The 25 Most Important Metal Bands of the ’90s, #3: Korn
The ’90s: they were the bomb! That’s why MetalSucks will spend the month of March (and the first week of April) giving snaps to the decade that was all that and a bag of chips by counting down The 25 Most Important Metal Bands of the ’90s. These aren’t bands that necessarily formed in the ’90s, nor are they bands that would turn out to be influential somewhere down the road; these are bands that a) were doing their best work in the ’90s, and b) amassed a devout following during the ’90s. These are the bands that we feel truly defined the decade for extreme music. These are the bands that we feel truly defined the decade for yo mama.
There is a strength in being crazy. Sure, Tough and Evil are pretty intimidating, but Crazy beats them every time. Crazy doesn’t play by the rules. Crazy brings a can of Raid to the knife fight. A damaged mind isn’t bound by precious man-made concepts like honor and decorum and song structure. It’s hard to posture as damaged, or to do so as easily as one can play at being tough or evil, and all that falls to the wayside pretty quickly when confronted by someone who’s actually traumatized, imbalanced, or just out of their fucking mind.
As the 90s shed all of glam’s warrior-poet horseshit and Slayer began casually mentioning that they weren’t really planning to spank it to someone’s peeled-off face, metal needed genuine insanity to survive. As slashers replaced vampires in horror cinema, and being medicated by your progressive parents became creepier than being shipped off to military school, madness became the realist’s boogeyman, and it was lacking in metal. Death metal was so gross and dark that its makers were quick to note that it was all fantasy. The black metal dudes were nuts, yeah, but their madness was cloaked in this knights-in-Satan’s-service hierarchy of true and false. And in the mainstream, Pantera and White Zombie were super aggressive, but their music was blue-collar and kinetic, as much about venting rage as it was about having a good time.
And then, there was Korn. Korn were not having a good time. If the band’s album covers and lyrics were to be believed, Korn were using crystal meth and unprotected sex to drown out the memories of its childhood molestation. While so many other bands were telling you how crazy they were, Korn were putting on a pair of panties, cranking some NWA, and getting ready to kill every dog in the neighborhood.
Even without lyrics, Korn’s music sounds like some form of madness, the churning subconscious of your average latchkey kid raised on hard rock, hip hop, and electronica. The steady thump of David Silveria’s drums coupled with Head and Munky’s grinding seven-string guitars and Fieldy’s rattling bass has all the low-end throb of a heartbeat and the unsettling drive of blood rushing through your ears. And then there’s Jonathan Davis, whispering, gibbering, and barking a steady gush of confusion and agony from the sewer of his brain. Every member of the band appears to be playing their music in a stream of consciousness, squeezing the poison out of the blisters on their memories. The result is the soundtrack to a dream—not a stylized cartoon dream, but a real dream, a flash of images and emotions which culminates with your having sex with someone with a doll’s head.
Korn’s first two albums were groundbreaking in specific ways — 1994’s self-titled debut is grossly heavy, and showcases the band’s sound in its rawest form; 1996’s Life Is Peachy introduces Korn’s more overt goth and hip hop influences — but it’s 1998’s Follow The Leader that nu metal bands young and old will forever attempt to live up to. The album’s two big singles were unstoppable chart-toppers, while tracks like “Dead Bodies Everywhere” and “Justin” were full of the kind of off-kilter heaviness that gave fans interested in digging deeper a gateway into metal as a whole.
Wait, but Korn were just a bunch of suburban white boys trying to act hard! I hear you yell over your crossed arms. Yeah, and that’s exactly why Korn stood above their nu metal brethren — they weren’t really cool. Limp Bizkit polished nu metal into a gleaming, symmetrical sphere that even the jocks could love. Bands like Disturbed went with the insanity angle, but did so with a crisp presentation, a controlled chaos. But Korn seemed like a real bummer to be around. They looked, and sounded, like they smelled pretty bad. Davis wasn’t a tough guy acting scary, he was a new wave fan who got called “faggot” all the time. These guys weren’t playing at anything — they were wannabes, misfits, and complete messes.
It’s easy to think of the ’90s as the Decade Where Metal Died because there were no guitar solos or whatever. And in many ways, Korn are responsible for that, inspiring a generation of metal bands who assumed that rock always beat scissors. But more than that, Korn helped clear away the clichéd trappings that so much of metal was wearing. It took off all the denim and leather, the swagger and sneer, and revealed a naked cultural subconscious that was tender, frightened, and crazy as a fucking loon.
THE LIST SO FAR
#25: Morbid Angel
#21: Cave In
#19: Cradle of Filth
#17: Napalm Death
#16: Rage Against the Machine
#15: Type O Negative
#14: Dream Theater
#13: Alice in Chains
#12: Nine Inch Nails
#8: Cannibal Corpse
#7: Fear Factory
#4: Faith No More