How Korn’s self-titled debut made me the metalhead I am today
As a rule, I always go dark and weird. When I experience sweetness and innocence, I immediately imagine what unpleasantness slithers beneath its surface. And by the time I discovered Korn’s self-titled debut, I was ready for the fucked-up side of rock’n’roll. My initial introductions to hard rock – the Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, The Offspring, and Metallica’s Load – were great, but they’d taught me that so much of rock music was formulaic and performative. Even the angst of a group like NIN felt very romantic and projected. I wasn’t an in-your-face tough guy or a beautiful casualty to addiction; I was a weird kid who was feeling deeply confused by sex and growing up and how I fit into society.
But then I found the first Korn album, the same way most people find extreme music: my older brother showed it to me. The CD case alone gave me chills, and to this day still does: the languid bald figure throwing its shadow across the swing set, the little girl squinting into the sun, the red tint of impure thoughts clouding one’s vision like blood in water. And then, when you flip over the CD, the little girl’s gone. We don’t know where she was taken, but we all sort of know why.
But the art was only the beginning – the music was what really blew my mind. There were guitar tones that sounded like two stomachaches rubbing together. There were bass and drums that made me think of a skeleton playing with itself. And on top of it all was this gibbering, snarling, whispering rag doll, reciting nursery rhymes and singing about how he gets called a pussy. In the first song on the album, this dude screamed a thought I had pretty much every day of my childhood: What if I should die?
At first I was dumbstruck: ‘What the shit was this? How did it sound like all the creepy things in my head? Was I allowed to say any of these words?’ Bit by bit, my shock gave way to excitement. This was, in my 13-year-old mind, what heavy music was supposed to be: raw, offensive, confusing, revealing, and upsetting. It was supposed to give you a jolt of naked human fear that’s all the more interesting and nuanced because no one’s prepared you for it. Before I knew anything about this band, about Ross Robinson or seven-string guitars or crystal meth, all I knew was how it made me feel.
This principle guided me as a fan of music. Sure, I still liked those kickass songs that made me pump my fist into the air, but now I also liked the stuff that I found strange, disturbing, and startling. When I saw or heard something that made me go, ‘Whoa!’ I immediately wanted to know more about it. Over time, this gut reaction led me to many types of music – the vengeful speed of Slayer, the baroque violence of Cannibal Corpse, the arch-evil of Emperor, the monster mash of White Zombie, the backwoods sorrow of Rwake – but it all spawned from my snap reaction to this record.
Korn’s self-titled debut is a perfect example of the first rule of writing: show, don’t tell. After all the macho posturing and dime-storm Satanism of the ’80s, metal needed to stop broadcasting its danger and start feeling it, and these 10 tracks of seething, sweaty broken mannequin rock were just what headbangers needed. Obviously, Korn have gone on to become one of the biggest rock acts of all time, with a storied catalog of work that has reached millions of fans – but for me, it all comes back to this album, a raw and unhinged debut by a band of unorthodox psychos that made one young misfit feel a little less alone.
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