Album review #1: Korn, Korn, 1994, Epic Records/ Immortal Records
The first album review from this blog is one from long before I got interested in heavy music; it’s Korn’s 1994 self-titled debut album.
The Cover Art:
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
This album probably has the most infamously horrible cover art of any mainstream rock record I can think of, with a shadowy figure stood over a little girl on a swing. It’s not a favourite of mine, but I think it’s a good cover in that it’s appropriately nasty and gives you a taste of the sound and tone of the music to come.
My relationship with the band: I got into metal in 2008, so beyond having seen the name with the big reversed R on t-shirts, it took me a while to check them out, and while I’ve always admired the craft and originality, I find Korn quite a difficult listen. (Plus this was released in 1994, and two year olds probably shouldn’t be listening to this). My favourite song is Get Up!, featuring Skrillex, though I prefer their more traditional recent album Korn III: Remember Who You Are to the electronic experiment The Path of Totality by a long way. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them live supporting Slipknot, who they gave a real test to go on afterwards; I was seated and saw eight or nine separate pits start when Davis shouted “Arrrrrrrrrrrre yoooooouuuuuuuu readyyyyyyyyyyy?” as they closed with Blind.
Firstly, I have to add that I found a playlist for this album on YouTube, but it so happened that the 12th track out of 12, the unpleasant Daddy, was blocked in Germany by GEMA and I couldn’t find another version, so I listened to the 1993 demo.
The album wasn’t quite as challenging a listen as I thought it might be, because every song takes so many twists and turns that the constant anguish didn’t start to grate. If you have never heard Korn, the guitars have a sharp, spiky, dry, dusty that sound like broken pieces of metal sticking out the ground, with a harsh, aggressive groove to it. Singer Jonathan Davis goes from crooning (and I mean that in the wounded animal sense, not the Sinatra sense) to screaming as and when he wants, and the lyrics are a world of anguish, addressing school bullies, drugs and abuse of children.
Unlike other bands that orientate themselves with catchy lead riffs, Korn’s sometimes groove, but as often provide a remote, alienating sound that seems to almost go on in the background of the vocals, or become a churning, seething mass of noise over which Davis can barely be heard. The band’s love of hip-hop comes shows in the form of odd, almost danceable moments of funky bass, particularly on Ball Tongue, and it’s strange that perhaps the most angsty, hate-filled of metal bands (again, along with the less personal, more political Rage Against the Machine) should also have the most funk and groove to it.
It’s hard to pick a standout track; it’s well-known that opener Blind has one of the best intros in a rock song in terms of building anticipation up until the iconic scream of “Are You Ready?”, while the strongest choruses might be those on Faget and Fake. In particular, Faget and Shoots and Ladders provide an interesting centrepiece to the album; the former starting of relatively low-key with an ominously repetitive riff before progressing into one of the most furiously angry pieces on the records, with a scratchy, irritating guitar leading into Davis going ham about being bullied at school for his dress sense. This then leads into Shoots and Ladders, a relatively slow song with bagpipes and muttered nursery rhymes painting a picture of frightened, fragile psyche.
To me, Korn sounds very much like Davis’ record; while the distinctive musicianship is important to the sound, the attention is grabbed by the vocal performance, which ranges from powerful, almost extreme metal-esque growls to whispers and heavy breaths before the beginning of songs; also noticeable are the fragile, melodic moments, such as a glazed-sounding harmonic second chorus (post-chorus?) on Faget with a sound that is more alternative rock than metal.
The comparison that I kept making, possibly because I was listening to them on the same day, was with Beartooth, an uncompromising, deeply personal metalcore band, though I see Korn far less conventional band. This isn’t a record I’ll return to often, because of its spiky nature but it’s an exciting, challenging one.
The verdict: Korn pretty much met my expectations; it is a well-crafted, innovative album that’s not the most accessible on the first listen. If anything, it’s slightly better than I expected because Shoots and Ladders sounds better in the context of the album than it ever has in isolation. Check it out, though Korn III: Remember Who You Are might be an easier starting point for the uninitiated.