Maybe itâ€™s time for a nu-metal renaissance?
Pushing 50 years old, Korn frontman Jonathan Davis has finally released a proper solo album, Black Labyrinth, and it is…confusing. For one, itâ€™s curious to hear a middle-aged man scream about the same angst that led pissed off, JNCO jean wearing teens to force their parents to buy copies of Follow the Leader and Issues 20 years ago. For another, itâ€™s weird that this isnâ€™t an altogether unpleasant listening experience.
As with other Jonathan Davis solo excursions, this new album ties in with a film, as its lead single â€śWhat It Isâ€ť was featured on the soundtrack for American Satan, a spectacularly bad Faustian rock opera starring Black Veil Brides frontman Andy Biersack. Davis composed original songs for that filmâ€™s fictional band The Relentless as he once did for The Vampire Lestat in 2003â€™s execrable Queen of the Damned adaptation. Both of those efforts, while not principally in the realm of what most discerning consumers would call â€śgood,â€ť remain fascinating experiments for an artist so closely tethered to the national mental image of the nu-metal genre.
While Korn and its contemporaries all variating on the same repetitive sonic threads and exhausting themes, Jonathan Davis, when left to his own devices, slips further from that â€śbutt rockâ€ť sound and into his own head. The kind of music he makes when removed from his decades long brand is more emotional, more strange and for the most part, more fun. Well, as â€śfunâ€ť as loud songs about relationship strife and battling with inner demons can ever really be, anyway.
Black Labyrinth is a polished record, with strong production and an interesting cast of studio players, among them late period Korn drummer Ray Luzier and Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland. Each track feels like it began its life as a Davis demo before being built upon with layer after layer of reverb, cavernous drum fills and aggressive riffs. Davis himself plays sitar on some of the more adventurous outings, with other more esoteric instrumentation peppered throughout to more closely mirror the Tim Burton by way of Indian flute player aesthetic of the singerâ€™s tortured, inner soul.
While the album is plenty listenable and sure to excite longtime Korn fans happy to hear their favorite lyricist out on his own without a bad movie attached to his rear like a vestigial tail, thereâ€™s not much here for casuals to sink their teeth into that they couldnâ€™t more easily get replaying â€śFalling Away from Meâ€ť for the hundredth time. Most of the tracks blend into one another, sounding like echoes of older, better songs he wrote for his main band. The best songs are the ones that feel like they could only exist as Jonathan Davis solo tunes.
The epic â€śBasic Needsâ€ť covers the same well-trodden territory of Davisâ€™ sullen, interpersonal yearning and romantic dysfunction, but his usual moodiness is bolstered by a shades of power balladry, with the occasional well-placed pedal whine to imply the score from The Lost Boys. Itâ€™s a big song that strikes a balance between alt rock excess and film composing, which is why Davis sounds so at home on the record. It helps that the hook is huge and Davis tears into it with scenery chewing glee. â€śA Secretâ€ť is of the same kin, but with more synths and electro scuzz.
But itâ€™s the truly weird â€śGenderâ€ť that steals the show, if not the best song of the album, certainly the most unique. On the lurching, noirish tune, Davis seems to be wrestling with unresolved issues from his youth, being picked on for wearing fingernail polish and not conforming to the typical masculine ideal. Itâ€™s just that lyrics manifest like serial killer dialogue, making the appropriation of feminine-presenting arcana visceral and literal. â€śCan I wear your skin?â€ť he pleads. â€śI know my gender but still I demand to be youâ€¦â€ť
Itâ€™s far more out there than one would expect from the Family Values Tour co-founder and it presents a lot to unpack that never really gets explored further. But for a record that could conceivably just been reheated demos that never fit on old Korn records, itâ€™s a genuine surprise. Maybe itâ€™s time for a nu-metal renaissance? Well, no, itâ€™s probably not, but Davis can stay, at least until the next terrible, supernatural thriller needs someone to pen lyrics for a fake rock band.