NEW YORK — In the rock world, a band that has been together more than a decade is almost middle-aged. So it's not surprising that as Korn entered its 11th year last year, the rap-metal pioneers were deep in the throes of a midlife crisis.

Korn's co-founder and guitarist, Brian "Head" Welch, left the band that stood as a shining example for debauchery and deviance to devote his life to Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, Korn left its longtime record label and started producing an album by working with — most disturbingly to some Korn fans — the Matrix, a trio of producers best known for making hits for teen pop princesses and relative lightweights like Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff.

If those looking at the band from the outside didn't know what to make of Korn's future, for a time, it wasn't a much different view from the inside.

"For about a week, it kind of felt like the band was very fragile," says guitarist James "Munky" Shaffer, speaking of the period after Welch's departure last winter. "There was kind of a moment where we didn't know what we were going to do and how we were going to continue."

The moment was short-lived, however.

"We kind of decided, 'OK, we can just sit back and we can put out a greatest hits album and end this or we can use this opportunity and instead of looking at it as a loss, reinvent what we do,' " said Shaffer.

"We went through a lot of drama this year with Head leaving, and getting off our label and making the album by ourselves," says Jonathan Davis, Korn's lead vocalist. "We funded the whole album and didn't know what we were going to do with it. By him leaving, we took tragic and turned it into an opportunity for us to create and be inspired."

Korn's latest, "See You on the Other Side," marks the first album without Welch, who along with Shaffer anchored the band's guitar-crunching sound and shaped the direction of the band along with drummer David Silveria and the bassist simply known as Fieldy.

Welch had been a part of the band since before Korn was Korn — pre-Davis, he and the other band members fronted a band known as LAPD. But Davis says Welch's heavy drug use had kept him at a distance with other band members for some time before he left the group.

"We were just watching the guy kill himself. Everybody was worried about him, but he didn't want any help from us," says Davis.

"The only time we saw him was when he was on stage. . . . We were really excited that he was going to clean up, but it just went downhill from there and him turning onto religion," says Davis, a vocal critic of organized religion ("Christians are the biggest con artists in the world, the most hypocritical of all religions," he gripes).

On his Web site, headtochrist.

com, Welch talks about God delivering him from drugs and a life of sin, but he criticizes the band for what he sees as their drive for commercial success. Their latest album could be seen as evidence of that criticism, since the band sought out mainstream pop producers such as Glen Ballard, Dallas Austin and Linda Perry before settling on The Matrix and Nine Inch Nails producer Atticus Ross.

But Shaffer and Davis say it wasn't an attempt to "go pop" but an attempt to update their decade-old sound.

"We kind of felt like we had experienced that genre of rock producers," says Shaffer. "We didn't feel there was anything exciting for us. So we wanted to try and turn to someone who was in a different genre of music to kind of bring out something in us, to kind of push us in a different direction."

While the album doesn't find Davis warbling like Lavigne — as some fans had feared — it does add a bit more of a melodic vibe to the band's signature screeching, metal, hip-hop influenced sound.

"It was more atmospheric, a lot of just different sounds and everything going on that they brought into the picture," says Davis, fiddling with his signature dreadlocks. "It's still a Korn sound but it's different. It's a new Korn — heaviness I call it. It's very different from what we'd done before."

Though Korn signed with Virgin Records last fall, "See You on the Other Side" was financed and produced solely by Korn when the band was without a label and debating whether they would even join again with a major record company. Though the band started off with Sony Music and became superstars on the label, selling about 15 million albums in the United States alone, in recent years album sales had waned and it questioned the label's commitment.

"We wanted to get to another label that was new people, fresh ideas, people that would be excited to have us on the label," says Davis.

Their deal with Virgin is unique in that it guarantees the label a portion of Korn's touring revenue while giving the band a larger share of their record proceeds (This week, they also cut a $3 million deal with the promoter Live Nation, giving them a share of their album sales and other band revenue.)

"It's a 70-30 split," explains Davis of the band's deal with Virgin. "They get 30 percent of our touring . . . which the labels never really had a part of, and we get 70 percent of album sales."

"If they do their job, and they promote us right and we're doing great touring wise, they're going to make money like they've never seen it before, and we're going to make money that we've never seen before, so it just really worked out good."

Korn will get a chance soon to see how lucrative the deal can be — it starts a nationwide tour in February. It will be the group's first tour without Welch onstage — the band will have someone offstage playing certain parts, but opted not to replace him.

Shaffer says he still misses playing with Welch, and calls him an inspiration: "It was always kind of like a back and forth, like a pingpong match between him and I."

But both Davis and Shaffer say his departure not only brought the band closer, it made it a better musical unit.

"It forced me to become a better musician, it forced the band to become stronger for it. It's almost like a gift," says Shaffer. "That's the irony of him leaving."


On the Net: www.korn.com