-white daylight.
“Pretty,” though, is a point at which Follow the Leader takes a giant step past profane invective and impressive guitar pyro. As a teenager, Davis worked as an autopsy assistant in a Bakersfield, California, coroner’s office, and “Pretty” is based on the particularly heinous case of a twelve-month-old rape victim. Against a jarring mix of gothlike ballad murk and a blowout hook in which the guitars seem to be reduced to pure static, Davis doesn’t flinch from the horror, looking straight at the battered body, chewing hard on his words. And in the chorus — “I see a pretty face/Smashed against the bathroom floor/What a disgrace/Who do I feel sorry for?” — Davis honestly testifies to his own trauma, to seeing in that toddler’s body the bleak prospect of being left behind in a world capable of such unspeakable evil. Davis has already taken hard, fierce looks at child abuse and dysfunctional-family values on Korn’s previous albums: “Daddy,” on 1994’s Korn, and “Kill You,” on 1996’s Life Is Peachy (not!). But in “Pretty,” Davis’ outrage and the torrid guitar drama fuse to a vivid, lethal degree.
It’s too bad that Korn can go so easily from the potent to the pointless. The very next track, “All in the Family,” is an MC duel between Davis and Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, a stomping hip-hop track with a good-natured barrage of insults — except for the “faggot” and “fairy” cracks and lame-o lines like “Suck my dick, kid, like your daddy did” and “You’re a fag and on a lower level.” To Davis and Durst, that may just be harmless schoolyard jivin’. But Davis knows words can hurt — that was the whole point of “Faget,” on Korn — and the homosexual slams in “All in the Family” cheapen, at least for those five minutes, the power and integrity of an album otherwise devoted to kickin’ it against cruelty and prejudice.
Korn’s only other problem is timing; they’ve released their best album just as alternative punk-funk-metal whatever is in commercial and creative eclipse. It is easy to hear in Follow the Leader the last great roar of a once-good idea. It is also easy, from a music-biz perch, to misread and underestimate the needs and loyalties of Young Pissed-off America. Either way, Follow the Leader is going to blow up in your face. Prepare to eat shrapnel — whether you like it or not.