When I first saw this album cover, I really thought it was one of the creepiest, seediest images I’d ever seen (the Catholic middle school I went to had uniforms similar to the one the girl wears on the swing). And on the back, you just see the empty swing swaying, as though the shadow on the front cover is now giving chase. Scary.
The band best known for launching the wildly popular “nu-metal” movement of the 1990s, Korn eschewed the fancy theatrical playing of traditional heavy metal music. They focused instead on minimalist, downtuned riffs and a tight, focused rhythm section to create intensity. Lead singer Jonathan Davis has one of the most distinctive voices in the genre, and even if it isn’t the “greatest,” he emotes such a vibe of barely-controlled rage that you never feel safe listening to him, feeling he may just explode at any minute (which he does on this record, several times!).
“…it was just plain crazy. Huge. This huge, huge sound that blew us all away. It was incredible,” guitarist Brian “Head” Welch writes in his book, “Save Me From Myself.”
2. Ball Tongue
3. Need To
7. Shoots and Ladders
11. Helmet In the Bush
You really can’t start off Korn’s genre-defining record any other way than with their definitive song, “Blind.” It’s a favorite both in the studio and live, in which the energy builds and builds until it peaks, Davis yelling “Are you ready?!?!?” Instant mosh pit ensues.
But here’s what’s even more enduring about this album to me: the singles and “hits” are pretty good. “Shoots and Ladders” has that cool, wonderful bagpipe intro that melds beautifully with the main riff. “Clown” and “Faget” are both songs that everybody who was ever bullied in high school can relate to (or if you’re just fed up with somebody).
For me though, the best songs here (apart from “Blind”) are the non-single album tracks. “Ball Tongue” is driven by wonderful slap-bass from Fieldy, and was named after a passionate early fan and promoter of the band (though he unfortunately didn’t help their drug habit). “Need To” was the first Korn song Jonathan Davis sang with when he joined the band, and he was so inspired by the music he just started ad-lib singing over it on the spot. “Divine” has some inspired drumming and stop-start riffing.
“Lies,” the most underrated song on this album, is probably the closest they came vocally to a death metal song. Teeth-gritting, hair-pulling, neuroticism here. “Helmet In the Bush,” the record’s drug song, was recorded while on meth…along with the rest of the album, by Korn’s admission.
But meth or no meth, the production feels hot and gritty, a seedy playground or parking lot baking under the sun, the light pop of the snare drums a great feature. And the bass is not only audible, but is a key driver of the whole experience. Korn’s rhythm section was really locked in here.
And finally, there’s “Daddy,” the darkest and bravest song the band ever wrote. Based on a true experience by Jonathan Davis, who was abused and molested as a child by a neighbor, the recording process took so much out of him that they never played it live. Despite constant fan requests for it, it was too emotional..
This was until their most recent tour, celebrating 20 years of Korn, when Davis finally felt up to the challenge of performing “Daddy,” along with the rest of this record in its entirety. According to him, the original abuser (whoever it was) is now dead. He has been through a life that is hard for many to imagine, and however painful it is for him to relive the experience “Daddy,” Korn fans continue to embrace Davis and the fact that he is still here.
Now that it’s heyday has been over for 15 years, nu-metal is largely dismissed these days. Maybe it’s because the music still appeals so strongly to angry adolescents, and fans are a bit embarrassed about it now. But over 20 years after its original release, I’d argue it’s time to re-evaluate Korn’s 1994 debut for what it is: an intense, defining record that has aged better than anything else of its ilk.
James “Munky” Shaffer
Brian “Head” Welch
Written by Matt P