By ELI JACE >
The year is 1998.
Jonathan Davis barks back at a speeding bullet, sending it back through gas stations, backyard birthday parties and other scenes of sweet, late-century America, in the video for Korn’s “Freak On A Leash.” Without a doubt, one of the finest music videos, embracing the concept of a fast-traveling bullet filmed in slow-motion as it barely misses the vulnerable. The video was a welcome bomb in the pop landscape of the late-90s.
Twenty years ago this month, Korn released their third album, Follow the Leader, a gritty metal album from the sewers of the suburbs that was as catchy as it was ugly. Lead by singer Davis, guitarists James “Munky” Shaffer, Brian “Head” Welch, bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu, and drummer David Silveria, Korn tore through the culture. They revived metal and turned its atmospherics darker, adding horror movie suspense with strange tunings and Davis’s tortured whisperings and roarings.
In the age of Total Request Live (TRL), Britney and boy band pop, Korn managed to translate all that negative 90s energy and century-shifting panic into a long-standing career.
Korn’s rise came on the heels of Kurt Cobain’s death and a burrowing sense of national discontent with the events of Rodney King, Saddam entering Kuwait, WACO, the WTC bombing, Black Hawk Down, the OKC bombing–a lot of bombings actually; the major cases of Dahmer, OJ, the killings of Tupac and Biggie, the Unabomber. It was an angry time and chaos took over nightly newscasts. Of course, this 90s anger, viewed from our deeply dug bunker today, seems fairly antiquated and chummy compared to the round-the-clock, foot-in-your-face doomcasts we constantly scroll through, but hey, we were nubiles then, not yet used to societal breakdown and senseless widespread violence in our own streets.
By the end of the decade the presidency of Bill Clinton had turned into a comic strip, which further alienated voters and broke the enchantment of government to millions of restless suburbanites. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Follow the Leader was released one year, to the week, after the debut of South Park, another hugely successful pop culture vehicle that chided the cynicism of the times into comic gold. And with Eminem’s debut, The Slim Shady LP, coming months later, it’s easy to see the culture had shifted to embrace a more confrontational means of entertainment. Korn had claimed their place.
The declarative, “It’s On!” zips open Follow the Leader with an electronic gurgle made funky by Silveria’s drumming.
Head and Munky trade squelching guitar effects until Davis bashes everyone’s head in growling the title. I can remember standing in confused pre-adolescent shock at the demonic garbling spewed by Davis during “Freak on a Leash.” …de-Boom de-ga-tah, Boom-do de-ga-tah… And then stupidly mimicking it with friends. As easy as it is to mock, it’s still one of the most unhinged vocal performances. The song pivots with Silveria’s every whim, giving backbone to Davis’s throat extrapolations.
Silveria’s drumming is alive and groovy and not merely there to beef up the aggression. “Got The Life” is basically a disco beat that could be isolated and played for any Bee Gee’s song. His funky off-tempo backbeat is prime territory for Davis and other guest vocalists to rap over, but when the choruses hit, Silveria delivers with supreme bashing. He, along with Fieldy, gave Korn a rhythm section that hadn’t really been explored in heavy metal. They had a punch and grind like Faith No More, but with Fieldy tuning down to Hades it sounded more hellish.
After three quick singles comes “Dead Bodies Everywhere,” arguably the best song on the album, next to “Reclaim My Place.”
It’s eerie, creeping and what you might hear upon entering an abandoned playground at night. Fieldy’s detuned bass and Silvera’s drumming throttle around like broken toys before sharpened guitars make little jabs in your ears.
Proof of the album’s nu-metal time-arc is the deranged, “Children of the Korn,” a collaboration with Ice Cube. Metal-rap. Davis sounds like Hexxus, the oil fume villain from Ferngully while lazer-shot drums and guitar-chunks claw out a rhythm. Another is the defiantly stank, “All in the Family,” featuring stank overlord of the rap metal titans, Fred Durst. Certainly hard to imagine a mainstream album today with a back and forth between vocalists about rape, incest, murder and homoerotic narcissism.
“Reclaim My Place” holds the energy of a quickly burning down house.
A breakdown of tribalist drumming and heat-rising guitar effects leads to Davis lashing out the age-old question, “What the fuck!?” A growing tradition for Korn album-closers, “My Gift to You,” is a complete detonation of Davis’s inner gargoyle. “I hate you!” he screams against a slow-bludgeoning thrash, relentless in its grasp, as circus music and hollowed out echoes creep in the background mix.
Of the metal acts to break through the mainstream in the late-90s and early-2000s, Korn found a way to stay there far outpacing Limp Bizkit, Staind, System of a Down, Slipknot, Deftones and others of the era. (With only Korn and Deftones (maybe Slipknot?) having held onto a respectable career since.) Their next album, Issues, would cap off the band’s definitive era with Follow the Leader, Life is Peachy and their self-titled debut in 1994 preceding. In the eight albums since Follow, Korn has taken bold steps to try and reinvent their token sound, working with Skrillex and other EDM artists on The Path to Totality, exchanging producers, labels, members, but on Follow the Leader everything for Korn was clicking right on schedule.