Adidas tracksuits! Bagpipes! A bass guitar that clicks! The birth of “nu-metal”! It can only be Korn….
There are a handful of bands that, in the early mid-90s, were the key to unlocking the heavier side of metal. Up until this time frame, my primary listening tastes were Maiden, Kiss, WASP, Extreme, Living Colour, Pearl Jam, Metallica… to name a few. But the more “extreme” aspects of metal were foreign to me. I credit my buddy Huw for helping to rectify that situation. through him, I became acquainted with Slayer, Pantera, Biohazard and…. Korn. Huw was an early adopter of Korn, having a cassette of the album which he was willing to lend me. I left his parent’s house (he lived there, I wasn’t visiting them personally….) popped the tape into my Walkman and proceeded to be utterly taken aback by what I heard. It was just… genre altering. I’d never heard anything like this before.
Prior to borrowing the album, I’m pretty sure I’d heard ‘Blind’ which was impressive on it’s own but the full weight of the album (musically and lyrically). I think there was a perfect symmetry that night, a marriage of environment and audio. Firstly,the lateness of the hour meant that I was walking home in the dark. Korn just sounds better in the dark, I think, hearing them on a hot sunny, summer’s day just isn’t the same. Also, the streets and roads were sparsely populated, so that combination sense of isolation and the tinge of paranoia (that if something bad happens, who will be there to help?) further added to the oppressive sounds entering my ears. And let’s be frank here, this is an oppressive album. Ross Robinson does a fine job of capturing and mixing the sonic levels the band emit, there’s a clarity to the album that is impressive considering how sludgy it could have gotten (due to the tunings used). But the tones, the structure of the songs are jarring and unsettling, the combination of styles odd and difficult to process (for me, a pure metalhead, at that time) and the lyrics…. are something else.
Somebody, somewhere be it at the record company or Ross Robinson or the band themselves, probably pat themselves on the back at least once a day for making the decision to introduce the world to Korn via the opening track ‘Blind’. I dare you to find another song of theirs that is most identified with them. Go on, I’ll wait.
This is their ‘Enter Sandman’, their ‘Stairway To Heaven’, their ‘Bo Rap’, their ‘Agadoo‘… you get the idea. In just 4mins 19s, the band set out their stall and establish a sound that was, for me, totally unheard of before. Interestingly, their most famous song has it’s roots in pre-Korn history. But that’s not to say that this is the best track on the album. Far from it. Next we travel further down into the darkness with Ball Tongue which features the first appearance in the Korn catalogue fo the Jonathan Davis Cookie Monster vocals technique (later displayed on Life Is Peachy’s ‘Twist’). What’s interesting about this technique of just making noises is that it allows the listener to project their own feelings and emotions into the song. You start to “hear” words or phrases where there are none, like a subconscious pair of tweezers plucking and tugging at emotions. The intro to ‘Clown’ is hugely demonstrative of antagonistic vibe in the band. It definitely felt familiar to me as that epithets thrown around as well as the joky-but-serious nature tone reminded me of how my friends and I would interact. The difference being that we were teens and, on this track, Korn were in the early twenties.
‘Faget’ is the last of the Outsider Trilogy that also consists of ‘Clown’ and ‘Divine’. All 3 of these songs deal with the anger and resentment of being labeled, of being ostracised of being made to feel insignificant. Whether it’s because you dress or act differently (‘Faget’), come from a different town (‘Clown’) or simply railing against someone or something that feels they’re better than you (‘Divine’. All of these things, these feelings, are part and parcel of teenage life. And in these 3 songs, Korn and Davis verbalizes insecurities and a fuck-the-world attitude. Providing solace, if you should seek it. And with that, they cement the idea of being a voice of a generation. For me, certainly, I’d never heard such anger and such venom in music and lyrics before. I’m sure for many it spoke to their own fears and self-loathing and anger. And in ‘Faget’ with that line, with it’s visceral and deranged delivery, the sentiment resonates. Perhaps we might not choose to use that phrasing but I do believe we’ve all felt that emotion. To inject some levity, the end vocal always sounded liked, to me, that Davis was singing “I’m not a baguette” which always makes me chuckle to this day.
‘Shoots And Ladders’ marries children’s rhymes with a pretty off-kilter musical bed. It’s kind of a throwaway tune to be honest. I’ve read that it’s supposed to highlight how children’s nursery rhymes (the first songs we generally learn) are actually rooted in some very dark places but in reality, like most attempts to interpret nursery rhymes, there’s no actually basis for these interpretations. Nevertheless it’s a good song if only to get the chance of hearing people yelling nursery rhymes in concerts. ‘Predictable’ has bit of an uneven journey with it’s stop-start teme but it does feature the one of my fav snare sounds.
One of the key memories for me about this album is the way Jonathan Davis delivers his lyrics. Part singing, part growling, part whispering, part whining… it’s was, at the time, like nothing I had ever heard before and ‘Fake’ is a good example of Davis’ ability to get guttural. Listen to the way he barks out the word “fake”. Amazing. And much how Davis’ vocals were eye opening to me so to were the levels of heavy that the guitars roamed around. By that point (1994/5) I think the heaviest things I had heard were probably Pantera but this was heavier… darker. That descending riff in ‘Lies’ always maked me think ‘how low are these guys going to go’! Not content with melding rap and hip hop into metal, ‘Helmet In The Bush’ see Korn intorducing some almost industrial elements to their sound. The almost robotic (in tone and performance) nature of the percussion is hypnotic.
I’m not even going to bother to try and talk about the song ‘Daddy’ in any great depth save for two thing. Firstly, I had never (and still haven’t) heard anything like this on record. It was jarring, uncomfortable, scary and cathartic. To allow oneself to bare so much pain and anger for others to hear is remarkable. Secondly, go listen to the song because any words I try to use to describe this track, pales into insignificance compared to hearing it.
Korn (and a couple of other bands) was really a gateway band to a wider musical palette for me. They planted the seeds that would grow into bloom a couple of years later when I was with friends who liked hip hop and rap. These specific elements in Korn’s music meant I my “metal rulezzzz” attitude was less severe and more open to embracing new music. But not only that they were, in 1994, genuinely like nothing I had ever heard before. In his excellent book, Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman is less than complimentary about the band but even he agrees that Korn were new and different.
They arrived at just the right time in my and the public’s consciousness. Those of us in our teens, perhaps, had a stronger connection to the music and especially the lyrics. I still can’t wrap my head around this idea that Kurt Cobain was the voice of a generation. He absolutely wasn’t. Korn was. It’s just that they weren’t as mainstream (outside of the metal genre) as Nirvana were. This is the real howl of identity and fear and self-loathing. Just wrapped up in Adidas and not a cardigan.