For many of us, Korn cannot be separated from the visceral nostalgia of our own coming-of-age. If you were a dejected teen between 1994 and 2005 with an affinity for heavy music, outsider anthems like "Blind" and even the later mainstream hit "Freak on a Leash" most likely resonated. The sound and scene they spearheaded would soon become watered down and self-parodic, but Korn were among the last embodiments of the American rock & roll dream: a gang of fucked-up kids from a conservative stretch of California who reimagined the limitations of heavy music, stepped beyond them, and got rich and famous as fuck in the process.
Over the years, the Bakersfield bunch have often fallen into the comfort of rehashing the forms that made them rock stars, often to mixed results. With their last couple albums — made following the band's reunion with guitarist Brian "Head" Welch" — sounding like classic Korn, it was easy to expect their 13th offering to land similarly. The Nothing had a larger axe to grind, though, and it finds its footing quickly as it swoops in with a stark, funereal highland bagpipe intro that ends with 25 seconds of singer Jonathan Davis' gut-wrenching cries, a callback to the band's 1994 confessional "Daddy" that proves a difficult listen.
"Why did you leave me?" he cries out to his late wife Deven whose recent death inspired much of the lyrics and music on the album. Subtlety was never Korn's game, and here they abandon all trace of the stuff.
Their unfettered exploration of grief continues in varying degrees over the next two tracks, "Cold" and the lead single "You'll Never Find Me," the former incorporating fleeting moments of extreme-metal ferocity that Korn haven't touched on record for many years. By the time the fourth cut, "The Darkness Is Revealing," comes in, it's apparent the guys were locked into a real creative groove when making The Nothing. Korn have always lived best inside the darkness that chases them; here they twist it into sharp hooks that bring a tantalizing lightness to the struggle.
A high point comes at "Finally Free," a song directly referring to the end of the late Deven Davis' long fight with addiction, that acts as both dirge and celebration. "She went through so much," guitarist James "Munky" Shaffer told us in a recent interview. "If you know anybody who has battled with addiction, like I have and like so many of us in this band have, you sometimes feel like you can't shake those demons. She's finally free, which is essentially how we got the title of the song."
Immediately following is arguably the album's apex and centerpiece, "Can You Hear Me." It lacks the brute force of their usual pummeling, but makes up for that in sheer, weightless beauty. Korn's longevity is a testament to their enduring ability to write a damn good song, and they achieve exactly that in just under three minutes with the stunning single.
Returning to the heavier side of things before the album winds towards its close, Korn revisit the intro's primal drum pattern in a cycle of completion that ultimately fades away with the haunting tones of Davis' cracking voice. In total, the record plays out like an ambitious conceptual work, one that sees the band operating as an united creative front like they haven't in a long time. Forged in the crucible of tragedy, Korn rallied around their frontman and came out the other side reinvigorated. "Is this good enough?" the band asked themselves of the music they had written, according to Shaffer. "Is this good enough to represent what he's going through?" That extra burden and introspection clearly went a long way, as The Nothing is Korn's finest album in over a decade. Lifers will be fast to grab a copy — fierce loyalty is a hallmark that helped sustain the band through the less-cool years of their career — but newcomers and come-back-arounders, too, should appreciate that Korn are once again at the top of their creative game.