Korn at 20: never mind the nu-metal, their searing confessional approach deserves reappraisal

Perhaps you think they’re now tired hack musicians feasting on the bones of their former selves? Who cares: tackling personal experiences of child abuse and issues of trauma head-on is something the seminal outfit ought to be widely applauded for.

It was a venue where, if I were being harsh, almost everyone in the venue felt — at best — to be a second cousin of Shifty Shellshock.

The Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando had offered up a tumultuous surprise just hours earlier when it revealed to me — in something akin to a biblical revelation — that Korn were to be performing later the same evening – playing their entire debut album in full.

Was it an opportunity I would pass up?

Was it buggery.

Before I get to the gist of my thoughts about the night, the band’s legacy and some trite thoughts on what it meant to me, a few random observations:

Before I get to the gist of my wider thoughts about the night — and there are plenty of those — here are a few random observations:

  • There was somebody in the moshpit with his phone flashlight on, recording the action. VIDEOING THE STRAMASH. Somehow, capturing parts of the show in ultra-poor quality on your clumpy phone feels respectable in comparison to such preening, pathetic behaviour. (Note: I’m not saying that the former is respectable.)
  • Though this has been the case for a number of years, you may not realise that Korn has a keyboardist. Imagine being the keyboardist for Korn; let’s say at a bar, trying to pick someone up. “Hey, you look important, what do you do?” asks someone looking vaguely interested because of your crudely assembled entourage (which comes top dollar, since they certainly aren’t hanging around you hoping for artistic inspiration). Attempting to sound confident, you reply: “I’m the keyboardist for Korn.” [Record scratch as music in background stops. The previously curious individual chokes on their drink. Everyone else gazes awkwardly at floor as a single tear rolls down your cheek. Time to take this “party” back to your “man cave”, aka mum and dad’s garage.]
  • Thought it ought not to be, encore number Here To Stay is still an inexplicably brilliant song, a Nazi-marching-band-anthem-cum-disco-metal stomp which feels propelled by sheer obstinance and a willingness for accidental brilliance.
  • Bagpipes. Onstage. As someone who played the bagpipes, this will never grow old, even if I objectively know it sounds pretty terrible. I once contemplated volunteering to play them for Korn to make the whole thing a bit less awful, but really — given that I’ve just roundly mocked their keyboardist, it doesn’t feel a sustainable life choice for the ol’ ego. NOT AT ALL.

Anyway, it seems fair to call Korn the album seminal. It functioned as a primary building block — maybe the primary building block — for what became nu-metal. The blissfully simplistic hi-hat intro for opening track Blind heralded an era where metal’s dexterous intricacy was cannily supplanted by a loose, rhythm-led reliance on bare-bones thudding simplicity that felt like it owed a lot to both hip hop and modern pop — and seemed to benefit from the injection of those mainstream darlings.

As it Blind blasted into life at the Hard Rock Cafe, it functioned as a reminder that the reason Korn – and this album in particular – were so successful wasn’t about technical competency.

It was about something more elemental. More substantial.

However, that effect soon wilted thanks to the presence of drummer Ray Luzier, the only person onstage (apart from that RUDDY KEYBOARDIST) who isn’t an original member of the Bakersville group — you know, the ones who in 1994 convened with producer Ross Robinson to lay down a blueprint which proved enormously influential for both their peers and a few generations of plucky upstarts who never quite replicated what they represented.

A metal drummer of repute, Luzier lacks the lightness of touch that his predecessor David Silveria possessed – without it, the hip hop and jazz inflections absolutely pivotal to the uniqueness of ’94–era Korn disappear into the ether.

It might not sound as though it should make too much of a difference, but it means that what could be a poignant recapturing of the group’s glory days instead becomes (for the most part) a thudding, rote journey through their earliest full-length record.

It’s not the only way in which the previously electrifying effect of the material has been deadened through the modern-day performance. A large part of its essence – Jonathan Davis stripping his vocal cords raw while addressing intimate issues of abuse – doesn’t work as well when performed by multimillionaire music veterans whose performances and poses are just about as overpolished and tediously sheeny as those hair-metal buffoons they replaced in their prime.

Davis’s song-stealing line within Faget of “you can suck my dick and fucking like it” feels less a blistering moment of catharsis — after the homophobic taunting by bullies addressed by the song’s previous lyrics — and more unnecessary, given that it’s a well that he has mined over many years to great success. However right it was at the time, it no longer feels like someone punching up.

As it turns out, it’s the lesser played songs from the album which come out best. That’s not surprising: they haven’t been wheeled out countless times, their meaning beaten to a befuddled pulp within the thousands of venues that Korn have performed in. There is something about the dirge-like incessant riffage of Predictable that feels almost queasy, emotions wrought with a depressing yet compelling insistency outside of the normal aggressive boundaries of metal. Much the same can be said of Lies, and while Shoots and Ladders has long been a crowd favourite, there is still something riveting about how Davies wrings the spectre of childhood trauma through the scattering recitation of nursery rhymes — which transmogrifies somewhat absurdly but brilliantly into Mary Had a Little Lamb as detuned guitars clatter around the familiar refrain.

Hearing the whole performed in order live — and well done to them for doing that, incidentally, rather than changing it around as others have done with album recitations — is a stark reminder that Korn is not an easy listen. If if the hooks are simple and sometimes catchy, the overall atmosphere is discomfiting and disarming. This is not an album you’d put on for a family Christmas dinner. (Though if you do, please let me know how it goes.)

That feels like something to be commended. Less positively, there feels a unmistakable sense of disconnect from the source material — enough to bring up the slightly terrifying prospect that critics of the band were perhaps right to label them as a largely talentless, clunking, embarrassing proposition.

However, that melts away with the rendition of Korn’s final track. Daddy begins — as the recorded version does — with a multi-tracked harmonised “choir” consisting of Davis apologising to his mother, asking for her forgiveness for letting out his “pain and suffering” over the course of the album, before the subject matter switches to Davis’s experience of childhood rape. The atmosphere in the venue palpably shifts as the singer paces centre-stage, resurrecting the emotions associated with his own abuse.

The legacy of Korn that is often forgotten about is that — prior to their emergence — metal (and the musical world in general) glossed over horrific subject matter by using metaphors and other subtle approaches to convey messages to the listener. (Who may well have taken nothing from it.) Under Robinson’s production Korn removed any hiding place, assuming a confessional approach that subsequently allowed others to address issues which were previously taboo, or for which they would be — and still are — mocked. Racism, misogyny, homophobia: what could possibly be off-bounds after a group signed to a major label tackled perhaps the greatest of taboos?

Even if the group are a pale reflection of who they used to be, there is still such power within their initial work that to deny its enormous positive effect — for fans, other artists, and the wider public — is lazy and pathetic. It’s an argument that feels even more inarguable as you witness Davis bring up those feelings again on stage, having not performed Daddy for over 15 years until this anniversary tour. When Bjork can apparently cancel her latest album tour because its ruminations on her divorce proved too much of an emotional burden to perform regularly, it brings home how enormously painful it must be to relive your own personal trauma onstage. That Davis does so is something to be commended and applauded, and judging from one night’s crowd reaction, there are many who gain strength from his own resilience.

So, though the effect of hearing their debut album performed in its entirety may be lessened through the drummer change and a notable difference in circumstance — as thought that wouldn’t be the case after two decades — Korn still deserve a huge amount of praise for ushering through an era in which artists can more freely address horrific personal issues directly, and find through that an audience who not only identify with it, but who know they are not alone as a result. For that alone, it’s been 20 years tremendously well spent.