Korn: Issues - the whine of a generation

You know when you come across a release or a track that you think isn’t quite as bad as everyone had led you to believe — if only it weren’t for that one jarring, inescapable, overpowering element that’s disproportionately responsible for spoiling the whole damn thing?
That’s what Korn is.
Contrary to popular belief, the much-maligned, commercially successful, despised ikons of nu metal, would actually rate as moderately listenable — if only it weren’t for that one overwhelmingly crap quality that persisted in achieving the very opposite. What could it be?

The cover says $2 but I only paid 1$. Winning!

My first encounter with Korn was somewhere in early 1997 (Christ, has it been that long…!) through a mate’s dubbed copy of Korn album #2, Life Is Peachy. From the opening salvo of the intro, it was immediately noticeable. There was that unmistakeable Korn-trademark animalistic / acapella / growling intro that was track 1, Twist. The rest of the album was heavy metal, but not as we know it. It was edgy, atonal, big on the bottom end (or at least as much as you could be on a second or third-generation dub), yet many of the tracks merged into an indistinguishable brown soup of one-ness (although the cover of Ice Cube’s Wicked was kind of memorable).
Life Is Peachy didn’t blow me away and Korn, with few exceptions, did not feature much in my life. Sure, I heard a disproportionately high volume of Korn hits at alt and goth clubs (for which I even purchased a subsequently barely-used Greatest Hits Vol. 1 copy, since I assumed I’d DJ the pants off it); and on at least two occasions I even heard a momentarily smattering of a Korn performance from a great distance at major music festivals while passing between stages. But other than that, I barely paid any attention to Korn for the next 20 years.
Then, not too long ago, I came across a copy of Korn: Issues for the bargainous sum of 1$ at an op shop. Was it worth another try, I wondered?
My preferred method for determining whether something has provided me with sufficient value for money is the “dollar per wear” method. An adage from an older generation that says you successfully justified your consumer spend if you shelled out $20 on something worn 20 times, by this logic my copy of Korn: Issues would be a successful investment even if it failed to elicit any interest after just one full listen.
Issues was Korn’s fourth album, released late 1999. It appeared right after Korn had gotten really big off the back of album #3, Follow The Leader, along with tremendous exposure through the Family Values Tour where they performed with Ice Cube, Orgy, Limp Bizkit and… Rammstein
Hugely anticipated at the time — unless you despised nu metal — Korn: Issues actually contains some decent riffs and quality passages. The problem, unfortunately, is that they're near impossible to appreciate.

Important liner notes.

With Issues, the Korn sound had mellowed, or softened (or sold out), depending on who you ask. They’d focussed more on the song-writing rather than being all atonal and in your face, and had substantial record label support propelling them in this chosen new direction.
Here was a heavy metal group (just accept it) that had started life with a unique and heavy blend of noise rock-inspired heavy metal, with guitar solos substituted by a mixed bag of borrowed hip hop and other genres. By the fourth album, and with commercial success on their heels, the jaggedness had been smoothed out, and the Korn sound had evolved into something closer to a hard rock album rather than the disjointed noise affair of the early days. And all that refinement on Issues would have resulted in a not-entirely-deplorable album if it weren’t for one quality that makes this recording so diabolically difficult to return to: vocalist Johnathan Davis’ incessant whining!

More profound liner notes.

If there’s one rally point that nu metal detractors scorn above all others, it’s the whining, moaning, woe-is-me, vocal style of nu metal singers. Be it Slipknot, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Mushroomhead, Orgy, or whoever, nothing characterises what is most disliked about nu metal more than the whining. But you just wouldn’t understand, right?
On Issues, no amount of production and song-crafting can hide or compensate for the annoyance induced by that vocals whinge — a shame, because it totally detracts from two otherwise decent album qualities.

The four alternative covers were an interesting idea.
Maybe they should have done four alternative mixes too?

Firstly, it obscures quite a few interestingly-produced and relatively ‘minimal’ passages. Like a hip-hop album, where less can be better, Issues has some diverse moments that rely on effects, sound and subtle mood over chugging riffs. While we get small touches of this on the openings to tracks like 4 U and Falling Away From Me, it seems the album is ultimately most concerned with plugging any possible vocal-free leaks with maximum whinging.
Secondly, it does the same for when the opposite occurs — that is, we get the same moaning right just when we’re hoping to get a good riff going.
In other words, Issues is an album that could have been an interesting if not outstanding composite of harsh and light, merging hard moments of head banging mosh power with lighter, thinking person’s CTFD passages, ultimately offering a respectable and matured if inevitably more mellowed and lighter alternative to all that chugga-chugga.
Alas, on this album Korn are obsessed with filling every available moment with Davis’ whining.
I tried with Issues, I really did, but it reminded me of why I never got into Korn. If you still don’t believe me, check out the track It’s Gonna Go Away. With a mere 1:30 duration it’s barely an interlude. When first conceived it may have had the trappings of a good, minimal contemplative type of track, the kind of thing to get you to pause before resuming with the next monster riff — instead, it's literally one and a half minutes of whining. Listen to it for yourself.

At a dollar a play, I got my money’s worth, seven or eight times over.

So that’s why I never got that much into Korn. 

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