In 1994, the music industry was surely changing. The death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain shook up grunge and pop culture in equal measure, while pop-punk, hip-hop, and even Britpop were climbing the charts. Many of thrash metal’s leading lights were undergoing changes, while the decline of hair metal also meant there was a void to be filled. Fueled by the rise in popularity of alternative metal and hip-hop oriented rock and metal, a band from Bakersfield, California arrived to make their presence known.
“Are You Ready?”
Never before had a band come up with a sound like Korn’s debut. The opening track, “Blind”, immediately became arguably the band’s signature song, as its low-tuned guitars and ominous lyrics signaled a new wave of bands that turned their gaze inward, lyrically voicing their frustrations of life and experience. Tracks like “Daddy” are unyielding bursts of emotion in this regard. Detailing the abuse of as child in music form is, in a word, terrifyingly effective. Korn’s bass-heavy sound worked great here. With a fittingly raw, yet clear production, highlights “Clown” and “Helmet In The Bush” use sinister, catchy riffs to make their point, but the emphasis was still on drums and bass. A bagpipe intro on “Shoots and Ladders” is something few bands would ever attempt, too.
It’s important to remember where songs like “Ball Tongue” and “Blind” came from, though. Without a doubt, Korn’s sound was rooted in hip-hop, with Fieldy’s bass abilities running all over the place like few other bands at the time. Chief influences on Korn’s initial output included Faith No More, Primus, and funk metal in general – helping Korn to create a very percussive style of metal that eschewed flashy solos and instead emphasized rhythm. And as one of Ross Robinson’s first major production jobs, they also had the producer to match. Robinson helped push vocalist Jonathan Davis to his absolute limit, helping fuel much of the aggression and frustration that narrated pushing a significant other away in a relationship (“Need To”) and the turmoil of the mind (“Blind”). Korn’s head-on tackling of many mental health issues also made them a popular draw with disenfranchised kids and teens at the time, helping to draw parallels in their own lives that they could relate to.
Even non-single tracks like “Need To” are important. Nobody had ever heard a vocalist like Jonathan Davis rapping and screaming over funk-influenced rap-metal before. Not like this, anyway. Impressively being tracked live in the studio, few albums can capture the unique experiences of five men in a room like this one. What Korn did on their debut is one that few bands will ever approach, and there’s very few albums that could approach this kind of generational impact. Considering the timing of its arrival as rock and metal were taking very different shapes, its arrival just three years after Nirvana’s Nevermind created a sea change that arguably had a similar kind of impact.
It’s difficult to think of a band that could create something menacing out of a children’s nursery rhyme, yet that’s exactly what’s accomplished here. Perhaps it’s fitting that much of Korn’s self-titled debut album confronts serious issues of the mind and body, which much of nu-metal would champion as a primary source of lyrics. This was the start of a new genre that was so powerful, it would start to dominate heavy music for around a decade. Every phenomenon starts somewhere, though, and the blueprint is right here to stare you in the face.