Updated May 14, 2023 - 5:01 pm
He gestures toward his sparkly purple pants, which gleam as if they had been sired by a disco ball.
“I haven’t seen these in a long time,” Korn frontman Jonathan Davis says as he tugs on a leg of his shiny Adidas tracksuit. The exercise wear was a sartorial signature of Davis’ in the mid-’90s, when his band pioneered a new sound that became known as nü metal, an angst- and hooks-heavy subgenre defined by down-tuned guitars, hip-hop undertones, loose-fitting clothes and tightly clenched fists.
“Are you guys ready to hear some old school (expletive)?” Davis asks of the tens of thousands of sunburned and sweaty devotees before him.
That’s what this day — all 13 hours of it, the majority of which were spent beneath a sun that scalded like a skinny dipping session in an active volcano — was all about.
Welcome to Sick New World, the sold-out heavy music marathon that debuted at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds on Saturday, where the black-clad crowd was largely indivisible from the similarly colored asphalt beneath their feet as they pinballed between four stages, seeking shade beneath inflatable hobgoblins and forming long lines at the Korn Koffee booth. (Gotta try the $10 “Coming Undone” Tahitian rose latte — with gold dust!).
Despite the heat, spirits remained as high as the temperatures.
“Love is in the air,” enthused Dez Fafara, the pony-tailed vocalist for reunited L.A. spooky kids Coal Chamber.
That, and the scent of suntan lotion — along with a distinct whiff of 1998.
That was the year when nü metal’s commercial reign began in earnest, when Korn’s third record, “Follow the Leader,” hit No. 1 on the “Billboard Top 200,” paving the way for an army of disciples to gold and platinum, many of which were present here.
The music often served as a pressure valve for feelings of alienation and emotional anguish (“Can’t somebody help me? / All I need is to be / Loved just for me,” Davis sang “Somebody Someone,” articulating a central theme of his songbook), an abundance of inner tumult directed into an outer rage.
Nü metal wasn’t all gnashed teeth and bloody knuckles though, as demonstrated on this day by the Deftones, whose adrenalized performance was equally biting and beatific, lush and lacerating, and Incubus, who’ve long traded in earnesty more than anger, as evidenced by their set-closing, bear-hug-of-a-ballad “Drive.”
And though nü metal was the axis on which this fest pivoted, it was far from the only style of music mined here.
There were a number of industrial acts, represented by German dance-floor battering ram KMFDM, the cochlea harshing Skinny Puppy, whose set was akin to rinsing one’s ears with battery acid, and scene pioneers Ministry, whose performance doubled as a call-to-arms against complacency. (“Are you defeated? / Are you depressed? / Get agitated” they urged on “Good Trouble.”)
There were rare U.S. appearances by assorted British rockers, like goth forebears The Sisters of Mercy, who closed the Spiral Stage on their first American tour in 14 years, and Placebo, who countered this dark-hued day with amps draped in white and an invigorated cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout.”
Speaking of covers, when grunge precursors the Melvins took on The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” it was as if the thing had been dipped in wet concrete, such was its heaviness. And then there was Mr. Bungle’s truly inimitable take on Spandau Ballet’s yacht rockin’ “True,” which was prefaced by the intro to Slayer’s “Hell Awaits,” interspersed with strains of Siege’s hardcore tantrum “Cold War” and ended with frontman Mike Patton crooning the Pepto Bismol theme.
Sick New World culminated on the Purple Stage with nü metal favorites System of a Down, who only tour sporadically and who haven’t released a new album in 18 years. (There’s also a Vegas connection with the band, as drummer John Dolmayan owns high-end local comic shop Torpedo Comics.)
The band blurred the line between the political and the puerile, the silly and serious, with a frontman, Serj Tankian, equally adept at singing classical arias and death metal dirges.
On Saturday, he alternated between bristling social commentary (“Why don’t presidents fight the war? / Why do they always send the poor?”), stream-of-consciousness wordplay (“Mine delusions acquainted, bubbles erotica / Plutonium wedding rings, icicle stretchings, bicycle shoestrings”) and the occasional song about pogo sticks, System’s set registering as a cool balm on all the hot flesh in the house, by turns riotous and reflective.
“My memories are of fun and friendship,” Tankian sang on “Soil,” a sad song about a friend taking his life, that the band hadn’t played live since 2015.
His words took on an added resonance, though, on this night of nü memories.