Fear Emptiness Decibel

Fear, Emptiness, Decibel: Read a Brief Excerpt from Decibel‘s Comprehensive History of Nü-Metal


nookieBefore there were blogs there were these things called magazines, and the only metal magazine we still get excited about reading every month is Decibel. Here’s managing editor Andrew Bonazelli…

The October Decibel features a piece we’ve been working on for a long time: a comprehensive examination of nü-metal from the perspective of metalheads who suffered through that shit in the barren mid-to-late ’90s. Our intrepid Shane Mehling interviewed a who’s-who of artists, “artists,” label heads and journalists who both contributed to and weathered this perfect shitstorm, from Ross Robinson and Max Cavalera to Metal Blade’s Brian Slagel and Phil Anselmo. The following excerpt details how Fear Factory was something of a dry run for infamous producer Robinson to craft Korn into a phenomenon.

But before you dig in, some exclusive behind-the-scenes tidbits from Shane: “Zakk Wylde thought that Green Day came after Limp Bizkit. Burton C. Bell was in the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video, and Fear Factory once shared a dressing room with Radiohead, who were real dicks. Fieldy told Max Cavalera that Chaos A.D. made him cry. Dez Fafara thought I was from Alternative Press. Ross Robinson recently got surgery on his spine, and he’s now an inch and a half taller. Phil Anselmo referred to me multiple times as both Jack and Jackson. Brujeria was once suspected by the Houston police of beheading a guy. Gordon Conrad loves an Incubus record. Everyone wants you to put away your fucking phones at their shows.”

Check out the entire (fucking outstanding and hilarious) article on the Deciblog, and purchase the issue here.


Born in 1967, Ross Robinson is no metal outsider, despite his reputation. He was a serious thrash guitarist through the ’80s and early ’90s with bands like Detente (female-fronted speed metal signed to Metal Blade), Murdercar and Catalepsy. You can listen to all of this on YouTube: legit metal, no frills, no shtick. When he turned to production, recording his friends Fear Factory for their 1991 demo, it was only a step up in intensity.

“Ross had a certain thing about him,” Fear Factory guitarist Dino Cazares says. “A very motivating person. He put you in good places mentally or got you in a bad place mentally. He was able to inspire you, acting like a fifth member. Like a fan who’s rocking out in the studio with you.”

Despite this, Robinson and the band did not see eye to eye, and had a falling out, resulting in a court case that split ownership of the recording. And though the demo wasn’t officially released until 2002 (as the Concrete album), Robinson shopped it to other bands.

“He played it for local bands, saying, ‘I can do this for you,’” Cazares says. “And one band he showed it to was Korn.”

Cazares even point outs that the song “Scapegoat,” from their 1992 debut Soul of a New Machine, is nearly the same opening riff from Korn’s “Blind” (and includes the lyrics “You can’t see / too damn blind”).

“[Ross] developed their sound off the production he did with us,” says Fear Factory vocalist Burton C. Bell. “Making it groovier, not so aggressive. He slowed it down and just made it a little bit more accessible.

“And I thought,” Bell wonders with a laugh, “why couldn’t that have been us?”

Ross Robinson talks with the unassuming lilt of a surfer, or a Buddhist. Not someone who throws shit around a recording studio. Not someone who fucks with singers until they blow out their voices. Not the guy who purposefully tried to destroy the scene he was raised in.

“Metal was so silly lyrically, and it wasn’t completely open,” he says. “I wanted to work on something that was so deep and so real, you couldn’t deny it.”

Robinson’s metaphysical take on music, especially metal music, has only given his critics more ammo, but he has no compunction about couching songs in a much larger context than simply cool parts. “For me, the riffs were secondary to the feeling of the song,” he says. “I wanted that invisible essence that is so much bigger than we are at the forefront of music. And I felt that was all that was needed: that ghost in the music.”

Again, this was a thrash guitarist, and he knew as well as anyone that the riff, the virtuosity of the playing, was a fundamental part of metal. And he was over it, beginning with Korn’s 1993 demo, Neidermeyer’s Mind. “I think [Korn] was the first emotionally-driven subject matter expression with heavy sounds. The first of its kind in the history of metal to be open and honest and fearless with incredible amounts of vulnerability. Metal was never vulnerable.”

In today’s world, where vulnerability has become widely embraced and celebrated in many metal circles, it is important to stop and look at look at this integral aspect of Korn and what it meant in the scene. Anger, desolation, hopelessness—all were sung about endlessly by metal bands, but there were few if any bands before Korn who sang so openly about past trauma. Regardless of how truly autobiographical some of Korn’s lyrics were, they were graphic and direct. At best, earlier metal bands would wrap personal lyrics in allegory or create desolate fictional characters. But “Faget” was explicitly about frontman Jonathan Davis being savagely bullied at school. A tale of sexual abuse on “Daddy” ends with Davis sobbing uncontrollably.

There’s no doubt that screaming about any dark subject matter can be compelling and cathartic, but grunge had touched off something more personal, elevated by Kurt Cobain’s suicide, which would have been only six months before Korn was released. And Robinson understood that metal was held back by, well, the music.

“It’s basically all about dynamics,” he says. “[Metal] got so locked into being technical. When you’re being self-indulgent with your riffs, it’s about the guitar player and the drummer, and the vocal is just monotone and blasting through. The vocal needs to float over the top of the music.”

Lyrics may have given Korn a patina of authenticity, but what truly won them an audience was music that was easy as shit to play.

The October issue of Decibel also features My Dying Bride, Slayer, and Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, and can be purchased here… but anyone who doesn’t just get a full subscription may be condemned to a lifetime of listening to nothing but Adema. 

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