Active Music Columns

Formative: Korn ‘Untouchables’ (2002)

Korn - Untouchables

“Formative” is a Vague Visages column about music albums that influenced the writer’s teenage experience. 

Korn offered the ideal combination of elements to serve as my introduction to heavy music at the age of 12 or 13. AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (1979) was the closest I’d come to metal before I discovered Korn, but the latter band spoke to my fears and experiences in a way the former did not reach. My first Korn record was Follow the Leader (1998), and then Untouchables (2002), Korn (1994) and Take a Look in the Mirror (2003) in quick succession. I was drawn to the band’s blend of heaviness and pop sensibility, but above all else I was into frontman Jonathan Davis’ distinct song-writing and vocal stylings, which deftly move between scatting, growling, sobbing and singing. Davis’ mandate has always been to offer solace for sad kids, but his lyrics reside more often in the inescapable experiences of pain, isolation and frustration than in the pursuit of recovery. His writing presents a dark kind of catharsis without bogging itself down in performative aspiration.

Korn exploded in 1994 with the release of their self-titled debut, which announced the arrival of a new angsty, ragged, funk-metal sound. The record drew on a range of disparate influences, including Godflesh’s brutally low-tuned hip-hop invocations, the groovier elements of Pantera and White Zombie, and the genre-bending explorations of Faith No More. Not only did this unholy concoction jump-start Korn’s long-lasting career, it also inaugurated the entire nu metal subgenre, which occupies arguably the most controversial corner of mainstream heavy music. Despite the lamentations of metal’s most outspoken purists, Korn and several of their peers and imitators produced some worthwhile work (for example, consider — or reconsider — the entire Deftones catalogue, Soulfly’s debut, Kittie’s Spit, Slipknot’s first two albums and, yes, even the first few Limp Bizkit releases). Deftones aside, though, Korn stands tallest within the nu metal pack: they form a unique sonic entity, not merely a derivation of other styles. Their musical personality stems largely from Davis’ pained vocal delivery and lyrics, which brutally contend with sexual abuse, trauma, drug addiction, identity crises, paranoia and boundless rage.

A recently sober Davis brings a freshly focused kind of energy to Untouchables (2002), among nu metal’s most sonically adventurous and forward-thinking releases. The album came at a key point in the band’s career: following Korn, the group released the frantic follow-up Life Is Peachy (1996) before totally solidifying their commercial sound on the blockbuster releases Follow the Leader (1998) and Issues (1999). Seeing Korn at the height of their popularity, Untouchables marks a turning point. At a production budget of over $3 million, it is among the most expensive records ever made, and it is the first album to be recorded entirely in 96 kHz digital sound. Compared to the band’s scruffy debut released eight years prior, this 2002 release would sound almost like an entirely new group if not for the presence of Korn’s unmistakable key ingredients. Bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu and drummer David Silveria underline each track with their lean, primitivist styles; James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian “Head” Welch have distilled their dual guitar-play into riff-trading that is both infectiously simple and coyly experimental; Davis continues his disturbing excavation of personal demons, trading mainstream heavy metal’s frequent emphasis on power for expressions of self-loathing, sadomasochism and hopelessness.

Melody and atmosphere are at the forefront of Untouchables, a much denser and more expansive album than any of Korn’s preceding LPs. Addressing the 2002 record’s sonic density and pop sensibilities, Davis fondly refers to it as a “heavy metal Aja” (a tip of the hat to Steely Dan’s 1977 release, notorious for its exceptionally high production). The comparison between Steely Dan’s yacht rock and Korn’s angst-addled alt-metal might seem like a stretch, but Untouchables wanders deeper into pop territory than anything the band had yet explored at the time of its release. The heaviest moments gesture to guitarist Welch’s classic 1980s metal references (everything from Judas Priest and Black Sabbath to Ratt and Dokken), but Davis’ unashamed adoration for 80s Gothic, industrial and New Romantic pop (among others, Christian Death, Ministry, Thompson Twins, ABC and Duran Duran) also shines through — listen closely to the tightly structured “Thoughtless,” or the tonal shift between heavy verses and near-falsetto chorus in the synth-washed “Hollow Life.” It is this kind of long-standing tension and dissonance — between ferocity and approachability, alienation and populism, authentic weirdness and commercialism — that sets Korn apart from most of its contemporaries and followers. 

Nowhere does Davis’ authentically agonistic point-of-view feel more concentrated and impassioned than on Untouchables, and he is backed by the tightest musicianship and production in the band’s catalogue. Breaking the boundaries of the highly vexed subgenre that they inaugurated, Korn delivers nu metal’s apex with their fifth studio album.

Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, podcasts and anthologies, including Dark Moon Digest and The NoSleep Podcast, and his film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage and The Seventh Row. He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.